Canon 915: The Ultimate Act Of Charity

March 11, 2010 09:00 AM

Since so many Catholic politicians are currently supporting the Obama administration’s pro-culture of death agenda, and more and more bishops are backing away from enforcing Canon 915, it is probably a good idea to address this subject anew.

A fundamental truth of Catholic teaching is that Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist.  Thus it is the obligation of those who administer this sacrament to protect Christ from sacrilege. When it comes to this truth, I am a take-no-prisoners sort of woman. How anybody—including a lot of bishops— “feels” about this obligation is irrelevant; what matters is whether the obligation is fulfilled.

What is the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law? And what does it say regarding this matter? In his introduction to the revised Code of Canon Law, issued in 1983, Pope John Paul II described the Code this way: 

As the Church’s principal legislative document founded on the juridical legislative heritage of revelation and tradition, the Code is to be regarded as an indispensable instrument to ensure order both in individual and social life, and also in the Church’s own activity. …

As a matter of fact, the Code of Canon Law is extremely necessary for the Church. Since the Church is organized as a social and visible structure, it must also have norms: in order that its hierarchical and organic structure be visible; in order that the exercise of the functions divinely entrusted to it, especially that of sacred power and of the administration of the sacraments, may be adequately organized; in order that the mutual relations of the faithful may be regulated according to justice based upon charity, with the rights of individuals guaranteed and well-defined; in order, finally, that common initiatives undertaken to live a Christian life ever more perfectly may be sustained, strengthened and fostered by canonical norms.

Finally, by their very nature canonical laws are to be observed. The greatest care has therefore been taken to ensure that in the lengthy preparation of the Code the wording of the norms should be accurate, and that they should be based on a solid juridical, canonical and theological foundation.

Contained within this seven-volume set of the laws governing the Catholic Church (in Book IV, Part 1, Title III, Chapter 1, Article 2)  is Canon 915, which states,

“Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” (emphasis added)

There is nothing confusing about this language. And it applies to any Catholic who, based on his or her public record, is known to be publicly persevering in manifest grave sin such as the promotion, encouragement, approval or performance of abortion. Such public figures should not be admitted to Holy Communion. Certain individuals who fall into this category and come immediately to mind are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Joseph Biden and MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews, among others.

Since the language of this particular canon is not confusing, one wonders why so many Catholic prelates refuse to enforce it. One of my favorite commentators, who writes under the pen name of Diogenes, may have hit on the answer to this question when he wrote, 

Two more American archbishops have joined the list of prelates who would prefer to try gentle persuasion on pro-abortion Catholic politicians rather than impose canonical discipline.

Leaving aside the obligation that canon law imposes on Eucharistic ministers, let’s ask a cold practical question. We’ve been working this moral-suasion angle for 37 years now. Can anyone point to one success? One case in which a bishop has persuaded a politician to abandon the “pro-choice” rhetoric and embrace the pro-life cause? One?

There’s more. Archbishop Dolan says that he doesn’t know just where Andrew Cuomo stands on abortion. Funny; nearly everyone else in New York knows. Meanwhile Archbishop Listecki says: “It’s very difficult for me to see how somebody can be pro-choice knowing the teachings of the Church.” Perhaps it follows, then, that a politician who espouses the “pro-choice” philosophy must be ignorant of Church teaching.

The politicians are the only ones who don’t know what the Church teaches about abortion, and the bishops are the only ones who don’t know what the politicians are saying. What a coincidence!

Diogenes’ comments on the lengths to which so many Catholic bishops will go to avoid enforcing Canon 915 are heartbreaking, but also true. 

Even though Archbishop Dolan told a television news commentator  that he prefers to follow the lead of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who, he claims, said it was better to try to persuade public sinners than to impose sanctions, he doesn’t seem to remember the rest of what the Holy Fathers have said.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI, sent a memorandum to the American bishops regarding the enforcement of Canon 915. In this memorandum, titled “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion—General Principles,” he did not suggest that gentle persuasion was a remedy, but rather one step within the enforcement process . He wrote, 

5. Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

6. When “these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,” and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it” (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts Declaration “Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics” [2002], nos. 3-4). This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgment on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.

Are we to believe that Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued this memo without the concurrence of his immediate superior, who was none other than Pope John Paul II? Of course not!

Are we to believe that, now that Cardinal Ratzinger has become Pope Benedict XVI, he has changed his mind? Of course not!

So what is it about the Ratzinger memo that so many American Catholic bishops seem to find confusing? Archbishop Raymond Burke, now prefect of the Vatican’s Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest ecclesiastical court (the Church's equivalent of chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) understands the import of Canon 915 and the requirement that all deacons, priests and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion obey Church law. And so should every Catholic bishop, but I think there is something else afoot in these matters.

If we take Archbishop Listecki at his word, and if we accept what Archbishop Dolan has said about “Catholic” pro-abortion zealots such as Cuomo, then we can conclude that one of two things has happened in the U.S. Catholic Church. Either the Code of Canon Law has become nothing more than a set of books collecting dust on a shelf, or the politics of empowerment has seduced many Catholic bishops into believing that it is more important for them to be liked and be kindly toward those who advocate child killing than it is for them to be heroic white martyrs for the faith.

I have pondered this for some time while watching numerous Catholic prelates dismiss their solemn obligation to protect Christ from sacrilege, and to deny Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion to Catholics who refuse to repent for their public support of heinous sins such as abortion. Indeed, what we need are more white martyrs such as Archbishop Raymond Burke; we need men of faith who put Christ first and foremost in their lives.

While it is obvious that a red martyr is someone who dies for the faith, in today’s world, perhaps it is sometimes even more challenging to be a white martyr. White martyrdom

is a total offering to God, a “dying” to the world and its allurements. A white martyr willingly gives up worldly concerns and makes his or her life a perpetual pilgrimage. A white martyr lives a life of heroic devotion for Him alone, eagerly uniting that devotion with Christ’s sufferings.

During this Lenten season, we are confronting the culture of death’s masterpiece, so-called health care reform, and the arrogance of more and more public figures who claim to be Catholic but do all they can to advance evil. I believe, with all my heart, we should be praying for our bishops, and asking God to give each bishop, along with his priests and deacons, the courage to be white martyrs for Christ.

The “gentle persuasion” and persistent cajoling are failing. There is no justice for the preborn or for Christ Himself in the Holy Eucharist when flagrant violators of Church teaching continue to scandalize the faithful and commit sacrilege by receiving the sacrament unworthily. 

While some might disagree with me by arguing that we must be charitable toward our enemies, it can also be argued that, as Pope Benedict XVI has said, “Charity without justice is not charity, but a counterfeit.”

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