Who decides when the law is an ass?

Charles 10 Comments


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.


  1. Charles

    Except, Rupert, that “what Jesus would do” so often seems to coincide with one’s personal prejudices.
    Does anyone know whether the Anglican Church ever refuses to conduct ecclesiastical funerals and whether this is affected by its position as the established church?

  2. Charles

    For what it’s worth: anyonw who openly rejects Church teaching should know that he/she thereby places himself outside the Church and thus does not have any right to demand or even expect a Catholic funeral: this is true of the “right-to-die” advocate, as it is true of the gay man (he was not a “devout Catholic” in my eyes for he obviously placed his own passions above Divine Law), as it is true of the “priestess” and everyone else who chooses his own will above Church teachings.
    I also would question the part of the article stating that the right-to-die advocate would have been granted a Catholic funeral had his euthanasia been done in absolute silence. The reasoning the Church gave addresses his public advocation of euthanasia and – assumedly – his lack of repentance over it.
    God is merciful – certainly -, but eventhough grace is free, participation is necessary: thus without repentance, one cannot expect mercy.
    If anything, I think the Church is in some cases being far too lax about canonical issues and thus undermines her own credibility. The gay man e.g. should not have been granted a Catholic funeral without him repenting of his sinful lifestyle first.
    Alas, it seems that bureaucracy and the “honour of persons” make some of the shepherds act in a manner that is detrimental to the common good of the faithful.

  3. Charles

    Judith, the Church of England doesn’t have any specific canons regarding how or why a member can be excommunicated, even though excommunication has in fact been used as an extreme measure, though very rarely. A clergyman was excommunicated in 1909 for having murdered four parishioners. I don’t know what sort of funeral he had though.

    In Catholic canon law, excommunication is a censure, a ‘medicinal penalty’ intended to invite the person to change behaviour or attitude, to repent and return to full communion. It’s not an ‘expiatory penalty’, designed to make satisfaction for the wrong done, still less a merely ‘vindictive penalty’, designed solely to punish.

    Michael, this might explain why those discussed who were not excommunicated in life received their Catholic funeral.

    Excommunicated persons are barred from receiving the Eucharist or the other Sacraments, but not from attending these. Excommunication is normally resolved by a declaration of repentance. Absolution can be in private confession or public.

  4. Charles

    Rupert, I agree with Judith’s comment that ‘what Jesus would do’ so often coincides with one’s personal views. Protestant emphasis on sola fide/sola scriptura (faith alone/Bible alone) leads to individual interpretations by thousands of sects, each claiming ‘divine’ authority. The Catholic Church guides by both Word (Bible) and Tradition (Church teaching – the Catechism, councils, canon law, encyclicals) aiming to offer clarity. Granted, you first need to embrace the divine foundations of the Church (Last Supper, Peter the Rock etc). The Church certainly asks us to aspire to be Christ-like (love the sinner but not the sin) but a church that claims Christ was a pushover lacks credibility.

  5. Charles

    It’s a little surprising, though rather interesting, to find Charles’ blog being used to attack Protestantism. Me, I’m neutral in such matters, but I will just observe that Rupert said “genuinely considering what Jesus would do,” and I guess any such genuine consideration would involve looking at what He is reported as having said and done, rather than what one wishes He had said or done so that it fitted one’s personal views rather better….

    Actually, I’m finding this hard work, because of all the things I’m sitting on that could be said about Tradition, so I’ll bow out and leave it to the professionals.

  6. Charles

    ‘Attacking Protestantism’ is a slightly strong phrase in this context – a calm explanation why a Catholic, who believes the Church is apostolic and universal, parts ways with the sola fide and sola scriptura approach of other ecclesial communities. A Catholic accepts the Church has already ‘genuinely considered what Jesus would do’. It cautions against the DIY approach but, yes, we all grapple with teaching at times.

  7. Charles

    Well I’m glad the dear old C of E has some standards. It must be an understandable and common impulse, but I can quite see that it doesn’t do to kill your parishioners. At least not in such a wholesale fashion. Even more so these days, I guess, when there are far fewer of them.

    The post – and some of the discussion – is fascinating though. It’s like a window into a closed system. The sort of place where, if you accept the first few principles, the rest of the rules makes perfect sense but which, to an outsider, look arcane and outrageous.

    I know the Pope rails against the secularisation of society, but when you come across the sort of judgements canon law levels at people you can only be grateful for it. The church, it seems to me, now falls so far behind secular laws and understanding in love, compassion and even the cold allocation of rights that it no longer deserves authority outside of it’s closed world. I’m gladdened that even this is increasingly scrutinised. The child abuse scandals demonstrate again that closed systems – even where the highest ideals are claimed – are not to be trusted.

    It’s this that makes me feel that, even as an outsider, these religious closed systems (not just catholicism either) are my business. At their best I can respect and admire them, but they also remind me that tolerance, enlightenment, rationality, a deep belief in the value of love wherever it is found and however it is expressed cannot be taken for granted. They also need to find expression in the public realm.

    Isn’t this why our role as secular celebrants is so enthralling? Family by family, service by service a different respect for humanity is being discovered and expressed; a different spirituality explored; a new authority – more humane and democratic than the old – asserted.

  8. Charles

    Thank you for these wise words, Vale.I particularly like the idea that if we do our jobs well, we are trying to work out a different spirituality and a new kind of authority.

    I’m afraid that, from where I stand, if the Pope rails against such explorations and such service as an unwelcome secularisation of something that should belong to the Catholic church, all he is doing is reinforcing the idea that his church is a closed system – which is sad.

    Needless to say, Catholic friends do not see their lives ands beliefs as a closed system, and are untroubled by secular funerals as a choice for others – but maybe I’ve got the liberal end of the Church!

  9. Charles

    Vale, so true when you say of Catholicism: ‘if you accept the first few principles, the rest of the rules makes perfect sense but which, to an outsider, look arcane’.

    However, I’d like to respectfully clarify a couple of things lest you’re under the impression it’s all about cold laws.

    First, I’m all for clear separation of Church and State. Christianity is, after all about free will, not about rules enforced by a theocracy.

    Second, I agree many working outside the Church – funeral celebrants or otherwise – do much for humanity.

    Third, I must disagree the Church – which, guided by Christ’s love, influenced our democracy and civil rights, and continues to do more charity work than any other organization – falls behind secular laws and understanding in love.

    Two examples of the Pope’s so-called “railing against secularism”:

    Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility. Do not be afraid to take up this service to your brothers and sisters, and to the future of your beloved nation.

    There are many temptations placed before you every day [but] there is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know him and love him, and he will set you free.

    Thanks for the interesting debate!

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