Friday, 30 March 2012

Are church conservatives the real barrier to the restoration of orthodoxy? The case of the lawyers, the priest and the lesbian-Buddhist, Part I

There has been a lot of coverage in the blogs of late, of the case of a priest placed on 'administrative leave' with his faculties revoked by the Archdiocese of Washington apparently for the crime of refusing to give communion to a self-declared lesbian Buddhist. 

It is a murky case, so I've avoided commenting on it up until now in the hope that the actual facts would become clearer, but the shots just keep being fired, and the issues it raises are important, so here is my take on the subject for what it is worth.

Fighting for orthodoxy - or to maintain the status quo?

This case seems to me to illustrate a real problem in the Catholic Church today, namely the efforts of many personally orthodox conservatives to obstruct the recovery of orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

There is a lot that needs to be said here, so I'm going to do this in two parts. 

Today, some observations about the broader perspective needed on this issue than the narrowly interpreted letter of the law. 

In the next part I'll venture into the dangerous ground of the various canonical arguments and their implications.  Suffice it now to flag that from a non-lawyers perspective, the contrary opinions seem sufficiently plausible as to suggest that there is real doubt about just how an actual tribunal would find in this case.  And that makes the hardline positions being taken by some seem pretty questionable.

The facts as we know them

You can read the details of what is actually known about this case in the posts I'll provide links to, but the short version as I understand it is this.

A priest was scheduled to say Mass at a funeral for a woman he didn't know. 

Shortly before the Mass started, the dead woman's daughter introduced herself and 'her lover' (using those words) to him, but quickly departed, refusing to engage in any discussion with the priest.

She then presented herself to the priest to receive communion.  He quietly refused to give it to her.  She moved to another line in the communion queue and received from an Extraordinary Minister who hadn't heard the discussion with the priest!

She then went to the media, promising to make the priest's life hell.  And she succeeded, as the Archdiocese quickly moved to publicly apologise to her and remove the priest from active ministry. 

It then became known that the woman in question, Barbara Johnson, is in fact a well-known Lesbian activist who is a practising Buddhist, while the priest in question, Fr Marcel Guarnizo is a well-known for his anti-gay marriage views. Indeed, Ms Johnson recently spoke at the same pro-homosexual conference as Bishop Robinson...

 The sensus fidei

Not unnaturally, whatever the legal rights and wrongs of the case, orthodox catholics were fairly outraged at the treatment the priest in question.

On the face of it, the priest acted in good faith to attempt to prevent sacrilege and scandal from occurring, and was punished for it.

Is this sense of outrage misplaced?  Some seem to think so.  New canonical blogger Fr McDonald for example suggests that:

"It seems to me that part of what has caused such a commotion over this incident is the fact that it involves a lesbian coupled with the complicating issue that not all the facts are known in great detail... remove homosexuality from the argument and substitute some other objectively grave matter – like habitual non-attendance and Mass or a baptised Catholic professing to be a Buddhist. I find it hard to believe that Fr. Anonymous, and many others, would be making the same conclusions about denying Communion. Should we deny Communion to all the high school students, at a school Mass, because we know the vast majority of them don’t go to Mass (at least that is true here in southern Ontario)? Objectively that’s a mortal sin. All the other students know they don’t go to Mass. It’s obstinate and manifest. What about the lady who comes into the sacristy before her mother’s funeral Mass and admits in conversation that she doesn’t go to Mass anymore, even though she was baptised in that very same church, because she is now a Buddhist? She may indeed be labouring under a latae sententiae excommunication..."

There are two points to note here I think.  The first is that yes, practising homosexuality does tend to call forth more outrage than other sins and there are good reasons for that.

First because the issue is so currently politicized courtesy of the gay lobby itself and so committed Catholics know what the Church's teaching on this subject actually are, and why we need to stand up and be counted on this issue. 

And secondly because it is objectively a more serious sin than many other mortal sins.

Towards the recovery of orthopraxis

But more broadly, I think this case does reflect a slow reawakening of the sensus fidei on sacrilegious communions.  In fact in Australia there have indeed been controversial attempts with serious consequences to the priest involved to ensure school children who did not attend Sunday Mass are not put in a position at school masses of being pressured to receive. 

But perhaps some good has come out of those disputes - over at aCatholica Forum, for example, at the moment there is a thread on reception of communion by those who have remarried without obtaining an annulment.  Now aCatholica is not a place one would expect much angst over receiving communion in these circumstances.  Yet in fact there is.  And while some over there predictably assert the right of individual conscience (I'll decide whether or not my marriage is valid and to hell with what the canon lawyers think), someone else has actually pointed out to the issue of scandal in such cases.

Similarly one might point to the debate over denial of communion to politicians who vote for abortion and similar policies.

All these reactions point to the signs of recovery of orthopraxis in this area: to the recovery of the sense of the need for sacramental confession for Catholics at large; and for external compliance with Church law for those in irregular situations who wish to receive.

Now a Catholic who is genuinely concerned about the problem of the mass defection from the sacrament of reconciliation and the resulting sacrilege that occurs every Sunday in most parishes would surely want to build on this reawakening of orthodox instincts.

Squashing the debate

And indeed calls for the Archdiocese of Washington to rethink its position were mounting - until Canon Lawyer blogger Dr Edward Peters rode to the diocese's rescue, arguing that the priest had in fact acted contrary to canon law.

And it didn't stop there: he has summarily dismissed the arguments of other canonists who think that the priest's action was indeed compliant with the law. 

And he has criticized assorted blog commentaries on the subject on the grounds that they reflect ignorance of canon law.  Perhaps they are, though I think that is debatable.  But as one of his canonist respondents has pointed out, this kind of case is not a matter for the lawyers alone:

"Peters can also, no doubt unintentionally, sometimes write as if canonists are the only people who should have anything to say on this issue. Are there not other specialists whose respective expertise would be helpful? What might a Scripture scholar, for example, have to say about this issue? We often quote I Cor 11:27-29 when talking about the divine obligation undergirding canon 916. But the Church has also traditionally cited Mt 7:6, “Give not what is holy to the dogs”, when talking about the divine obligation undergirding c. 915 (cf. Didache 9). Is Mt 7:6 Eucharistic? Does it have a sacrificial subtext to it? (cf. Ex 29:37; Lev 2:3) Who are the dogs? (cf. Rev 22:15; Deut 23:18) Maybe the canonists can learn from the Scripture scholars.

Also what might a moral theologian have to say about the little known fact that the good name of the occult sinner is actually not a proportionate reason for the minister of communion to materially participate in the sinner’s sacrilegious communion but that the minister is only morally justified in materially participating in such a sacrilege in light of the possible negative effects a refusal might have on the community? How might the perspective of the common good adjust our antecedent considerations that we bring to bear on reading and applying the Church’s law in the case of c. 915? Also, if the sinner who presents himself for communion has the right to his good name, what happens when the sinner in question thinks his sin should be made public? Is it even meaningful to talk about protecting the good name of the active and open homosexual? What reputation is there left for the Church to protect at this point and how might this affect our application of c. 915? These are all questions moralists could fruitfully explore and canonists benefit from.

Can we criticise bishops?

Dr Peters also launched a, in my view, completely over the top attack on well-known commentator George Neumayr's piece in American Spectator, claiming that his criticism of Cardinal Wuerl of Washington constituted a breach of Canon 1373 which threatens censure against “a person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against … an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry….”. 

Right.  And when someone successfully prosecutes Fr Brennan, Eureka Street and the Toowoomba Leadership Group under this canon in relation to their continued attacks on the Pope in relation to the Bishop Morris case, I'll take this claim about the reach of canon law seriously. 

In the meantime, like so many other canons in the code, it is just a dead letter save in the most extreme cases imaginable.  A call for action from within, however vigorous, will surely normally fall far short of the test necessary to invoke a canon such as this!

The problem of conservatives

I often draw attention here to the heretical views of liberals.

Outright error is a relatively easy target - one merely needs to identify the error and point to the appropriate sources to identify what the Church actually teaches. 

Yet the far bigger underlying problem is that these errors are allowed to continue to flourish by conservatives - that is ostensibly orthodox people who don't want to rock the boat, and who will persecute anyone who does challenge the status quo.

Dr Peters has some form on this, despite the good work he often does through his blog, particularly in his attacks on The Vortex's Michael Vorris, nicely satirised by Rorate Caeli (yes, I'm not normally a great fan, but on this subject I think they are basically on the money).

Selective application of the law is no law at all

And here is the crux of the problem.  Dr Peters argues that a restrictive reading of the power to deny communion to the faithful is an important protection for us all.

But traditionalists and others are all too well aware that in reality bishops and priests are all too willing to deny communion to the orthodox - to those who want to kneel to receive for example - and take action against priests who actually do deny communion to those in clear breach of the requirements of the Code of Canon Law, while being all too willing to give communion to those in manifest sin (consider for example the Newtown Homosexual Mass).

It is an ongoing problem: liberal dissent is widely tolerated even facilitated (think Cath News) by the hierarchy, while the orthodox continue to be persecuted and actively marginalized.

The lawyer problem

Canon lawyers tend naturally to view issues on a case by case basis.  That is how the law in general works.

Yet canonists are just part of a broader system, there to serve an ecclesial purpose, as the Pope recently reminded them:

"[T]rue law is inseparable from justice," he said. "Obviously [this] principle also holds for canon law in the sense that it cannot be shut up in a merely human normative system but must be connected to a just order of the Church in which a superior law reigns...The dictum 'sentire cum Ecclesiae' (thinking or feeling with the Church) is also relevant to disciplinary matters by reason of the doctrinal foundations that are always present and at work in the Church's legal norms."

While lawyers tend to look at the principles applying to particular cases, historians and others tend to look at how the system as a whole works in practice, viewing the law as a tool employed by competing forces to achieve particular objectives.

Perhaps the canonists need to take a step back, and have a hard think about what they are really doing, and who and what they are really serving in their analyses.

The hermaneutic of Phariseeism?

Today's Gospel reading n the EF is of the Jewish priests plotting to kill our Lord.  And the patristic commentary on it by St Augustine notes that their concern was the preservation of the Jewish State rather than whether they should believe the signs Jesus was working.  He comments that in seeking to sacrifice Jesus in the interests of appeasing the Romans, they lost not only their souls but also their Jewish State.

The question has to be asked as to whether there are parallels to be seen today.  In action to prop up bishops who act unjustly and even counter to Church law.  In muted responses to the secular onslaught from the State.  In the refusal to teach the actual faith. 

The Church as a whole will of course survive.

But there are no guarantees as to the fate of the Church in Australia, America or other Western countries weighed down by interpetations of the faith every bit as dangerous as the distorted faith of the Pharisees.

More to come...

4 comments:

Martin S. said...

And Keneally is at it again http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/catholics-to-lobby-against-gay-marriage/story-fn59niix-1226314269969 .

This is canonically actionable. I wrote to the Sydney Archdiocese about her article in Eureka Street months ago. Michael Casey wrote back and said Cardinal Pell would be informed of the complaint. But again she shamelessly prostitutes herself to elite liberals using the Church as her platform. When will these people be disciplined?

A Canberra Observer said...

Martin S's account highlights what sadly one must deduce from the Bishops' actions: they do not have the courage of their convictions (or at least the convictions they ought to have).
Perhaps understandable from a human perspective as if they really do stand up I would guess they fear they will stand almost alone given how eroded the Catholic identity has become. But maybe that is better than this slow suffocation which we now all endure.

GOR said...

Reading your piece Kate, I’m reminded of Bishop Fulton Sheen’s comment about different reactions to success by Jewish and Irish communities. He said that if a Jewish boy does well, the community enthusiastically responds: “That’s our Benjamin!” But if an Irish boy does well, he gets whacked on the head with a shillelagh and told to get back in his place.

I think mutatis mutandis we see the same thing today – albeit more electronically than with a shillelagh! Someone raises his or her head above the parapet - particularly in defense of orthodoxy or orthopraxis – and is met with a shower of frequently nasty and uncharitable criticism. It used to be said: “everyone’s a critic”. Today it has become: “everyone’s an expert”.

People are quick to “broaden their phylacteries” by trotting out the letters after their names – for credibility, you understand. I think we have lost something of the simplicity of the Gospel and the Catholic Faith – something the Holy Father has repeatedly reminded theologians and other ‘experts’. God continues to “confound the wise and reveal Himself to little ones…”

J. R. P. said...

I find myself asking whether, in fact, there was not a Hermeneutic of Rupture in the interpretation of Canon Law.

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