Abp. Donald Wuerl of Washington DC continues to defend his refusal to withhold holy Communion from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in a number of ways, but his recent claims that canon law supports his inaction attract my attention. I think the prelate’s canonical claims are wrong.
First, Wuerl claims that “there’s a question about whether [Canon 915] was ever intended to be used to bring politicians to heel . . . I stand with the great majority of American bishops and bishops around the world in saying this canon was never intended to be used this way.”
Okay, for starters, “the great majority of American bishops and bishops around the world” (that’s more than 3,000 men!), have not made any comments about the impact of Canon 915 on politicians, let alone have they made statements holding Canon 915 inapplicable to politicians. There’s no need to belabor this exaggeration further.
More importantly, I wonder: exactly where is “the question” about whether Canon 915 was “intended to bring politicians to heel” (that’s a derogatory description of Church leaders and Catholic politicians alike) being raised? Who poses the problem in this manner? I’d be happy to examine such sources for the claim as one might care to offer, but I rather doubt any serious ones can be found. Why? Because no canon in the Code was written with the intention of bringing politicians to heel. That’s a disingenuous way to frame this issue.
Canons are designed to advance the salvific mission of the Church (c. 1752). They help to establish an ecclesial order rooted in Scripture and Tradition (JP2, ap. con. Sacrae disciplinae leges, esp. para. 16). To hold, therefore, that any canon is intended to bring a particular secular grouping of people “to heel” is to misunderstand what canon law is for. But the mistake is compounded when one goes on to use that mischaracterization of canon law to avoid the correct application of canon law.[reference]
I quite admire Bishop Weurl as a catechist, but his inactions in this show that he does not quite understand the matters at hand. As Ed Peters points out his view of Canon Law in this case is coming from quite the wrong direction. Where is the concern for the soul of a public sinner who further their sin by receiving the Eucharist while in objectively grave sin? The concern about the scandal causes when pro-abortion politicians are allowed to pretend that their actions don’t put them out of full communion with the Church. Bishops need to stop seeing this as a political issue and to see it in terms as a shepherd.
After Ed Peters describes cases in Canon law where politicians might have some exemptions (not in this case though) he mentions “Second, Wuerl asserts, “Pelosi, as a San Franciscan, isn’t part of my flock!”” That is a rather sad argument for a Bishop to make. Canon 915 is certainly not restricted to just the diocese the person belongs. Canonist Archbishop Burke who is now Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura previously said he would deny Communion to John Kerry if he tried to receive in his diocese. Other bishops have said similar things about other pro-abortion Politicians who were not actually part of their diocese. This year Bishop Martino said exactly the same thing about Vice President Joe Biden. I doubt that Archbishop Wuerl would attempt to make the case that these fellow bishops had no authority to act in this way. The Bishop’s reply reminds me way too much of “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Ed Peters discusses this question from the point of view of Canon Law and concludes:
There is, I conclude, simply no question but that an arch/bishop is authorized by canon law to take the steps necessary to protect the sacraments (especially the Eucharist, cc. 897-898) from unworthy administration in his territory and his people from the danger of scandal that might be given by such reception.