National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 14, 2004

Sacramental penalties left to interpretation

Catholic News Service

Should the church deny sacraments to politicians whose actions in public life conflict with church teachings? A task force of the U.S. bishops is weighing just such questions. A report is to be presented at the bishops’ mid-November meeting.

Several canon lawyers told Catholic News Service that church law on denying sacraments leaves the discretion and interpretation to individual bishops.

“The question is whether someone is a public sinner,” said Msgr. William Varvaro, pastor of St. Margaret Parish in Queens, N.Y., and past president of the Canon Law Society of America. “There’s nothing specific about legislators or voting on bills.”

The relevant canon (Canon 915) doesn’t define what constitutes a “public sinner,” said Varvaro. “There’s no explanation of how to determine that.”

Mercy Sr. Sharon Euart, vice president and president-elect of the Canon Law Society of America, said the key issue in refusing Communion is whether the individual is under a formal ecclesiastical penalty.

That means that the local bishop should have discussed his objections to the person’s actions with him or her, made an effort to understand the person’s thinking and instructed him or her on where the bishop saw errors or misunderstanding, she said. The bishop would explain that changes in the person’s behavior are expected and what penalty might result if changes aren’t made.

Then, the bishop would have to inform the individual in writing that a sanction was being imposed, Euart explained.

“It’s not something that [a bishop] does based on what he sees in the newspaper about someone,” she said. “It’s got to be done with as full knowledge as possible.”

Fr. James Coriden, professor of canon law at the Washington Theological Union, said, “It’s very hard, from a canonical perspective, to justify the denial of Communion without some kind of due process” because such a penalty is tantamount to excommunication. That ought to involve formally bringing charges and holding a trial, Coriden explained.

Such cases are vetted by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before being brought to trial, either at the Vatican or the diocese, he said.

This kind of trial is being pursued by some dioceses for priests who have refused to leave the priesthood after being implicated in cases of child sexual abuse.

Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy, a visiting law professor at Georgetown University, said the bottom line is that within the church “we do have rules, but we do not have a very efficient machinery for imposing those rules.”

Another problem is “what can you do in a pluralistic society?” he said. “Shall we now exclude all Catholics from public office?”

Orsy said that on some levels “the whole debate doesn’t make much sense.” A single politician, even the president, has almost no power to change the nation’s laws about abortion, he said.

“No representative [in Congress] can bring [and pass] a bill to turn over Roe v. Wade,” Orsy said. “The only way a president can have influence for the future is to nominate justices to the Supreme Court and still the Senate must approve them.”

Coriden said he thinks the bishops are justified in taking a strong stand with politicians who don’t act in accord with church teaching on abortion. But even a doctrinal note on Catholics in public life released by the Vatican in 2003 “allows for freedom of conscience and political thought,” he said.

“But to take that and say, ‘These people are no longer permitted to take Communion,’ ” he said, “I don’t think it gives that authority.”

There’s a danger in asserting that only a part of the teachings of the church may be enforced by excommunication or interdict, Coriden said.

“It just cuts against the grain to take unilateral action,” he said. “It would be better to keep holding up Christian ideals and saying ‘Let’s get on board here.’ ”

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 2004

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