The Vatican Bank
Posted by Richard Rawlinson
It’s invariably the breaking of rules that’s considered scandalous by the media, whether a tabloid splash about a married celebrity’s romp with a prostitute, or a Guardian scoop about the illegal phone hacking that secured such a story. But sometimes a story is picked up because it’s about the upholding of rules, the merits of which attract heated debate. Stories relating to religious funerals can fall into this category.
BBC Online is likely to have raised a few eyebrows when it reported on the Archbishop of Melbourne banning rock music at funerals. It’s unclear whether the BBC’s motive was to make a liberal stand against traditionalism. It at least presented the Archbishop’s reason – ‘that a church funeral should maintain Christian focus, and secular celebrations should be reserved for before and after the funeral’. He’s not passing judgment on non-Catholic funerals.
Even if some stories are biased, they enable comment and discussion. ‘Priestess denied Catholic funeral rites,’ reads another headline, about a woman in Chicago who was invalidly ordained by the Women Priests Movement using the prayers and rituals of the Catholic Church.
Again, anyone is entitled to disagree with the laws about male-only ordination, but this woman knew that a simulation of the sacrament of Holy Orders incurs excommunication, revoked only by contrition. She chose to reject Catholicism so should accept a non-Catholic funeral.
Another headline causes more soul-searching: ‘No Catholic funeral for Italian right-to-die advocate’. The man, suffering from muscular dystrophy, requested the disconnection of his respirator, with the doctor arguing this was not about euthanasia but about refusing treatment that would have constituted ‘therapeutic cruelty’. However, the Church made it clear that the ruling was not a reaction to the man’s death but to his earlier high-profile involvement in public campaigns for legalised euthanasia. Like the self-appointed priestess, his vocal stand opposing Church teaching placed him outside the Church.
Would the right-to-die campaigner have been allowed a Catholic funeral had he quietly accelerated his own death? Yes, and not just because the Church would have been oblivious to the exact nature of his death. Plenty of people, Catholic or otherwise, are humanely ‘let go’ by the medical profession. The media rarely points out that the Church does not count all discontinuance of extraordinary health care as euthanasia.
Still on the subject of ambiguity, there was a highly unusual case in San Diego recently which was publicised under the headline, ‘California Catholic Church refuses gay man his funeral’. The Church overturned the individual priest’s ruling, having heard the deceased, a local businessman with a partner of 24 years standing, was a devout Catholic and stalwart of his parish.
Some might argue he, like the priestess and the euthanasia advocate, was living outside the Church by enjoying a loving, same-sex relationship, and therefore not eligible for a Catholic funeral. Others, including those in the Californian Church hierarchy who overruled the rogue priest in their midst, chose compassion.
Canon law says that ecclesiastical funerals should be denied to those who might cause public scandal of the faithful unless they gave signs of repentance before death. It’s unclear whether the man’s funeral would cause scandal in his parish, or if he felt any need to make amends. Perhaps the Church establishment effectively saw that some rules were open to interpretation, that sometimes scenarios appear to jar with charity and common sense.
This also seems to have been the case when some US pro-life campaigners objected to the Catholic funeral of Senator Ted Kennedy due to his public support for abortion. Whatever Kennedy may have confessed before death will never be known but Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in the senator’s defense: ‘At times, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another.’
Copout or kindness? The fact these polemical situations exist is not, for me, a deal-breaker. It’s accepted that one can respect the authority of Church guidance on most things, and part ways on a few others. But only within reason. The Church, with all her man-made flaws, teaches us how to love God as He loves us. We may sometimes fail but obedience is one part of that love – something too big for media headlines to convey.