Signs of Repentance or of the Status Quo?

A canon lawyer friend of mine says Senator Edward Kennedy had a canonical right to a church funeral. Not that my friend is a Kennedy fan. He just thinks the law reads that way. I think he is right, though whether it should read that way is another matter. Towards the end of his life Mr. Kennedy attended Mass, led family prayers, and met with priests. These activities, my canon lawyer friend contends, are canonically acceptable “signs of repentance”.

“Signs of repentance?” you may wonder. Why are these needed? Senator Kennedy was well-known for stances at odds with Catholic teaching. For instance, he supported abortion rights when he should have defended the right to life for unborn babies. He advocated experimentation on embryonic human beings when he should have stood up for their rights not to be manipulated and killed. And he also supported same-sex marriage when he should have upheld marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

The positions Senator Kennedy took on those issues are, according to Catholic teaching, objectively gravely sinful. Indeed, they are so sinful that someone who does them should refrain from receiving Holy Communion (Canon 916). If he does not, and if he manifestly and obstinately persists in them, then he should not be admitted to Holy Communion (Canon 915).

This is not a question of judging a man’s soul, but of his public actions. Such actions are, in themselves, contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. A Catholic who publicly supports abortion rights, embryonic experimentation, and same-sex marriage misrepresents to others the incompatibility of such things with Catholicism. Whatever a politician’s personal culpability before God, he is a “manifest sinner” in terms of his public actions when he supports such evils.

Canon 1184 says that church funeral rights are to be denied certain groups of people, which includes “manifest sinners”, “unless they gave some signs of repentance before death”. The argument that justifies Senator Kennedy’s church funeral says that as he prepared to die, Senator Kennedy participated in Mass, led family prayers, and was visited by priests. He also sent a letter to the Pope in which he acknowledged that he had not been perfect but that his faith sustained him. These activities are interpreted by canonists, including my canon lawyer friend, as “signs of repentance”. So Senator Kennedy got his church funeral.

As far as Mr. Kennedy is concerned, I pray for the repose of his soul. Since I have more interest here in the general question of what ought to be than I do the particular question of whether Ted Kennedy met the current requirements, I will recast the discussion in general terms.

Suppose a politician is well-known for his support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Suppose he is a Catholic and suppose he has been told repeatedly by bishops and others what the Church teaches and of his grave responsibility to promote laws consistent it, including regarding the rights of the unborn and the defense of marriage. Furthermore, suppose despite all the politician has been told by the Church, he continues to support abortion, embryonic experimentation and same-sex marriage. Furthermore, he denies that his support of these evils is incompatible with his faith, so he receives Holy Communion at Mass, leads family prayers, and visits with priest friends.

Now suppose the Catholic politician becomes terminally ill and goes to his death bed. He has Mass in his home and receives Holy Communion, leads the family prayers, and visits with priest friends. He writes a letter to his bishop admitting that he is a fallible human being, mentions the good things he did as a politician, and asks for the bishop’s prayers. He says nothing in the letter about his public abortion rights activities, embryonic experimentation, or his public support for same-sex marriage.

Under the circumstances, do the activities of receiving Holy Communion, leading family prayers, and visiting with priests amount to “signs of repentance”? Canonists may count them as such but in the situation I just outlined, we can’t say that they really are. Why not? Because the politician received Holy Communion, led prayers, etc., before he was on his death bed and all the time maintained that his manifestly, objectively sinful activities were compatible with his Catholicism. How, then, can we suppose his death bed actions show he has repudiated his earlier actions?

As I say, I prefer not to address the issue in terms of Senator Kennedy’s case, even though I take elements of my example from it. Unfortunately, my example could apply to many Catholic politicians. That leads me to wonder whether Canon 1184 is helpful if it is to be understood as permitting a church funeral for Catholic politicians under the circumstances I have just outlined.

The requirement for “signs of repentance” in Canon 1184 seems to be there to prevent the “public scandal to the faith” that a church funeral for a “manifest sinner” would otherwise cause or seriously risk. But if, as in the case just outlined, what are taken as “signs of repentance” can’t tell us anything about whether the politician came to see his support of forty million legal abortions, embryonic experimentation, and same-sex marriage as incompatible with the Catholic faith, how can a church funeral for such a politician avoid giving scandal? How will it be taken by many people or most people to mean anything but that these things are not, after all, serious evils and incompatible with the Catholic faith?

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