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A canonical primer on popes and heresy

No one in a position of ecclesial responsibility—not the Four Cardinals posing dubia, not Grisez & Finnis cautioning about misuses, and not the 45 Catholics appealing to the College, among others—has, despite the bizarre accusations made about some of them, accused Pope Francis of being a heretic or of teaching heresy. While many are concerned for the clarity of various Church teachings in the wake of some of Francis’ writings and comments, and while some of these concerns do involve matters of faith and morals, no responsible voice in the Church has, I repeat, accused Pope Francis of holding or teaching heresy.

That’s good, because the stakes in regard to papal heresy are quite high. Those flirting with such suspicions or engaging in such ruminations should be very clear about what is at issue.

First. Heresy is, and only is, “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth that must be believed by divine and catholic faith.” 1983 CIC 751. Heresy is not, therefore, say, the failure to defend effectively specific truths of Revelation (though that might be negligence per Canon 1389); moreover, privately-held heretical views, even if they are leading to certain observable actions, are not in themselves actionable under law (Canon 1330).

Second. We can dismiss as impossible—indeed, as unthinkable thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit—any scenario whereby a pope commits the Church to a heresy. See Ott, Fundamentals (1957) 287 or Catholic Answers tract “Papal Infallibility” (2004). However grave might be the consequences for a pope falling into heresy, the Church herself cannot fall into heresy at his hands or anyone else’s. Deo gratias.

Those two points being understood, the canonical tradition yet recognizes (and history suggests) that a given pope could fall into personal heresy and that he might even promote such heresy publicly, which brings us to some thoughts on those possibilities.

Setting aside a few who, relying on half-baked notions like “popes are not bound by canon law”, throw up their hands in despair at the prospect of a heretical pope and predict the End-of-the-World-as-We-Know-It, others, more reasonably, point to Canon 1404, which states “The First See is judged by no one”, and conclude that the only remedies in the face of a genuinely heretical pope are prayers and fasting. May I suggest, though, that canon law has somewhat more to offer than that.

Wrenn, writing in the CLSA NEW COMM (2001) at 1618 states: “Canon 1404 is not a statement of personal impeccability or inerrancy of the Holy Father. Should, indeed, the pope fall into heresy, it is understood that he would lose his office. To fall from Peter’s faith is to fall from his chair.” While I suggest that Wrenn’s warning be read again, lest its startling impact be overlooked by the calm manner in which he expressed it, turning to the crucial question as to who would determine whether a given pope has fallen into heresy, Wrenn notes that it is not settled by Canon 1404 nor, I would add, is it settled by any other canon in the Code. But again, one may turn to canonical tradition for insight.

To be sure, all admit that in talking about popes falling into heresy we are talking a very remote scenario. Vermeersch-Creusen, Epitome I (1949) n. 340, “This sort of case, given the divine protection of the Church, is considered quite improbable.” Beste, Introductio (1961) 242, “In history no example of this can be found.” And the great Felix Cappello, Summa Iuris I (1949) n. 309, thought that the possibility of a pope falling into public heresy should be “entirely dismissed given the special love of God for the Church of Christ [lest] the Church fall into the greatest danger.”

But Cappello’s confidence (at least in the scope of divine protection against heretical popes) was not shared by his co-religionist, the incomparable Franz Wernz, whose summary of the various canonical schools of thought about the possibility of a papal fall from office due to heresy is instructive. After reviewing canonical norms on loss of papal office due to resignation or insanity, Wernz-Vidal, IUS CANONICUM II (1928), n. 453, considers the impact of personal heresy on the part of a pope (emphasis and citations omitted):

Through heresy notoriously and openly expressed, the Roman Pontiff, should he fall into such, is, by that very fact, and before any declaratory sentence of the Church, deprived of his power of jurisdiction.

Now, concerning this matter there are five views, the first of which denies the basis for the entire issue, namely, that a pope could, as a private scholar, fall into heresy. While this opinion is clearly pious and probable, it cannot be said to be certain and common. So, accepting the premise of the question, it needs to be considered.

The second opinion holds that the Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the fact of even hidden heresy. This opinion is rightly said by Bellarmine to labor under a false supposition, namely, that secret heretics are entirely separated from the body of the Church. The third view holds that the Roman Pontiff, not even for obvious heresy, loses, upon that fact, his power, nor can he be deprived of office by deposition. But this opinion is called by Bellarmine, for ample reasons, “highly improbable”.

The fourth view, with Suarez, Cajetan, and others, argues that a pope is not, even upon the fact of manifest heresy, deposed, but that he can be and must be deposed upon a sentence (at least a declaratory one) of crime. “This view in my judgment cannot be defended” as Bellarmine teaches.

Finally there is the fifth view of Bellarmine which was expressed at the outset in the assertion [above] and which is rightly defended by Tanner and others as being more approved and more common. For he who is no longer a member of the body of the Church, that is, of the Church as a visible body, cannot be the head of the universal Church. But a pope who falls into public heresy would by that fact cease to be a member of the Church; therefore he would also, upon that fact, cease to be the head of Church.

So, a publicly heretical pope, who by the mandate of Christ and of the Apostle should be avoided because of danger to the Church, must be deprived of his power, as nearly everyone admits. But he cannot be deprived of his power by a merely declaratory sentence. 

For every judicial sentence of privation supposes a superior jurisdiction over him against whom the sentence is laid. But a general council, in the opinion of adversaries, does not have a higher jurisdiction than does a heretical pope. For he, by their supposition, before the declaratory sentence of a general council, retains his papal jurisdiction; therefore a general council cannot pass a declaratory sentence by which a Roman Pontiff is actually deprived of his power; for that would be a sentence laid by an inferior against the true Roman Pontiff.

In sum, it needs to be said clearly that a [publicly] heretical Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the very fact. Meanwhile a declaratory criminal sentence, although it is merely declaratory, should not be disregarded, for it brings it about, not that a pope is “judged” to be a heretic, but rather, that he is shown to have been found heretical, that is, a general council declares the fact of the crime by which a pope has separated himself from the Church and has lost his rank.

I know of no author coming after Wernz who disputes this analysis. See, e.g., Ayrinhac, CONSTITUTION (1930) 33; Sipos, ENCHIRIDION (1954) 156; Regatillo, INSTITUTIONES I (1961) 299; Palazzini, DMC III (1966) 573; and Wrenn (2001) above. As for the lack of detailed canonical examination of the mechanics for assessing possible papal heresy, Cocchi, COMMENTARIUM II/2 (1931) n. 155, ascribes it to the fact that law provides for common cases and adapts for rarer; may I say again, heretical popes are about as rare as rare can be and yet still be.

In sum, and while additional important points could be offered on this matter, in the view of modern canonists from Wernz to Wrenn, however remote is the possibility of a pope actually falling into heresy and however difficult it might be to determine whether a pope has so fallen, such a catastrophe, Deus vetet, would result in the loss of papal office.

May that fact serve as a check against those tempted to engage in loose talk about popes and heresy.


Three thoughts on the AEA letter

The Atlantic Episcopal Assembly (i.e, the Roman Catholic bishops of Eastern Canada) has written a short document to and about Catholics who are considering and/or preparing for “medically assisted dying” (i.e., suicide in accord with recent Canadian law). The AEA document reads quite differently from the superb letter on legalized suicide that the Western Canadian bishops penned a few weeks ago, but, as Rod Dreher has already written a good critique of the Eastern Canadian bishops’ missive, I won’t repeat those points here; instead, I address three, I fear, serious omissions from the AEA letter about the celebration of sacraments with Catholics planning to kill themselves.

The key paragraph reads: The Sacrament of Penance is for the forgiveness of past sins, not the ones that have yet to be committed, and yet the Catechism reminds us that by ways known to God alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance (CCC, no. 2283). The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is for strengthening and accompanying someone in a vulnerable and suffering state. It presupposes one’s desire to follow Christ even in his passion, suffering and death; it is an expression of trust and dependence on God in difficult circumstances (CCC, no. 1520-3). The reception of Holy Communion as one approaches the end of this life can assist a person in growing in their union with Christ.

Now, keeping in mind that suicide is a mortal sin (CCC 2281, 2325) and that Canon 392 § 2 directs bishops “to exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline, especially regarding … the celebration of the sacraments …”, let’s examine three points.

1. The Sacrament of Penance is for the forgiveness of past sins, not the ones that have yet to be committed…

Okay, but, for the validity, not to mention the efficacy, of the sacrament of Penance, one must have, at the time of confession, what is known as a firm purpose of amendment, that is, a resolve not to commit mortal sin again in the future. See Halligan, ADMINISTRATION OF THE SACRAMENTS (1962) 220: “The contrition necessary for forgiveness…must also include the resolution, or a fixed and firm determination, not to sin again….This resolution is the best indicator of true contrition…” Or Cappello, DE SACRAMENTIS II (1944) n. 126: “Sorrow must be universal such that it extends to all sins committed and not yet absolved; resolve [not to sin again], on the other hand, must be universal such that it extends to all and every mortal sin even if not yet committed” original emphasis. See also, e.g., Davis, MORAL AND PASTORAL THEOLOGY (1941) III: 366; Prümmer, HANDBOOK OF MORAL THEOLOGY (1957), nn. 660-661.

For someone to go to confession, therefore, while harboring the intention to commit suicide voids the attempt at the sacrament; indeed, it renders such an attempt sacrilegious (CCC 2120). A “pastoral letter” from bishops about the sacrament of Penance, written to and about Catholics preparing to kill themselves in accord with civil law, should teach this pastorally vital point.

2. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is for strengthening and accompanying someone in a vulnerable and suffering state.

Yes, but, the sacrament of Anointing is, according to the universal opinion of experts, NOT to be celebrated for those facing death as a result of ‘exterior factors’ such as war, dangerous activities, the death penalty, and—I guess we need to say it—suicide. See, e.g., Canons 1004-1006; Halligan 348; Cappello III, n. 232. Moreover, to celebrate any sacrament while in a state of mortal sin and/or with the express intention of committing  a mortally sinful act in the future is—here’s that word again—sacrilegious. A “pastoral letter” from bishops about the sacrament of Anointing, written to and about Catholics preparing to kill themselves in accord with civil law, should teach this pastorally vital point.

3. The reception of Holy Communion as one approaches the end of this life can assist a person in growing in their union with Christ.

Indeed, but, the reception of Holy Communion by one who is consciously preparing to kill himself is objectively gravely sinful, and—once again—a sacrilege. See, e.g., Canon 916; CCC 1355, 1415, 2120; Halligan 110; Prümmer n. 593. A “pastoral letter” from bishops about the sacrament of holy Communion, written to and about Catholics preparing to kill themselves in accord with civil law, should teach this pastorally vital point.

Ps: For some thoughts on ecclesiastical funeral rites for Catholics committing suicide, go here.

See also: Rusty Reno, “Chaplains of Death”, First Things On-Line (14 dec 2016).

Cardinals in the Church have rights too

The rashest reaction to the “Four Cardinals’ Five Dubia” so far is that from Bp. Frangiskos Papamanolis, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Greece, whose railing against the questions posed by Cdls. Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra, and Meisner in regard to Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia must be read to be believed. The Greek prelate hurls epithets such as apostasy, sacrilege, heresy, schism, at four brothers in the episcopate (brothers making text-book use of their rights under Canon 212 § 3 to pose doctrinal and disciplinary questions that urgently need addressing in our day) giving little indication that he even knows what those canonical-theological terms mean. I’d like to think that even the staunchest defenders of Amoris cringed when they read Papamanolis. Perhaps I am naïve.

While other contenders for an over-reaction prize can be suggested, here I consider the speculations voiced by the Dean of the Roman Rota, Msgr. Pio Pinto, namely, that Pope Francis might strip the four cardinals of their cardinatial dignity. Setting aside how inappropriate it is for one of the Church’s highest judicial officers to speculate publicly on the possible legal liability of and canonical consequences against bishops as yet uncharged with any crime, let’s review a pope’s canonical authority over prelates holding the office of cardinal.

Eleven canons (1983 CIC 349-359) regulate the institution of cardinal in the Roman Church, including one norm, Canon 351 § 2, that states in pertinent part that “From the moment of the announcement [that the pope has created some cardinals,] they are bound by the duties and possess the rights defined by law.” And what might those rights be?

Though largely honorific in nature, “cardinal” is, at least for those under age 80, also an “office” in the Church (1983 CIC 145) authorizing, among other things, one’s voting in a papal conclave (Universi Dominci Gregis [1996] 33). Appointments to the office of cardinal are made for an “indefinite period”, meaning that one holding such an appointment can be “removed” from said office for “grave causes according to the manner of proceeding defined in law” (1983 CIC 193 § 1) or could be “deprived” of said office as punishment for a canonical crime duly alleged and proven (1983 CIC 196 § 1). The suggestion that Brandmüller, et al., have committed any canonical “crime” is risible, so that leaves only the possibility of Francis treating a cardinal’s asking questions about his document Amoris as constituting “grave cause” to remove four cardinals from office (and along the way eliminating two electors currently eligible for the next papal conclave). But Francis (who alone can judge a cardinal, 1983 CIC 1405 § 1, 2º) has not said word one about stripping the four cardinals of their dignities nor of banning any of them from a conclave; such speculation is, so far, entirely Pinto’s.

But assuming, against all precedent and common sense, that one’s publicly asking the pope to clarify important questions raised in the wake of his document amounts to canonical “grave cause” for stripping several prelates of their offices, it would still remain to honor at every stage of the removal process numerous canonical rights expressly guaranteed all the Christian faithful, including the ability to “defend the rights which they possess in the Church in the competent ecclesiastical forum”, the right to “be judged according to the prescripts of law applied with equity”, and the right “not to be punished with canonical penalties except according to the norms of law.” 1983 CIC 221. Note that depriving one of “a power, office, function, right, privilege, faculty, favor, title, or insignia, even merely honorary” is an expiatory penalty for crime under Canon 1336 § 1, 2º, so the standards of proof should be high indeed (1983 CIC 18). How anyone can conclude, then, based on the facts at hand, that the four cardinals are at risk for deprivation of their office, escapes me.

No one, least of all the four cardinals in question, challenges the special authority that a pope enjoys over the Church (1983 CIC 331) nor do they harbor any illusions that a pope could be forced to answer the questions they posed. My hunch is that four cardinals, while they would welcome a papal reply, are probably content with having formally preserved these vital questions for a day when a direct answer might be forthcoming—although they might yet exercise their own episcopal office as teachers of the faith (1983 CIC 375) and propose answers on their own authority. For that, these men are, I think, prepared to accept personal ridicule and to suffer misunderstanding and misrepresentation of their actions and motives.

But an actual assault against their offices and against their possible roles in a future papal election? No, I don’t see that happening.

The above post now available in Italian, here.

Update, 1 December 2016: It is nigh on impossible to keep up with every comment being made by a Roman official these days, made, and then “clarified”, or “retracted”, or “abandoned”, or “deleted”, or whatever, but now it seems that Msgr. Pinto’s comments about Pope Francis removing Burke et al from the college of cardinals isn’t what he said and/or meant and/or wants-to-stand-by. Instead, it seems Pinto meant that OTHER popes could remove cardinals but Francis is not one of them. Huh? Either popes, all popes, can remove cardinals from office or they can’t. (I hold they can, I thought Pinto held so too.) Either popes, all popes, are morally bound to observe due process in such removals, or they aren’t (I hold they are, I could not tell whether Pinto thought so too). Anyway, the answer to such questions should not depend on the degree of controversy likely to be generated expressing them.

May I add an observation from a legal tradition different from Rome’s? In common law nations, our judges, especially our highest ranking judges, do not weigh in on the political or social controversies swirling around them. The rare times wherein such personal opinions are floated by our judges (e.g., Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent carping about Donald Trump), provokes storms of controversy. Why? Because in common law nations, the appearance of judicial impartiality is perceived as being weakened by judges who express extra-judicial opinions about controversial topics, especially topics that might end up being litigated at some point. Judges have a crucial role to play in administering objective justice, and we think that it is important that they be SEEN as objective in performing their duties.

My guess is, controversy over Pinto’s ominous remarks were the most intense among Catholics coming from common law nations, where the sight of judges speaking this way is foreign to our sensibilities about judges and justice. And I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.

A canonical look at the Holy See – China issue regarding episcopal appointments

Those who, having read Joseph Cdl. Zen, George Weigel, or Yu Jie, are tracking with some trepidation reports on the Holy See’s negotiations with Communist China in regard to, among other things, the appointment of bishops in that land, might find the following points useful.

Paragraph 20 of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Bishops, Christus Dominus (1965), declared: “Since the apostolic office of bishops was instituted by Christ the Lord and pursues a spiritual and supernatural purpose, this sacred ecumenical synod declares that the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority. Therefore, for the purpose of duly protecting the freedom of the Church and of promoting more conveniently and efficiently the welfare of the faithful, this holy council desires that in future no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop be granted to civil authorities.”

Canon 377 § 5 of the Johanno-Pauline Code of Canon Law (1983) gives legal expression to this conciliar teaching in these words: “In the future, no rights and privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation of bishops are granted to civil authorities.” This norm, though new in the revised Code, was proposed very early in the post-conciliar revision process and, its good sense being evident to all, sailed through successive drafts of the law without controversy. Peters, Incrementa 334.

Hearkening to the Council’s invitation to surrender rights that, by concordat or custom, they might have enjoyed in regard to the appointment of bishops in their lands, several nations have renounced such rights (GB&I Comm. 216) and joined the many other States that allow the Church a free hand in the designation of Successors of the Apostles.

Although the canonical process for vetting candidates for bishops (see 1983 CIC 377 and Peters, “Confidential consultations in the selection of bishops: law and practice”, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 34/1 [Spring 2011] 59-63) should be able to identify potential social or political problems with episcopal candidates, a number of states nevertheless enjoy (usually by concordat) an additional right to advance notice of potential episcopal appointments, thereby facilitating communication of concerns, if any, about a given candidate. Exeg. Comm. II/1: 759.

What is at stake in the Holy See’s negotiations with China, however, seems to go beyond Beijing’s receiving advance notice of proposed Roman appointments, to something more like a right to nominate candidates itself and perhaps even to veto those proposed by the pope should the Communists find them unpalatable. Such arrangements, remnants of the old ‘patronage’ system, are observed now only in a tiny handful of locales (Exeg. Comm. II/1: 759)—not in a nation of a billion-plus souls comprising one fifth of the world’s population. Moreover, such a concession to China, if that is what is actually being proposed, would surely be demanded by other totalitarian states, recreating the messy entanglements of Church and State that marked and sometimes marred much of Church history.

There is, of course, nothing intrinsically evil about granting State authorities a lesser or even a greater voice in the appointment of Catholic bishops, saving of course the Church’s ultimate right to make such appointments herself, but history has taught us that the greater the role played by secular power in ecclesiastical appointments, the greater the chances of abuse are.

Let’s pray these are not lessons that will need to be relearned.

Taking a page from the Proportionalist Playbook?

Apropos of nothing in particular—but I suppose of several things in general, like the continuing turmoil over Amoris laetitia, the Buenos Aires directives, the Roman diocesan protocol, and a torrent of commentary (including some by orthodox writers), that, in my view, just doesn’t get it yet—may I offer the following take?

You know how—long story made short—the “proportionalist school” of moral theologians took the Fourth Criterion from the traditional “Principle of Double Effect”* (the criterion that calls for weighing the good to be accomplished by a given choice against the concomitant harm to be caused by the choice) and basically presented said ‘proportionality’ as if it were the sole criterion for upright moral decision-making? Pernicious stuff in that proportionalism, using terms admittedly found in orthodox decision-making schemes and seemingly simple to apply in concrete cases, justifies choices being made that are directly opposed to the good.

Well, I think a similar ploy, that of pulling one consideration from a rule book and presenting it as if it were the only consideration relevant to a certain choice, is being used to justify admitting typical divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion. By invoking a phrase redolent with ecclesiastical tradition, the “internal forum”, one criterion among several that, in a few cases among many, might contribute to making possible the reception of holy Communion by someone in an irregular marriage situation, Kasper et al present the “internal forum” as if it could be, at least in some cases, the sole criterion authorizing one’s being given holy Communion. As I and others have argued many times, however, there is considerably more to it than that.

In a way, though, this presenting of the “internal forum” as if it could be, even sometimes, the ultimate dispositive factor in whether holy Communion should be given to an individual is actually worse than what the proportionalists do above, because, while ‘proportionality’ is almost always a factor to be considered in making moral choices, the “internal forum” is almost never a factor to be considered in making Communion-distribution decisions!

A recipient’s assessment of his or her own situation in the “internal forum” IS relevant in his or her deciding about whether to approach for holy Communion (see c. 916); but a minister’s decision about giving the Sacrament to an individual is NOT controlled by the recipient’s subjective conscience (well-formed or otherwise); instead, a minister’s decision to distribute is controlled by—again, long story made short—Canon 912 (that sets out a general obligation to administer the Sacrament) and Canon 915 that requires a particular withholding of the Sacrament from people who are known to fall within certain OBJECTIVELY established conditions. It is a simple, but absolutely crucial distinction, this distinction between a recipient’s approaching and a minister’s distributing which, however often the two acts happily coincide, sometimes must be painfully honored, which is being blurred by the pious invocation of the “internal forum” in a context in which it has virtually zero relevance.

I say again, the minister of holy Communion is always bound by law and is never bound by a recipient’s conscience.

*On the “Principle of Double Effect” see e.g.: Judie Brown (citing John Hardon) or the New Revised Catholic Encyclopedia.

Yes, religious women “marrying” each other is against canon law

Western society’s understanding of elemental, foundational concepts like “male” and “female” (Gen I: 27) is disintegrating, and I fear we will see more manifestations of this disintegration even within those ranks so precious to our celibate and chaste Lord Jesus Christ, that is, in religious life. A few weeks ago two religious women entered a “civil union” near Turin, Italy. I have neither Italian family law nor the original news stories before me, but it seems that the women entered what Italy currently calls (and what ecclesial leadership there holds tantamount to) “marriage”.

First, a deep breath. — Okay, now, shall we look at the situation canonically?

Setting aside that “same-sex marriage” is an absurdity under natural law, under canon law, any attempt at marriage undertaken by two people of the same sex is invalid (1983 CIC 1055), any attempt at marriage undertaken by one, let alone two, persons bound by religious vows of chastity is invalid (1983 CIC 1088), and any attempt at marriage undertaken by one, let alone, two, Catholics in violation of canonical form is invalid (1983 CIC 1059, 1108). So this civil “marriage” between two religious women is null in at least three ‘open-and-shut’ ways.

Indeed, their “marriage” is soooo null that one could hardly, with a straight face, cite Canon 694 § 1, 2° and simply eject these two women from their religious communities, even though the immediate expulsion from religious life of those who “contract civil marriage or attempt it” is called for therein. Mind, it’s not the result (expulsion) I disagree with, it’s entertaining even the possibility that a “marriage” between two nuns could enjoy the slightest shadow of canonical plausibility (such that an inquiry into whether they did “attempt marriage” would be appropriate at all) that I shrink from. I mean, c’mon, seriously?

No, the canonical solution to this array of insults against human nature, the holiness of celibate chastity, and ecclesiastical authority over the sacraments (to name just some of the goods impugned by these two women) lies, I suggest, in Canon 696 § 1, which authorizes the dismissal of a member who provokes “grave scandal arising from culpable behavior”. Religious procedural law provides, of course, for notice of charges, opportunities to repent, and a reliable gathering of evidence (including, I would think, psychological evidence about whether an offender can still tell the difference between right and wrong).

A canonical process of this sort, one which should not take unduly long to pursue, would (in the sad event that one or both women refuse to repudiate their deed) provide the communities in question a chance to reiterate, accurately and charitably, the Church’s beautiful teaching on, say, marriage, sexual morality, the outstanding witness that religious men and women are supposed to offer to secular and Christian society, and soon. A canonical process could, I suggest, help redress the terrible scandal given to the Catholic community by the acts of these two women.

Well, let’s see what happens in this case.

Time to head off confusion in Canada

Regarding the Christian burial of suicides the Pio-Benedictine Code differed from the Johanno-Pauline Code in that the former law expressly listed suicides as among those “public and manifest sinners” ineligible for ecclesiastical burial (1917 CIC 1240) while the current law refers, in pertinent part, only to “manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful” (1983 CIC 1184). Because, however, Catholic tradition has long recognized self-murder as objectively gravely evil (CCC 22802281), there is no doubt that Catholics who kill themselves risk deprivation of ecclesiastical funeral rites (including a funeral Mass, per c. 1185) even though suicide is not expressly mentioned in the new law.

That said, something has changed in the Church’s approach to pastoral issues raised by suicide. Her recognition of the depravity of self-murder remains, but her awareness of the impact that various psychological factors, including a sense of loneliness, isolation, abandonment, and so on, might play in diminishing one’s personal, subjective culpability for having committed suicide (CCC 2282) is at work, too. I know of no canonist or moralist who holds that a Catholic who, on his own and often with little warning to others, simply and suddenly kills himself, should be deprived of ecclesiastical funeral rites. To the contrary, such persons should be prayed for (CCC 2283) and a Mass intention for such a one may be accepted (c. 901).

Nevertheless, not everyone who kills himself does so under conditions that would permit him to be accorded ecclesiastical funeral rites and I suggest at least two sets of suicides who, under canon law as it currently reads, should be denied ecclesiastical burial.

The first are those (usually) men whom science describes as “family annihilators”, men who murder their families and then kill themselves. I have written about these kinds of cases before and hold today the views I expressed in 2008: murdering-suicides should be refused ecclesiastical burial.

Second are those who commit suicide in accord with evil civil legislation and/or court rulings that provide a legal process for killing oneself while providing exculpatory protection to those assist in such suicides. Self-murder committed in accord with civil law differs plainly and significantly from the isolated individual who kills himself.

As I noted in some detail in 2009, persons who kill themselves in accord with civil law perform a number of public, verifiable steps that—if the laws are being applied as they are written—all but eliminate any ‘pious presumption’ of diminished culpability for one’s self-murder. The ‘benefits of the doubt’ that we want to accord to ‘traditional suicides’ can hardly be offered to those who kill themselves under civilly-approved circumstances. To accord to such persons ecclesiastical funeral rites indistinguishable from the liturgies the Church grants to the faithful who die natural (sometimes even heroic!) deaths cannot but give scandal to the faithful. Indeed, to use the sacred rites of the Church for such ends is, I suggest, to commit a grave liturgical abuse, one savoring of sacrilege (CCC 2120).

The bishops of western Canada (acting as bishops are supposed to act under, among other norms, c. 392 § 2) showed true pastoral solicitude for their faithful when they upheld and re-explained, in these terribly confused times, the Church’s doctrine and discipline concerning (among other things) ecclesiastical funeral rites. Some bishops in eastern Canada, in contrast, have said only that they “don’t plan specific directives aimed at refusing … the celebration of funerals.” Now on the one hand, refusing “specific directives” leaves, one would think, the universal law intact, so, no ecclesiastical funeral rites in the wake of one’s assisted suicide; on the other hand, confusion over the moral and canonical impact of killing oneself ‘legally’ seems every bit as troublesome in eastern Canada it is in western, so a more forceful reiteration of Church teaching and a pastoral explanation of canon law might be needed lest episcopal silence be misunderstood or ambiguous comments misconstrued.

Finally, ‘assisted suicide’ is, along with ‘legal abortion’ and ‘compassionate infanticide’, one of the three heads of that cerberus known as the Culture of Death. Precisely insofar as the modern death cult is cultural, it permeates everything and can appear anywhere. It must be quickly recognized for what it is and confronted wherever it manifests itself. If that means, in part, invoking the salutary admonitions of canonical discipline against manifest sinners and protecting the faithful community from the danger of scandal, so be it.

That’s what the law is there for.

Update, 6 Oct 2016: George Weigel on the March of Euthanasia, here.