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.

Catholics need more understanding of Catholicism

There are lots of elements to the on-going story about the denial of communion to a Maryland woman, Barbara Johnson, by Fr. Marcel Guarnizo at her mother’s funeral. One element that will never get any headlines is the low level of understanding even regular Church-going Catholics have about our faith. I remember hearing years ago a religious education professional lamenting the fact that while her parish was filled with many accomplished and well-educated people, when it came to their “religious education,” they stopped progressing at about a 4th grade level.

I’ve been reminded of that time and again as I read comments posted by supposedly informed and practicing Catholics who’ve been sharing their thoughts about what happened in Gaithersburg: who was right and who was wrong? what should official Church leaders do in response? etc.

Today’s “On Religion” section of the Washington Post (p. B2) prints just two comments that demonstrate exactly what I mean:

joestrong701: The priest should be commended for faithfully following the Catholic Church teachings. If you want to be a lesbian, you can’t claim to be being a Roman Catholic. I love basketball, but at 6-2, I can’t sue the Knicks for not picking me to be their center.


Ivegstsyo: The priest denied her Communion because her lifestyle is considered immoral by the Catholic Church. As a priest, he is supposed to deny communion to those who don’t listen or follow Church teachings/doctrine. He was just doing his job. It was nothing personal. Just because you choose to live a sinful life doesn’t mean that the Churchhas to accept who you are.

I don’t know if either of these commenters is Catholic, but if they are, they should consider going back to their CCD/religious education program and take some more classes. “Church teachings” implies much, much more than what one may remember from a catechism class and certainly much more than what can be found through a Google search. It includes areas of study such as fundamental theology, sacred scripture, systematic theology, sacramental theology, ecclesiology, christology, pastoral theology, liturgy and canon law. Perhaps some in depth understanding of these various disciplines and how they fit into the teaching and practice of the Church might better equip them to offer comments about what might have been appropriate actions in the situation now receiving such attention.

It’s true that Church teaching says that we as Catholics should be properly disposed to receive the Eucharist, and that those who are “…obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion,” (cf. Code of Canon Law, #915). It is equally true, however, that the primary assessment for such disposition rests with the individual, and no one else. Only I (and God) can judge my conscience, and only I — taking responsibility for ensuring my conscience is well-formed — can judge my suitability for receiving Eucharist, remembering especially the words we pray immediately before Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”

For those who look to the “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” standard, it would be almost impossible in almost any real-life situation for a minister of the Eucharist to be able to make such a judgment with any certainy. Even if a pastor or priest knew well the spiritual lives of his parishioners, how would this judgment be expressed at a Eucharistic liturgy where so many others are often distributing communion? Perhaps pastors should provide lists to all the Ordinary and Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist assigned to each Mass with categories of those “Known to be unfit for communion”? Clearly, such an idea is preposterous, as are attempts by ministers of the Eucharist to judge the worthiness of those who come to share in the Lord’s table. After all, who is to say that even the most notorious mass murderer in history who approaches to receive communion has not — at that moment — made a “perfect act of contrition” and committed to receiving sacramental reconciliation as soon as possible, thus being properly disposed to receive Communion?

Every word in that phrase — “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” — is important. Every word is there for a reason, and every word demands that those who may even consider not admitting someone to communion be absolutely certain and have no doubt whatsoever before taking the potentially scandalous action of denying communion to anyone.

Perhaps, however, the most compelling argument is this: If we really believe that the Eucharist is the real presence of Jesus, why would we want to get in the way of a sinner encountering the Lord? After all, isn’t He more likely a candidate than any of us to change the heart and mind of the worst sinner in our midst?