By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, JCD
In Canon Law, the power to impose sanctions is under the exercise of authority, which we call “potestas regiminis” or “potestas jurisdictionis.” In English, it is the power of governance, which is of divine origin; hence it is a sacred power. In ministerial terms, it is the exercise of the governing office of Christ or the “munus regendi.”
In accordance with canon 130, such power is done in the external forum to guide Christ’s faithful to their supernatural end by way of mandates. The sole concern of the use of this power is for the salvation of souls. In the current structure of ecclesiastical governance, the church exercises its authority in legislative, administrative, and judicial ways (cf. canon 135 §1).
The application of the power of governance is commonly made through pastoral exhortations or by obligatory precepts. In the context of mandate and obedience, the first application that is exhortatory by nature may not have the strictness and intensity compared to a precept that would demand obedience and obligation. For precepts to have teeth, there should be corresponding sanctions as censures which, up to a certain extent, can be in the form of excommunion.
Let us call a spade a spade. The prohibition against receiving communion is a censure. The Code of Canon Law requires that “A censure cannot be imposed validly unless the offender has been warned at least once beforehand to withdraw from contumacy and has been given a suitable time for repentance” (canon 1347 §1).
In the expectation of the issuance of a national policy by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the admission to the communion of Catholics in public office who support legislation and programs incompatible with Catholic faith and morals, the pastoral advice sent by the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger fits perfectly in the mold. He wrote that the respective pastor should meet with the erring faithful, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.
I can see the advice of Cardinal Ratzinger as very pastoral and in consonance with canonical procedures. Censures should be the last option. Before any sanctions are imposed, the code requires all remedies should be employed to reform erring faithful by way of fraternal correction and reproof and method of pastoral care (cf. canon 1341). If everything has been exhausted and the erring faithful remains obstinate and contumacious, only then the imposition of censures can be employed observing, of course, “due process.”
The gravity of the abortion issue and the sacredness of the communion are beyond question for most of us. There is even no need to emphasize the pain and shame, the confusion and division, the rage and the longing for an answer. The expectation is set for the episcopal conference to be united to answer and mark the way to go forward.
There is the temptation to brush aside “due process” to implement communion prohibition to pro-choice Catholic politicians. Despite the gravity of the issues and their public nature, the “due process” point should not be sidetracked. I remember here the advice of Sir Thomas More to William Roper, who did not want to give the Devil the benefit of the law. The prudent chancellor advised his interlocutor: “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? (…) Yes, I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!” (Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons).
Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, cautioned the USCCB to proceed through extensive and serene dialogue among the bishops and between them and the faithful within their respective jurisdiction. He offered some pointers on addressing the issue, emphasizing preserving the unity of the episcopal conference. Moreover, the cardinal advised taking into consideration the precautions given by then-Cardinal Ratzinger.
Now all eyes are set to the USCCB to finalize the draft of the guidelines for a national policy. I would like to ask everyone that together, we pray for our bishops to be enlightened and guided by the Holy Spirit in the exercise of their power of governance.
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.