Confirmation Confusion in Minnesota (and Canon Law)

Canon Lawyer Edward Peters

Edward Peters, JD, JCD is a canon lawyer. I occasionally follow his blog, as he sometimes has interesting posts about his take on Church matters in the public eye. I say “occasionally” because his blog does not allow comments or feedback, so I prefer not to give my own time to bloggers who do not allow for such engagement. After all, isn’t engagement and interaction what blogging and the tools of social media are all about?  In this regard, I think Dr. Peters confuses “blogging” with “lecturing” … but I digress.

That said, his recent post, Confirmation and advocacy of ‘gay marriage’ [sic] cries out for response.

Two points:

First, my “[sic]” notation is to draw attention to the fact that Dr. Peters is one of those folks who puts the phrase gay marriage in quotations or otherwise off-sets it as a means of communicating that they do not think such a thing is real.  If he were speaking to you in person, you could just see him holding up both hands and making finger-quotes as he voiced that phrase, as if to say, “they call it ‘gay marriage,’ but we know such a thing doesn’t really exist.” They think that God’s gay sons and daughters — living their full humanity, including their sexuality, as given by God — are incapable of entering into marital relationships with someone of the same sex. Instead of seeing with open eyes and thoughtful minds the evidence from so many human sciences, including theology  (not to mention the lived experience of millions of gay men and women living in committed relationships), Dr. Peters prefers the blinders of ecclesiastical legality to the truth self-evident to so many.

Lennon Cihak

Second, Dr. Peters’ post discusses the situation of a young man who has been denied the Sacrament of Confirmation for his opposition to Minnesota’s recent ballot initiative that would have included in that state’s constitution language limiting marriage to one man and one woman. Peters focuses his brief post on the meaning of “proper disposition” as one of the criteria necessary for the Faithful to share in the sacraments.

I do not take issue with this basic principle of sacramental theology. The sacraments in our Tradition are indeed not to be taken lightly and must be appreciated as the gifts they are, a means by which God’s People share more fully in God’s grace.  Sacramental participation requires a minimal understanding of what a particular sacrament is all about; a freely-expressed desire to share in the sacrament; and the expressed intention to live one’s life as best one can with the fundamentals of Christian faith.

Peters, however, goes on to observe the distinction between “internal disposition” and “external disposition” as follows:

Generally “proper disposition” is not a question of internal disposition (such as interior faith, fervor, or grace) but rather of external disposition (public demeanor, dress, and conduct). The state of a would-be recipient’s soul is not determinable, of course, but his or her attitudes and conduct are observable (we’re talking Facebook, no?), and potentially actionable.

In all fairness, Peters does not state explicitly that the pastor’s action in this situation was correct. A benign interpretation of Peters’ post could be merely that it points out that Church order allows for a pastor to refuse the sacraments in certain circumstances. Priests and pastors do and should have this right. After all, a pastor can and must deny marriage to someone who is already married, or Eucharist to someone who is not Baptized and has no intention of living the Christian life (as they, the potential recipient, would declare).

Nonetheless, a more likely interpretation of his post is that Peters supports the pastor’s decision — and it is with this, i.e. that the pastor’s decision was correct, that I (and others) take issue. Despite what Dr. Peters’ and the USCCB say formally about civil marriage, the fact is that a majority of American Catholics support the rights of God’s LGBT sons and daughters to marry the person they love. Would Dr. Peters deny the sacraments to these millions of Catholics? Or only to those who wear a rainbow ribbon on their lapel or post a supportive photo online? And, of course, why be limited to support for civil-marriage as the litmus test for deciding appropriate “external disposition”? There are countless issues where millions of Catholics hold different positions than do official Church leaders — civil divorce, war, immigration, capital punishment, to name but a few.  Would every Catholic, for example, who holds that civil divorce should be allowed in a pluralistic society likewise be denied the sacraments?

My point is this:  the denial of confirmation to this young man was a bad decision.  Using the sacraments as tools of discipline (especially when that discipline is misguided) is a bad idea.  It’s a lesson that this pastor — and the US bishops — need to learn.

Bishops, Oaths, and Conscience

Catholic bishops joining in the Nazi salute.

Today’s Washington Post reports on a highly troubling story (Arlington Diocese parishioners question need for fidelity oath) about a rising trend in Catholic dioceses to require workers — including volunteers who teach religious education — to affirm some sort of “fidelity oath” in order to continue their work or ministry. The story ends with this:

The Rev. Ronald Nuzzi, who heads the leadership program for Catholic educators at the University of Notre Dame, said many bishops “are in a pickle.” They want Catholic institutions to be staffed by people who not only teach what the church teaches but whose “whole life will bear witness.”

Nuzzi said he keeps a photo on his desk from the 1940s that shows all the German bishops in their garb, doing the Nazi salute.

“I keep it there to remind people who say to do everything the Church says, that their wisdom has limitations, too.”

Anyone who fully understands and values the breadth and depth of Catholic Christianity must be appalled by this trend, especially when such oaths appear to be written in ways that clearly are contrary to Catholic teaching. What is more troubling, however, is the perspective expressed by some — both clergy and laity — who see no problem with such a practice.

What’s the difference, really??

Here are two current stories about two very similar men whom the Catholic Church treats very differently.

The first is a man who followed a call to ministry, was ordained a priest within his church, and eventually became a bishop. Because that church allows priests to be married, Jeffrey Steenson also has a wife, three children, and even a grandchild.  Steenson, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, Albuquerque, NM has since left the Anglican Communion, been welcomed into the Catholic Church and ordained a Catholic priest.  Most recently he was appointed head of a new Ordinariate intended to smooth the transition to the Catholic Church for Episcopalians who, for whatever reason, feel called to swim the Tiber. Although Fr. Steenson will not be permitted to become a bishop, his new position essentially gives him all the administrative authority of a bishop and he will even be a voting member of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The second man also followed a call to ministry within his church, and was similarly ordained both a priest and a bishop.  Though I don’t presume to know anything other than what is being reported today, Gabino Zavala apparently also felt called to the intimacy of a marital relationship and family life, and recently revealed that he is the father of two teenage children.  In the current structures of Catholicism, however, the requirement of mandatory celibacy makes all this a big “no, no.” And so, today’s big news is that the Pope has accepted Zavala’s resignation as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The Vatican announcement of this news cites that part of Canon Law (can. 401§2) which allows for the resignation of a bishop prior to the established retirement age of 75 due to ill health or “some other grave cause.”

Putting aside the fact that Bishop Zavala did not live up to the imposed requirement in the Western Church that priests and bishops be celibate, the question remains:  At a substantive, material level, how are these two men really different, and why does the Catholic Church treat them so differently?

Cardinal George Crosses the Line

At first, one might think that Cardinal Francis George’s uncharitable comparison of the gay rights movement to the Ku Klux Klan was simply an unfortunate, off the cuff comment.  Watch the video of the interview with the local Fox station in which the comment was made, and you might have a different impression.  George is polished man when it comes to media interviews, and both his KKK reference and response to the pointed, followup question seem just a bit too prepped.

What should have been a story about how the LGBT community adjusted the schedule of its annual Pride Parade out of respect for the worshiping community at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish has since become yet another example of how certain individuals in the Church’s hierarchy will go out of their way to speak ill of gays and lesbians. As Equally Blessed correctly states, the Cardinal’s comment is truly “unworthy of his office.” I would go even further. Such a statement is mean-spirited and damaging, not to mention simply untrue.

In these final days of the Advent Season, Catholics and all Christians look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus and the presence of the Living God in all creation, especially in each and every person who reflects the image of the Divine.  His Eminence’s hurtful and hateful words tarnish him more than they do those of whom he spoke.

The Sad State of Episcopal Affairs

“Just how deeply insular and inward-looking the conference has become was apparent in the fact that the agenda for this year’s meeting, conducted amid the greatest recession since the Great Depression, contained no mention of the poor, the jobless or the state of the economy.” (from Shake up in the bishops’ conference, NCR)


Hope in the Age of Benedict

Though I don’t always succeed, I try to be a person of hope.

Although hope is at the core of what it means to be a Christian, it’s more and more difficult live in hope during this Age of Benedict.  NCR’s John Allen discusses the continued rise of Archbishop John Burke within the Vatican bureaucracy, most recently having been appointed to a powerful position that oversees the selection of new bishops around the world. Allen reports that, “Since being called to Rome in 2008, Burke has hardly gone quiet. In a September 2008 interview with an Italian newspaper, Burke said that the U.S. Democratic Party risks becoming the ‘party of death’ because of its positions on bioethical questions. He’s also insisted that nothing can justify voting for a candidate who’s ‘anti-life’ and ‘anti-family.'” Lest it not be clear, “anti-family” is a reference to anyone who supports the full rights and legal recognition of gay and lesbian individuals and couples.

Given the state of things, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Job: “Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness,” (Job 30:26)

Nonetheless…even in the midst of what appear to be dark days within the Church, the words from the Letter to the Hebrews remain strong: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful,” (Heb. 10:23)

Bishops Spend $$ to Promote Exclusion and Bigotry

Although I decided some time ago which of the two presidential candidates would receive my vote on November 4, I’ve made another decision today.

It appears that the Catholic Bishops of the United States, through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, have given $200,000 to support efforts in California seeking to overturn the right of gay men and women in that state to marry (see “Catholic bishops give $200K to ban gay marriage“).

Though I’ll never be a “person of means,” I am making the personal commitment today not to provide financial support directly to any diocesan or parish effort – at least for the forseeable future. Instead, I will donate any funds that I would otherwise have contributed to an “official” Catholic diocese or parish to one that recognizes that all Catholics, including those whom God chose to create gay and lesbian, deserve their full rights as Catholics and as Americans.

Is this the kind of bishop we need?

The Catholic News Agency reports this story about Scranton (PA) Bishop Joseph Martino, who showed up unexpectedly at a non-partisan voter forum held at a parish in Honesdale, PA. Speaking in reference to the USCCB’s document, Faithful Citizenship, Martino apparently dismissed the document and stated, as reported in the local newspaper.

“‘No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese,’ said Martino according to the Wayne Independent. ‘The USCCB doesn’t speak for me….The only relevant document … is my letter,’ he continued, ‘There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable.'”

So much for the good bishop’s understanding of episcopal collegiality and the responsibility that each of us has to form and inform our own consciences.