Are Catholic Bishops Above the Law?

According to recent news stories on the Obama administration’s effort to investigate the Bush administration's authorization of certain interrogation techniques, Attorney General Eric Holder and other Obama administration officials have said that no one is above the law. Regardless of your view of CIA operations, the truth is that there should not be a question about anybody being above the law. Without a proper regard for the law, chaos would reign.

Carry this a step further but in a slightly different direction. If we consider the Code of Canon Law, which is the body of laws governing the Catholic Church, we have to ask if these laws are subject to personal interpretation or are they in fact laws that should be uniformly interpreted and obeyed?

Here is how the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, answers the question, “From where does the Church get the right to make laws?” 

Jesus Christ, the Founder of the Catholic Church, gave the right and duty to make laws to His Church (Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18). The Church uses her power to “bind and loose” to legislate for her children. Some Church laws simply make clear and more specific those laws which are made directly by God Himself. Other Church laws are for the purpose of good order and for the protection of the [C]hurch and her children. The Church has no power to change, alter, or dispense anyone from God’s laws. However, she can change, alter, or dispense from her own legislation in case of necessity or usefulness.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia

Contrasted with the imperial or Caesarian law (jus caesareum), canon law is sometimes styled pontifical law (jus pontificium), often also it is termed sacred law (jus sacrum), and sometimes even Divine law (jus divinum: c. 2, De privil.), as it concerns holy things, and has for its object the wellbeing of souls in the society divinely established by Jesus Christ.

Clearly then, “canon law” carries the full weight of actual law in the same way that civil law does. So, when it comes to the canon law known as Canon 915, we are confused by the apparent confusion among Catholic bishops regarding whether or not this canon law must be obeyed by them.

In order to answer that question respectfully but truthfully, we examined the rich history behind this particular canon law.

The Code of Canon Law reads, 

Can. 915 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.

Canon 915 is fundamentally a reflection of the obligation to defend the Catholic teaching that the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ are fully present in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Canon 915 is designed to protect Christ from the sacrilege that would occur if someone “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” were  admitted to Communion. In other words, that person’s public actions would reveal that he or she was in defiance of Catholic teaching and therefore deemed unworthy to receive Christ. Canon 915 is not an opinion; it is a law of the Catholic Church that is based on infallible teaching and the wisdom of many Doctors of the Church, including Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Saint John Chrysostom (347–407 A.D.), wrote this regarding those who may receive Holy Communion:

What I am saying, I say to you also who minister, as well as to you who are ministered to. For it is necessary that I also address myself to you; that you may distribute the sacred gifts with great caution. For your punishment is not light should you, knowingly, admit anyone to the Communion of this Table whom you know to be unworthy of it. His blood will be required at thy hand (Ezech. xxxiii. 8). And even though he were a general, or a governor, or even he who wears the crown, should he draw near unworthy, forbid him: for higher is your authority than his. For if a spring of pure water were placed in your care for your flock, and you saw a sheep coming, with its mouth smeared with mud, you would not let it put down its mouth to dirty the well. Now you have been given charge of a well, not of water, but of Blood and the Spirit; and should you see someone draw near who is soiled with sin, a more grievous thing than clay or mud, and you are not moved to wrath, and you do not drive him away, how do you deserve to be forgiven? It was for this God honoured you with this dignity: that you might exercise judgment in these things. This is your office; this is your own security; this is your whole crown: not that you may go about clothed in a shining white habit.

And how, you may ask me, can I know about this person or that person? I am not speaking of those you do not know, but of those you do know. And shall I say something more serious? It is not as dreadful to be possessed by evil spirits, such as those of whom Paul speaks, as to tread Christ under foot, and to hold the blood of the testament unclean, and offer an affront to the spirit of grace (Heb. x, 29) He who has sinned, and comes to Holy Communion, is lower than one possessed by a demon. For those who are afflicted by an evil spirit are not on that account punished. But these others, should they come, unworthy, to the altar, they are handed over to everlasting punishment.

Further, Saint Thomas Aquinas answered the question, “Whether the priest ought to deny the body of Christ to the sinner seeking it?” in part by teaching, "A distinction must be made among sinners: some are secret; others are notorious, either from evidence of the fact, as public usurers, or public robbers, or from being denounced as evil men by some ecclesiastical or civil tribunal. Therefore Holy Communion ought not to be given to open sinners when they ask for it."

It is because of this consistent, clear teaching of the Catholic Church down through the ages that American Life League is able to say, without apology, that it is indeed a tragedy that there are so many Catholic bishops in the U.S. who, for a wide variety of reasons, refuse to abide by Canon 915 and protect Christ from sacrilege. Are these bishops above the law?

When Archbishop Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatua (the Church's highest court), recently wrote about the struggle to advance the culture of life, he emphasized once again the truths contained in Catholic teaching regarding Canon 915: 

To ignore the fact that Catholics in public life, for example, who persistently violate the moral law regarding the inviolability of innocent human life or the integrity of the marital union, lead many into confusion or even error regarding the most fundamental teachings of the moral law, in fact, contributes to the confusion and error, redounding to the gravest harm to our brothers and sisters, and, therefore, to the whole nation. The perennial discipline of the Church, for that reason among other reasons, has prohibited the giving of Holy Communion and the granting of a Church funeral to those who persist, after admonition, in the grave violation of the moral law (Code of Canon Law, cann. 915; and 1184, § 1, 3º).

There is no doubt whatsoever that Canon 915 is a law that must be obeyed by all those who are entrusted with the giving of the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ to Catholic people who approach the priest, deacon or extraordinary minister to receive Christ. As Archbishop Burke so compassionately said,

It is said that these disciplines which the Church has consistently observed down the centuries presume to pass a judgment on the eternal salvation of a soul, which belongs to God alone, and, therefore, should be abandoned. On the contrary, these disciplines are not a judgment on the eternal salvation of the soul in question. They are simply the acknowledgment of an objective truth, namely, that the public actions of the soul are in violation of the moral law, to his own grave harm and to the grave harm of all who are confused or led into error by his actions.

Are Catholic bishops above the law? My answer to that question is no, they are not. It is indeed a tragedy that that many individual bishops apparently believe they are.