Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Canonical Letter Challenging Dr. Peters on the Father Guarnizo Eucharistic Affair


When Church matters are filled with the marks of injustice and persecution of Priests and lay faithful who merely wish to do what they are and have always been called to do (for instance, taking the greatest of cares for the Most Blessed Sacrament), it is quite understandable that people remain moved to speak up.

That was the case with George Neumayr and his article for The American Spectator.

It was also the case of a reader, Scriptor, who has sent us this letter on the several canonical aspects involved in the Washington Eucharistic Affair as a follow-up to his shorter post on the same matter posted in The New Theological Movement.
Greetings in Christ,
In light of Fr. Guarnizo’s recent letter and Dr. Peters’ recent posts in response to that letter, I would like to continue discussion and reflection on the application of c. 915 vis-à-vis the Guarnizo-Johnson controversy.  I continue to find myself disagreeing with Dr. Peters’ interpretation of c. 915 in this case.  For the sake of argument, permit me to consider the situation in abstraction from Fr. Guarnizo’s own self-understanding of what he was doing when he refused communion to Ms. Johnson.  I want to focus on c. 915 and in particular on its use of the word “manifest”.    

An Insuperable Burden? 
In one of Dr. Peters’ recent posts (“Canonical observations…”, March 15th) he cites a number of canons to show that, in light of its having the effect of restricting the rights of the faithful, we need to interpret c. 915 “as narrowly as reasonably possible”.  He then goes on to cite a number of traditional commentators to the effect that before a minister refuses the sacraments to someone, he must have no reasonable doubts about whether the person is publically unworthy in the technical sense.  Both these points are well taken.  I will argue though, that when analyzing Guarnizo-Johnson case, Peters does interpret c. 915 in an unreasonably narrow fashion.  I will also argue that a priest in Fr. Guarnizo’s shoes could reasonably have been free of doubts as to whether c. 915 applied to Ms. Johnson.  Peters writes, “…the burden is, without question, on the minister of holy Communion to verify that all of the conditions listed in canon 915 are satisfied before he withholds holy Communion from a member of the faithful who approaches for it publicly.”  In the Guarnizo-Johnson case, I don’t think this is an insuperable burden. 

Peters writes, “To justify withholding the Eucharist under Canon 915 according to its plain terms, the conduct in which a communicant perseveres must be obstinate, manifest, grave, and sinful.”  First off, I think he is rhetorically loading the deck in his favor by highlighting five distinct words.  The PCILT document that I often cited in my post on The New Theological Movement breaks c. 915 down into just three distinct concepts (see the post for March 12th on the New Theological Movement, “Guest Letter Challenging Dr. Peters…”).  There is no question of withholding communion in the case of venial sins and so the only sort of sin we are considering here is serious or gave sin.  That’s one notion.  I think we can know that a woman who introduces to us her “lover” is engaged in serious sin.  The second condition of c. 915 as interpreted by the PCILT document is “obstinate perseverance”.  I dealt with this in the New Theological Movement post.  We can reasonably know that this condition too would obtain for Ms. Johnson.  So the third and last condition is “manifest”.  This is the crux of the matter.    

Towards A More True-To-Life Adjudication of When Obstinate Grave Sin Is “Manifest” 
Dr. Peters’ approach to “manifest” in c. 915 remains two-dimensional and unrealistic.  He reduces the public knowledge of a person’s obstinate grave sin to what is already actually known by the particular witnesses who are present when the sinner in question presents himself for communion.  For example, in one of his recent posts (“A brief thought…”, March 17th), he writes, “However sinful it might be, conduct that is not already widely known in the community is not manifest as canon law understands that term in this context.” [Emphasis mine]  A little later on, he writes, “Some folks…think the Church is being too lenient in dealing with grave-but-as-yet-private sin.  They’re free to make that case, though I think the Church’s wisdom is more than canon-law deep here.  Anyway, though they disagree with the law, they understand it, so my job is done in their regard.”  Apart from bringing notice to what I consider an unfair conflation of his readers differing with him in his interpretation of the Church’s law with his readers having differences with the Church, I would like to underscore his phrase “grave-but-as-yet-private sin.”  Is “as-yet-private-sin” never “manifest” in the technical canonical sense?   

In another one of his recent posts (“Three recent questions…”, March 13th), Dr. Peters touches briefly upon the principle, entertained as a legitimate opinion by canonists for many ages now, that the “notoriety” of a person’s sin can be present in one community while not being present in another.  Take the unlikely but possible scenario of a man whose unworthiness is known say in Sacramento California but completely unknown in Richmond Virginia.  Now say there was a priest of Richmond Virginia who knew of this man and his bad reputation in Sacramento.  If this man were to come into this priest’s parish in Richmond and present himself for communion, the priest might have poor grounds for considering this man’s unworthiness to be “notorious” or “public”.  It could be public in Sacramento while not being public in Richmond.  The priest should in this case give the man communion.  There is a flip side to this principle, though.  If the nature of the man’s obstinate grave sin is such that the knowledge of it is likely to spread from the first into the second community, then the priest who is administering the Eucharist to this man in the second local is justified in regarding this man’s sin as “manifest” even though to those in the second community it is “as-yet-private”.  Those who are witnessing the man present himself for communion may not be actually currently aware of the man’s sin, but the priest has good reason to believe they will soon be aware of it.  The point is that when making a decision as to whether an obstinate grave sin is manifest, the minister doesn’t simply take into account the actual but also the possible or likely knowledge of the witnesses.  To do this, he must take into account the nature of the community or communities in question and also the kind of sin that is being dealt with.
Here is a passage from a classic moral theology manual which takes into account the above mentioned factors: “The Sacraments are to be refused to a public sinner, whether he asks for them publicly or secretly…Such a one has no right to the Sacraments, with the exception of Penance. That sinner is called a public sinner, absolutely speaking, if he is notoriously so; he will be a notoriously public sinner, if he has been juridically condemned as such, or has admitted his sin, or if his sin cannot be concealed nor excused, or if his sin is noised abroad so that it can be easily known anywhere.” [Emphasis mine] (Moral and Pastoral Theology, by Henry Davis, S.J., vol. III, p. 35)  One of the conditions for the “notoriety” and thus technically “public” status of the sinner in question is whether or not his sin can be concealed or excused.  Notice how the kind of sin and its potential to become common knowledge to others are relevant considerations.  Now what happens when the sinner in question is not ashamed of his sin and doesn’t even try to conceal it in public?  What happens when the sinner in question has even adopted a personal m.o. of actively making known his sin to others even upon first introductions?  What happens when the sinner in question doesn’t just regularly make his sin known to others but wants and even expects others to accept and applaud his sin as normal and good?  What if such a sinner even thinks that he has a right—his habit of making his sin known in public notwithstanding—to the precious and immaculate body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ?  This, I suggest, is the case of the baptized Catholic who is also a practicing and open homosexual.  According to the standards of the above cited manual, such a person’s sin could not be concealed and would thus count as “notorious” or “public” or “manifest”.
To bring it home a little closer to the actual circumstances of the Guarnizo-Johnson case, the practicing and open homosexual in question showed up to the funeral with her lover and presented her to the priest as such.  I think it reasonable for a priest who had received such an introduction to conclude very quickly that this woman likely had already introduced herself and her lover as such to others at the funeral.  This priest might also justifiably conclude that, given the nature of this woman’s sin, if the people at the funeral don’t already know about it, they probably will by the time the funeral is done.  Two active and open homosexuals present at a funeral who have introduced themselves to the priest as such are going to be verbally making known to others their status as “partners”.  What’s more, the two homosexual lovers are likely going to be relating to each other physically and socially in a spousal manner.  This is not going to be just about hugs and hand holding but a total way of relating to each other that sends a multitude of subtle but clear signals to others as to who they are.  And the witnesses have plenty of opportunity to catch those verbal and non-verbal signals.  There is the funeral mass itself but also the burial and often also the reception after the burial.  There is also, in many cases, the wake the night before.  The sin of such a couple is of such a kind that it’s not going to remain secret for very long.  It’s the kind of sin that can’t be concealed.  This is what we are dealing with when it comes to this phenomenon of “out-of-the-closet” gays.  Let’s not ignore the obvious. 

There Is More Than Just One Conscience We Need To Respect
In the first of Dr. Peters’ posts that I cited above (“Canonical observations…”, March 15th), he makes it clear that that “Canon 916 binds gravely in conscience and an accounting to God of one’s conduct under that canon (or at any rate, under the values it protects) will be owed by each Catholic at Judgment.”  But what he fails to mention, although I know he would acknowledge it as true, is that canon 915 also binds gravely in conscience before God.  The reader is left with the impression though, that canon 916 is a matter of conscience while canon 915 is something else.  This is a misleading way of presenting the situation.  The obligation of the minister to withhold communion from the publicly unworthy (canon 915) is just as much a divine law as the obligation of the communicant to make sure he is rightly disposed before receiving communion (canon 916).  Referencing different authorities, we read, “Divine and ecclesiastical law command absolute exclusion from the Holy Table of all persons publicly unworthy of it, unless they have shown signs of conversion and amendment and repaired the scandal given to the community” (Legislation on the Sacraments in the New Code of Canon Law by H. A. Ayrinhac, 1928).  And from a more recent commentary, we read: “…this [c. 915] is a norm of divine-positive law…declared by the council of Trent in its decree on the Holy Eucharist, received by the 1917 Code, and restated by Vatican II’s post-conciliar legislation.” (Gramunt, in EXEGETICAL COMM (2004) III/1: 614-615.)  Thus the person who violates the divine precept underlying c. 915 will be accountable to God on Judgment Day just as much as the person who violates the divine precept underlying c. 916.  Arguably, the law of the Church itself recognizes by way of sanction the seriousness of violating c. 915.  At least in the opinion of Gramunt, the minister who violates this precept “can be punished by virtue of c. 1389 sec. 2, or by invoking c. 1399 which foresees, in a general way, the possibility of punishing those who cause grave scandal by an external violation of divine or ecclesiastical law” (Gramunt, p. 616).       

Dr. Peters talks about the importance of interpreting canon law in continuity with the tradition of the Church.  To that I say ‘Amen’.  This was one of the concerns of my previous post.  So to continue in that vein, and to bring home with one more citation the seriousness of the divine precept underlying c. 915, let’s reference yet one more authority—an older one.  Here is Rev. James O’Kane’s 1867 commentary, Notes on the Rubrics of the Roman Ritual, p. 380:

“[Public sinners] are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in any circumstances, until they have given proof of their repentance and amendment.  They have no claim to be admitted.  By their exclusion they are merely prevented from consummating an act of sacrilege; and even their reputation cannot suffer, since they are, by supposition, public sinners; and on the other hand, great scandal would arise from admitting them.  The priest, therefore, is bound to exclude them.  According to some theologians, he might administer the sacrament to save his own life, provided he were not required to do so in contempt of religion.  St. Liguori for a time thought this opinion probable, but he afterwards rejected it, and maintains that the priest must refuse the sacrament to the notoriously unworthy, at the risk of his life, even when contempt is not intended.” 

In the opinion of St. Alphonsus Liguori, a Doctor of the Church, the minister should rather die than give communion to the publicly unworthy.  By anyone’s account, this is pretty serious stuff.  Have we today lost the sense of the seriousness of the sin of sacrilege and scandal?  Upon the altar of the rights of the individual, have we sacrificed God’s right not to be profaned and the right of the community not to be scandalized?  We need to respect the conscience of the minister bound by such serious obligations just as much as we need to respect the right of the individual to be provided with the sacraments.  Have we focused on the latter to the exclusion of the former—unwittingly embracing an unbalanced hermeneutic that distorts our reading of canon law and the sacramental life of the Church?     

Differences of Opinion on Prudential Judgments Calls for Charity
Looking through a number of manuals and commentaries from the 19th and 20th centuries, it becomes clear that there is wide variety of factors to take into account when deciding whether or not a particular case of sin is “public”.  In the last analysis, this is not an exact science but a matter of prudential judgment.  The authorities themselves concur.  Stanislaus Woywod, for example, in A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, vol. I (1925), says: “No general rule covering all cases can be given for distinguishing a public sinner from an occult one, and the circumstances of every individual case must be considered.”  To return to the O’Kane commentary, we read on p. 381: “We need not seek for mathematical accuracy in a matter of this kind, and Carriere concludes that a crime may be looked on as public in any community when, considering the crime itself, the persons to whom it is known, and the community of which there is question, the knowledge of it is morally certain to spread.”  It is true that the minister must have a practical certainty that any given person falls into the category of those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin” before he is bound to withhold communion from that person.  I have argued above that practicing and open homosexuals could very easily fall into that category.   More specifically I have argued that such an active and open homosexual as is being considered in the Guarnizo-Johnson does in fact do so.  But more to the point here is that even if in your judgment a priest in a situation like Guarnizo’s would not have made the right prudential decision by withholding communion from the person in question, it should at least be acknowledged that his decision was not wildly unreasonable.  We can in all charity acknowledge that one minister’s doubtful case might be another minister’s clear case.  We can respect his certain conscience even if in the same situation ours would have been doubtful.  We can acknowledge that there are situations in which different prudential judgments can be made by different people without either side faulting the other for negligence on the one hand or insensitivity on the other.  The Guarnizo-Johnson case is certainly one such case.  For example, probably Dr. Peters himself has a good pulse on the academic world of canon law and would know whether or not there are at least some respectable canonists who would disagree with him on this issue.  Are there no canonists who would judge that, per c. 915, Ms. Johnson should have in fact been withheld from communion?  I would imagine we could find a few.       
A Broader Perspective 
Peters can also, no doubt unintentionally, sometimes write as if canonists are the only people who should have anything to say on this issue.  Are there not other specialists whose respective expertise would be helpful?  What might a Scripture scholar, for example, have to say about this issue?  We often quote I Cor 11:27-29 when talking about the divine obligation undergirding canon 916.  But the Church has also traditionally cited Mt 7:6, “Give not what is holy to the dogs”, when talking about the divine obligation undergirding c. 915 (cf. Didache 9).  Is Mt 7:6 Eucharistic?  Does it have a sacrificial subtext to it? (cf. Ex 29:37; Lev 2:3)  Who are the dogs? (cf. Rev 22:15; Deut 23:18)  Maybe the canonists can learn from the Scripture scholars? 

Also what might a moral theologian have to say about the little known fact that the good name of the occult sinner is actually not a proportionate reason for the minister of communion to materially participate in the sinner’s sacrilegious communion but that the minister is only morally justified in materially participating in such a sacrilege in light of the possible negative effects a refusal might have on the community?  How might the perspective of the common good adjust our antecedent considerations that we bring to bear on reading and applying the Church’s law in the case of c. 915?  Also, if the sinner who presents himself for communion has the right to his good name, what happens when the sinner in question thinks his sin should be made public?  Is it even meaningful to talk about protecting the good name of the active and open homosexual?  What reputation is there left for the Church to protect at this point and how might this affect our application of c. 915?  These are all questions moralists could fruitfully explore and canonists benefit from... (continued) 


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