Guest Columnists

Canon Law Complicates Communion Debate

By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, JCD

To give or not to give communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians? That is the big question.

For now, there is no official answer and, probably, no definitive answer in sight. There appears to be a stalemate. In this discussion, please note that I am pro-life and a canon lawyer trying to light one little candle, which may be very little in the vastness of darkness. With my expertise focused on canonical procedures and due process, this is my opinion for a possible checkmate to the issue.

The restriction on communion is based on the provision of canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, which provides that, “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.”

This canon is straightforward but its application is not simple. As the provision is penal in nature, a strict interpretation of the law is required as the principle says, “odiosa sunt restringenda.”

Denying communion is technically imposing a canonical sanction. A canonical sanction is never imposed without due process leading to a declaration of penalty. This type of sanction falls under the category called “ferendae sententiae,” meaning a penalty that has to be declared by a competent authority.

So, who is the competent authority to decide not to give communion to cases of abortion-promoting Catholic politicians? What is the due process for the execution of the provision in canon 915?

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego opines that the competent authority to deprive the president, or other political leaders, of the Eucharist, is not the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He argued that the competence falls under the local bishop, who, in this case, is Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. 

I cannot fully agree with his opinion because the Code of Canon Law reserves to the Pope all the cases involving Heads of State. “It is solely the right of the Roman Pontiff himself to judge in the cases mentioned in canon 1401: 1) those who hold the highest civil office of a state…” (canon 1405 §1).

What cases are reserved to the Roman Pontiff’s adjudication based on canon 1401? The provision of this canon reads, “By proper and exclusive right the Church adjudicates: 1) cases which regard spiritual matters or those connected to spiritual matters; [and] 2) the violation of ecclesiastical laws and all those matters in which there is a question of sin, in what pertains to the determination of culpability and the imposition of ecclesiastical penalties.”

In accordance with the canons cited, the USCCB and the diocesan bishop can be the competent authority to declare penalty to all Catholic politicians, except one. Because of the expressed reservation in the Code of Canon Law, the episcopal conference or any other bishop are incompetent to declare a penalty to the Head of State.

Defiance of this provision is going against due process and would entail irremediable nullity.

I am mindful of the issue’s high sensitivity, which has effectively divided the Catholic Church in the USA. It is a hot-button topic that could easily trigger an intense emotional and controversial reaction.

I am not advocating for the left nor the right. My point is just legal  — or, to be specific, canonical — I stand on the doctrine that the law’s technicality is essential for applying justice and fairness.

As I share the uncertainties and confusion brought about by this dilemma, I would like to put in my two cents: this question should be sent to Rome. Hard as it may sound, it is reserved only to the Pope. All confusion will end when, as St. Augustine says, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est,” meaning: “Rome has spoken, the case is closed.” However, if this is the way to go, would we not open a can of worms?

Msgr. Achacoso is the author of ‘Due Process in Church Administration’ (2018), recipient of Arcangelo Ranaudo Award (Vatican City), and Administrator of Corpus Christi Church in Woodside, NY.