Demystifying Canon Law (Part 1)
Interview With Author Pete Vere
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QUEBEC CITY, SEPT. 9, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Canon law is more than just regulations, but is active living out of our Catholic tradition, says author Pete Vere.
Vere co-authored with Michael Trueman "Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Laypeople Ask About Canon Law," and "Surprised by Canon Law, Volume 2: More Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law," both published by Servant Books.
In Part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, Vere discusses the role canon law plays in the life of the average Catholic as well as in the difficult issues of giving Communion to pro-abortion politicians and the sexual abuse scandals.
Part 2 of this interview will be appear Wednesday.
Q: What inspired you to write "Surprised by Canon Law, Volumes I and II"? From your research and the reaction you have had from readers, how does canon law affect the life of the average Catholic in the pew?
Vere: Canon law affects every aspect our daily life as Catholics -- such as when we can receive the holy Eucharist, to how we receive absolution through the sacrament of confession, to who can be a godparent. Canon law isn't just dry rules and regulations -- it's a living part of the Church's sacred Tradition.
Over the past decade we have seen how canon law functions throughout many extraordinary events in the life of the Church. Some of these events have been painful, such as the sexual misconduct crisis among clergy and the need to confront Catholic politicians who undermine the sanctity of life and marriage. Other events have been a cause for joy and celebration among the universal Church. These include the election of Pope Benedict, the reconciliation of Catholic traditionalists in Campos, Brazil, and the canonizations of Sts. Faustina, Padre Pio, Josemaría Escrivá and the Fatima children.
When writing as Catholics, one hopes and prays that one's inspiration is drawn from the Holy Spirit, although we write as his imperfect human instruments. Most often, God speaks to us through the Church and other people. In the case of "Surprised by Canon Law, Volume I" the inspiration came through the Second Vatican Council, the post-conciliar apologetics movement, and most importantly, the people of God who we served through tribunal ministry.
Canon law does not exist for its own sake. Rather, it exists as the handmaiden of theology, to assist in the salvation of souls by helping to provide order within the Christian life. Thus the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church.
One of the great blessings of the Second Vatican Council is that it opened up the sacred sciences to the laity, as part of the Council's universal call to holiness. Simply put, all Catholics are called to grow in holiness and knowledge of the faith. Consequently, the Second Vatican Council challenged all Catholics to become more knowledgeable about their faith.
Whereas the post-conciliar era saw the Church make sacred Scripture and the various theological disciplines more accessible to the laity, we were a little slower off the mark in doing so with canon law. In fact, while writing the first volume of "Surprised by Canon Law," Michael and I worried that this attempt to make canon law accessible to the laity would be met with suspicion by our peers in the canonical world -- especially as Michael and I were still young to the profession, and our presentation style borrowed heavily from the new apologetics and evangelization movement.
Our concerns could not have been more unfounded. I am still stunned by the prayers, encouragement and support we received from fellow canonists, representing all areas of canonical ministry.
And it was with their prayers and encouragement that we undertook to write "Surprised by Canon Law, Volume II," which answers questions on issues that have piqued the interest of laity since the publication of the first volume.
The topics include: the canonization of saints, papal election, the sexual misconduct crisis, the Eastern Catholic Churches, possible actions to remedy Catholic politicians who dissent from the Church's moral teaching, ecumenism, the rise of new religious orders and movements, and several other topics.
Q: Let's talk about some of those issues. Many Catholics aren't sure what to think about high-profile Catholic politicians who support abortion or same-sex marriage, and then continue to receive holy Communion. What does canon law have to say about this?
Vere: Canon 915 is clear: Those "who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy Communion."
The question then becomes whether Canon 915 ought to be applied to pro-abortion politicians who claim to be Catholic. The growing consensus among pastors and canonists is yes. This is especially the case since 2004, when Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis came out strongly in favor of this pastoral remedy, and he received the backing of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Nevertheless, Archbishop Burke gave it much careful thought and prayer before going public. This is as it should be, something I say as someone who had been publicly arguing for the application of canon 915 prior to Archbishop Burke exercising his leadership on the issue as both a bishop and a canonist.
Partaking in holy Communion is our most sacred action as Catholics. Denying a Catholic this sacrament is very serious, and should only be done where all other pastoral options have been exhausted. It sends a strong message to deny someone holy Communion, but given that abortion is the wanton destruction of innocent life in the womb, such a serious message is indeed necessary. The same is true with the natural and sacramental definition of marriage, which is the basic building block of society and the natural order.
Thus imposing Canon 915 becomes necessary when a Catholic politician is at odds with the Church's moral teaching and refuses pastoral correction. And yes, from Archbishop Burke to Bishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, I know of no pastor who has denied holy Communion without first attempting to correct the politician in private and giving the politician the opportunity to mend his or her ways.
Q: Another painful issue for Catholics over the past five years has been the sexual misconduct crisis. What do you say about the Church's handling of these cases in light of canon law?
Vere: It is a tragedy whenever a young person is abused, especially when this abuse is perpetuated by one who has been set aside to care for Christ's faithful. Past action, or lack thereof, to address these situations, did not utilize the canon law legal remedies. It was not a failure of the Church's law, which, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983, contained a canon to punish clerics who sexually abused minors; it was a failure of leadership to utilize these laws.
In my opinion, canon law was erroneously seen as overly complex, lending to being easily overturned on appeal by the priest, and advocating a too-harsh penalty, rather than providing a pastoral and charitable remedy. "How can we preach forgiveness if we remove Father X from active ministry because of one mistake?" was the common objection. Additionally, advice from the psychological community erred on the side of patient reform and secular legal counsel usually sought out-of-court settlements and party confidentiality.
Nonetheless, the wheels of change were already in motion before the cases in Boston were brought to light. In 2001, the Holy See had reserved to itself the right to consider such cases of clergy sexual abuse. In a motu proprio called "Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela" there appeared a section stating that in instances where a cleric commits a sexual offense against a minor, the case must be brought to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after a preliminary investigation is carried out by the local bishop. Prior to this, cases could have been considered locally.
"Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela," in part, then informed the U.S. bishops' 2002 deliberations at their meeting in Dallas concerning the creation of the U.S. Charter and Norms for the Protection of Children and Young People. These national norms where subsequently approved by the Holy See and continue to have force today.
The U.S. Charter and Norms have dramatically changed the way clergy sexual abuse cases are handled. Besides the change in competency, procedure, and removal from ministry, dioceses have a full compliment of screening and training programs. The U.S. episcopal conference's National Review Board continues its work of auditing the programs, making recommendations as to best practices and compliance.
At the end of the day, the overarching change relates to perspective -- that clergy and laity are now actively seeking ways to protect children and young people from those who would want to harm them. In many ways, Church leaders and personnel have adopted the protective instinct that a parent has for his or her own child.
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On the Net:
"Surprised by Canon Law": http://catalog.americancatholic.org/product.aspx?prodid=T16608&pcat=303
"Surprised by Canon Law, Volume 2": http://catalog.americancatholic.org/product.aspx?prodid=t16749&pcat=303