In a recent New York Times OP-ED, a professor of Theology, at Fordham University, called for equity on the part of bishops in refusing the Eucharist to politicians who do not espouse the Church’s absolute prohibition on abortion. He specifically had a problem with what he perceived to be an unfair application of the penalty by different bishops. Therefore, he believes the bishops’ imposition of the penalty is inappropriate. The problem with this thesis is that the author is unskilled in how to read Canon Law.
Over the past decade there have been three major canonical questions that have caused confusion in the Catholic Church, in America: the clergy child abuse scandals; the closing of churches; and the application of Canon 915 which authorizes a bishop to bar a politician from receiving Holy Communion.
In Canon Law: A Comparative Study With Anglo-American Legal Theory, Father John J. Coughlin, O.F.M., a Canon and Civil lawyer, who teaches theology at Notre Dame University, explains the context in which the pertinent canons in the areas mentioned above must be read for equitable and prudent application. His brief history of Canon Law and his comparative references to current Anglo-American Legal Theory highlights Canon Law’s purpose, rules for application and the law’s ultimate goal.
Fr. Coughlin rightly contends that an understanding of Canon Law without Faith is impossible, since it is exercised within the context of the Body of Christ. He says Canon Law is “a bridge between theology and practical action.”
Canon Law is guided by ecclesiology to which a person freely binds himself to a hierarchically structured Church which exists for the safety of the souls entrusted to Her care. Being the corporate Body of Christ on earth, Canon Law exists for the common good of all the members of the Church as well as for the spiritual welfare of each individual member. The Church’s governance is entrusted, for the most part, to the Pope and the bishops who use Canon Law to facilitate the Church’s mission and to apply remedies where problems may exist.
There are two extremes in legal interpretation which Coughlin believes has led to contemporary Church problems: antinomianism and legalism. Antinomianism holds that the Church is ruled by the Spirit and, therefore, no law is necessary. He says, this theory “fails to recognize the important function of the rule of law for individuals and the common good.” He contends, that the failure of bishops to impose canonical penalties, for example, on the clergy accused of sexual abuse is rooted here. Legalism, on the other-hand, fosters “an approach that places the law above the person and the community”. A legalistic interpretation of Canon 915, which permits bishops to bar pro-abortion politicians from receiving Holy Communion, he says, may cause some bishops to refrain from correcting those politicians who support abortion rights.
Coughlin explains that Canon Law respects the ecclesiology of the local Church and empowers the bishop, as the chief priest of a diocese, to coordinate the best use of diocesan resources. Many protestors have missed this point in dioceses which are closing or consolidating parishes. He shows how the canonical process used in these cases “also fulfills the requirements of formal procedural legality identified by Anglo-American theorists such as Hyack, Fuller, Hart, and Raz.” He says, that the law of the Church is designed to promote justice and equity but that it also demands humility in accepting a bishop’s decision, especially after an appeal to the Rota or the Apostolic Signatura is denied. Ultimately, he says trust must be placed in the special sacramental graces given to the Pope and the bishops when they render decisions for the good of the universal Church and for a diocese.
The present 1983 Code is designed to correspond with the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council (1965). Coughlin is not insensitive to the fact that some of the Council’s teachings reflect the optimism of the Council’s era. The documents may also be misleading when taken out of their traditional Catholic context which must always be presumed. Vatican II’s emphasis on the pastoral and a strong emphasis on the inviolability of conscience certainly have had an effect on some canonists’ interpretations. In some cases, this led to the non-imposition of canonical penalties, causing some to become dismissive of Canon Law’s relevance in the Church. As the adage goes, “use it or lose it”, seems to be applicable here.
In light of the above, Fr. Coughlin points out, for example, that while the Code provided for the removal of abusive priests many bishops chose to follow a pastoral therapeutic model for their rehabilitation instead of penal sanctions and in the doing so endangered children. He acknowledges the “indeterminacy” of Canon 915 and elucidates the bishops’ concerns in applying it. And, he reminds us that the decision to impose the restriction on receiving the Eucharist remains with the bishop whose prudential judgment is crucial for justice and good order.
Finally Coughlin writes,
“Canon law presumes that certain qualities remain characteristic of the lawgiver. Among these characteristics are the intention to be intelligent and humane, to act in conformity with the common good, to follow divine law on the basis of faith, to conform with the requirements of natural law through the use of practical reason, and to imitate the charity, mercy, and love of Christ. Confronted with an unjust or uncharitable result from the application of law, canonical equity permits one vested with governing power to correct the problem on the ground that such a correction reflects the intent of the lawgiver.”
This book is vital for anyone who wishes to understand how the Church’s legal system guides some of the hot button issues of our day. It is a must read for all serious Catholics.