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Dreher’s double-barrel misfire

February 2, 2019

If I were not a man who tries to pay more attention to what is said than I do to who said it, and even to how it’s said, I would have noted the … anomaly … of ex-Catholic Rod Dreher, of all people, attacking Timothy Cdl. Dolan for not being Catholic enough, attributing views to Dolan that the prelate never expressed (and italicizing them for effect), relegating the cardinal to the status of cynic or coward, and backing it all up with a vulgarism taken from one of secular politics’ most vulgar characters, and would have simply shrugged and gone on with my day. I might have, as Dreher says, ‘thrown up in my mouth a little’, but I would have gotten over it.

But I kept reading and saw that, later in his column, Dreher invokes the example of Abp. Joseph Rummel’s 1962 excommunication of three New Orleans Catholics in the midst of that prelate’s justly-famous school desegregation project. Dreher asks whether racism is worse than abortion (all together now: Noooooo) and wishes that Dolan “had the backbone of Rummel” to bring about, one surmises, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s excommunication for supporting abortion. As Dreher is not alone in drawing an unfavorable parallel between Dolan and Rummel, and as the parallel seems to be a plausible one with, moreover, a canon law aspect to it, I thought I would take a look at it notwithstanding its provenance.

Dreher provides only one link for background on the Rummel episode and I am away from several of my own canonical resources just now (an inconvenience for me because I try to back up my views with sources, not just rhetoric), but, looking at what Dreher provides and at some on-line discussions (e.g. here and here), what I see is Rummel indeed excommunicating three Catholics during the New Orleans desegregation struggle, but not for supporting racism (which all three undoubtedly did) but rather, for their interfering with Rummel’s authority to govern Catholic institutions as he saw fit and fomenting animosity against Rummel and his leadership. See National Catholic Almanac (1962) 61. Now if these were the grounds for Rummel’s action against those offenders (and not for their ‘being racists’), the archbishop was on very solid canonical ground for so acting. Let me suggest how, remembering that the Pio-Benedictine Code of 1917 was in force at the time.

Then: 1917 CIC 2331 § 2 authorized a censure (i.e., excommunication, interdict, or suspension) against those who provoked subjects to disobey a bishop’s lawful orders; 1917 CIC 2334 n. 2 explicitly authorized excommunication against those who impeded even indirectly the exercise of ecclesiastical jurisdiction using lay powers; and 1917 CIC 2344 authorized a censure (including excommunication) against those who attacked prelates in the media or who stirred up animosity or odium against their governance decisions. Thus Rummel had at least three ways to impose excommunication in his case, none of which responded to racism. Dreher’s insinuation of a damning parallel between Rummel’s (alleged) canonical move against the evil of racism and Dolan’s (alleged) inaction against the evil of abortion collapses if Rummel himself did not sanction Catholics for their racism but rather for their obstructing his governance of the archdiocese.

Now, to my knowledge, Cuomo has never said “Cdl. Dolan has no right to use his ecclesiastical authority to condemn abortion”, or, “Catholics should not listen to anything Cdl. Dolan says about me.” To be sure, if Cuomo has said something like that (even recalling that, in penal canonistics, facts and law must be narrowly interpreted) I would say, “Hey boys, let’s see if we can go after Cuomo!” But notice, that penal canonical inquiry would not be about whether abortion is worse than racism or even about whether Cuomo endorses abortion (anymore than Rummel punished Catholics for endorsing racism) but rather, whether Cuomo was, for example, ‘inciting animosities or hatred against a bishop on account of ministry‘ or ‘provoking subjects to disobey” Dolan, per 1983 CIC 1373. I might thrown in Canon 1375 (against intimidating one who exercises ecclesiastical power or ministry) even though it’s a stretch—though, one I will allow myself as I am playing with the short hand known as Book VI of the 1983 Code here. Which brings us to the second problem in Dreher’s column.

Speaking of playing short-handed, whereas Rummel had at least three canons enabling him to levy excommunication given the facts presented to him, what would the modern Canon 1373 allow Dolan to impose if Cuomo were brazen enough to challenge Dolan’s office itself and/or his governance of his own institutions such as Rummel’s opponents did against him? Could Dolan excommunicate Cuomo as Rummel excommunicated his opponents?

No. The 1983 Code limits Dolan’s response here to the lesser censure of interdict. Don’t get me wrong, interdict is a significant sanction (especially in regard to laity, per Canon 1332) but it is not excommunication and it has none of the ‘sex appeal’ that a bishop hurling down excommunications against offending princes evokes in the popular imagination. Canon 1375, meanwhile, is even less helpful. It authorizes simply a “just penalty” and some will argue that such language effectively discourages censures (especially excommunication) at least as a first response.

So a second time, Dreher’s damning comparison of Rummel to Dolan falls flat in that, on facts not even presented but not impossible, assuming Dolan could go after Cuomo for interfering in Church governance, Dolan could only respond with interdict not excommunication. Thus I look forward to Dreher’s retraction of both misfires of his damning of Dolan for not acting like Rummel when it seems that Rummel himself would be saying to Dolan, “Tim, you’re not facing the canonical offense I faced, and even if you were, your 1983 Code is a lot less potent than my 1917 Code was.”

Meanwhile, let’s review. In my view:

1. Cuomo is forbidden holy Communion per Canon 915, though it seems he already refrains from approaching and thus a reiteration of this fact, while possible, is not required under law at present;

2. A penal investigation should be authorized inquiring as to whether Cuomo violated Canon 1369 (attacks against good morals); and,

3. Cuomo has probably not committed the specific offense of heresy.

That must suffice for now.

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