Prompted by the coverage of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Catholic condition (which I wrote about in Andrew Cuomo's Gift for the Feast of the Epiphany on January 4th) I recently found myself reading Roman Catholic the Code of Canon Law. It made for interesting reading, but I emerged from my immersion in this material thinking that reading canon law to enhancement to Catholic feeling is probably a bit like using a sex manual to become a better lover.
On New Year's Day, Bishop Howard J. Hubbard offered New York State Governor Cuomo Communion at a mass he celebrated in Albany. Vatican consultant Edward Peters, a canon lawyer, raised an objection to the bishop's decision to offer Communion to a man living in a "public concubinage" on his blog and the New York Times picked up the story.
Anyone who's read Homer's Iliad knows, "concubines" are slaves. The governor's sweetheart, Sandra Lee, grew up in a poor family, helped to rear her siblings, attended college and a prestigious culinary academy, has authored a few books, and is now a wealthy young woman engaged in much philanthropic work. I find it difficult (and mildly amusing) to imagine a woman as accomplished as she in the role of gubernatorial sex slave.
The canonist is not to blame for the Charlie Sheen-worthy term -- "concubinage." That's what the hierarchs call it, and it should come as no surprise me that the Vatican brain trust should favor a word so oozing with misogynist lubricity as "concubinage"; the hierarchs have a history of turning powerful women who are not virgins into sluts.
The discussion of Bishop Hubbard's flouting of canon law 915 raises fascinating questions:
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.
Like most Catholics in the pews, I am neither a theologian, nor a canon lawyer. Like most Catholics in the industrialized world, I view man-made laws encoded over the course of several hundred years by men who were often corrupt or moved by political expedience with suspicion.
But as I read the various takes on disobedient Catholics in the public sphere, I notice that even those who pride themselves on their unwavering compliance with the Magisterium don't quite trust God and our formal means for seeking and obtaining forgiveness for sins-- namely the Sacrament Reconcilation, communal penance and prayer -- of keep Catholic souls clean enough to merit the healing power of the Eucharist.
One of the several problems with employing the Eucharist as tool for coercion is that priests who do so must rely upon the presumption of grave sin, in place of knowledge of it. In other words, they must make educated guesses about the worthiness of those approaching the altar.
Here's a hypothetical: Let's say that the night before his first public mass as governor, Cuomo suddenly changed his mind about abortion, gay marriage, living with his lover -- Let's say he confessed all this to a priest and was absolved of his sins. Would the bishop have been justified in refusing Cuomo the Eucharist at mass the next day? And what if the bishop had refused, and the governor had fallen down the church steps on the way out of mass, been fatally wounded? He would have been gone to the hereafter without benefit of the sacrament all because of a single minister's erroneous presumption of guilt.
This is an unlikely scenario of course, but so long as the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) is protected by "the seal," no minister of Communion can ever be sure --even in the case of public figures -- that a Catholic deserves to be denied Communion.
The parts of canon law which describe the powers and obligations of priests were some of my favorites as I read the Code of Canon Law. Does a priest walk into a nursing home and separate the worthy from the unworthy? No. The law asks priests to grant Absolution to the dying even in the absence of confession. Having spent much time in a Catholic hospice and nursing facilities, I've seen this happen, not realizing it was codified. I just figured it was Christ's love in action. At every mass, we hear the words of the Eucharistic Prayer remind us that the sacrament was established "for the forgiveness of sins." The Eucharist was instituted for sinners. Refusing the faithful the Eucharist, turns the body of Christ into a bargaining chip, and employing it as a weapon defames it.
Because the Roman Catholic mechanism for the forgiveness of sins is a generous one, those who would police Catholic opinions and sexual conduct are in a bit of a bind as they aim to to second-guess God. If the Sacrament of Reconciliation were not private, banishing a public figure from the altar might be defensible, but so long as confessions are protected under "the seal," those ministers of Communion who decline to trust, really elect to persecute.
Furthermore, evaluating the gravity of sins is complex, and incomplete when intentionality and conscience are not taken into account. Over the course of centuries, Catholic theologians and thinkers have taught us that the answer to such questions as whether the governor's "concubinage," or support for legalized abortion and gay marriage are sins may rest on whether he believes they are.
Clear cut regulations announced in newspapers and barked out from pulpits too often serve as substitutes for authentic conversations about of sin. Even the distinctions between "mortal sin" and the lesser "venial sin," though critical to Catholic practice, tend to be a mystery many Catholics. There are so many grey areas and variables, and the lines of demarcation are as crooked as they are perforated, but despite this margin of error, Catholics from all directions tend to agree on the following:
<ul><li>God gets the last word on who and what is sinful.</li>
<li>Consciousness, conscience and intentionality have bearing on whether an action is sinful.</li>
<li>We all "live in sin."</li>
<li>God is love. </li></ul>
So why did Bishop Hubbard offer the governor the body of Christ on New Year's Day? Maybe using the Eucharist as a cudgel offends him. Maybe knowing that his own Vatican dissolves marriages informs his view of "living in concubinage." Maybe he recognizes the essential role conscience (which, in Catholics, is associated with the Holy Spirit) plays in the analysis of sin.
Catholics are not fundamentalists. It is our tradition to extrapolate and interpret. One does not get at the truth in canon law by reading the letter of the law alone. The spirit of the law counts; the spirit completes the letter.
The Catholic "Word" lives, breathes and is fleshly.
The first and foremost duty of all religious is to be the contemplation of divine things and assiduous union with God in prayer.
Canon law 663 applies to Roman Catholic "religious" (priests and members of orders) and suggests that the primary obligation of priests may be to exist in union with God.
Can a priest who turns away Catholics as they approach the altar for healing truly be in union with a loving God? And if Christ is really love, might it not be a sin for a divorced Catholic to trade love away for a gold star of doctrinal compliance? And if Christ is really love, maybe a priest is called, first and foremost, to stand with love.
If the bishop had refused to give Cuomo Communion on his first day in office, the governor wouldn't have had to go very far to find a priest who would, because most priests know we all "live in sin," and some actually believe -- in love.