A conversation recently made me realise that, in reflecting on the votes in favour of the same-sex marriage legislation in the House of Commons, it had not occurred to me to look at those votes in terms of how Catholic MPs voted. It simply didn't occur to me to do so, either from my own private interest or from any thought of publicly considering the question in those terms in a blog post.
On reflection, there seem to be two reasons underlying this. One is a sense of the rightful autonomy of the lay person in the exercise of political activity, an autonomy that does not give me any expectation of Catholic MPs voting as a kind of "bloc" directed by the Catholic hierarchy (exaggeration for effect here, but I think the essential point is correct). Gaudium et Spes n.76 recognises an autonomy of political activity on the part of the Christian (my emphasis added):
It is very important, especially where a pluralistic society prevails, that there be a correct notion of the relationship between the political community and the Church, and a clear distinction between the tasks which Christians undertake, individually or as a group, on their own responsibility as citizens guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience, and the activities which, in union with their pastors, they carry out in the name of the Church.And the decree on the lay apostolate articulates the particular responsibility of the lay person, Apostolicam Actuositatem n.7, again with my emphasis added:
The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.
The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. As citizens they must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility. Everywhere and in all things they must seek the justice of God's kingdom.The second reason is a sense of an "appropriate secularity" that recognises a particular role of religions in offering (ethical) critique of matters of public policy and participation in public debate about such matters, but which does not constitute an exercise of political power as such. Pope Benedict expressed this latter principle in Westminster Hall in 2010:
The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.Pope Francis has spoken in similar vein to visiting French politicians more recently. And the first part of a recent post describes my own experience of this idea in a different context, before considering the more immediate question of same-sex unions: Secularity, laicite and gay marriage.
The particular question I was being asked in my recent conversation was, at core, whether or not the bishops in the UK should apply the provisions of Canon Law to those Catholics who voted in favour of the same-sex marriage legislation in Parliament. In the light of the considerations above, my first observation was that it is really for the lay Catholic to act "on their own responsibility" and that, if they fail to do so, whatever action a bishop might take cannot make up for that failure on the part of the lay Catholic and for its adverse impact for the mission of the Church. My second observation was that, if a (public) canonical penalty is to be applied it needs to follow a due process, part of which would be a clear promulgation of that penalty as part of law being applied in the relevant local Church (diocese).
In our conversation, the relevant provision of Canon Law being referred to was:
Can. 915 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 provision which applies to the minister of Holy Communion is followed by a provision that places an obligation on the person who approaches to receive:
Can. 916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.
The application of this latter provision will in most cases be private rather than public, and so considerations of due process in the application of a canonical penalty do not apply.
Also referred to in our conversation was the Sacred Congregation for Doctrine's Considerations regarding Proposals to give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons with regard to political support for same-sex unions:
When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.
When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is already in force, the Catholic politician must oppose it in the ways that are possible for him and make his opposition known; it is his duty to witness to the truth. If it is not possible to repeal such a law completely, the Catholic politician, recalling the indications contained in the Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, “could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality”, on condition that his “absolute personal opposition” to such laws was clear and well known and that the danger of scandal was avoided. This does not mean that a more restrictive law in this area could be considered just or even acceptable; rather, it is a question of the legitimate and dutiful attempt to obtain at least the partial repeal of an unjust law when its total abrogation is not possible at the moment.The point made to me in response to what I had said about clear promulgation of the penalty was that this statement from the Congregation for Doctrine, in asserting the "gravely immoral" nature of a vote in favour of legislative provision for homosexual unions, was in effect such a promulgation. Since the nature of this document was "to reiterate the essential points on this question and provide arguments drawn from reason which could be used by Bishops in preparing more specific interventions, appropriate to the different situations throughout the world", I do think that the judgement that a vote in favour of a particular legislative proposal was "gravely immoral" would have to be taken up and affirmed by the bishop in application to the specific legislative proposal involved in order to achieve the element of promulgation that I believe is needed.
What conclusion do I draw at the end of all of this?
1. The real and most fundamental issue at stake is that of the effectiveness of the witness of the different members of the Church to her teaching on marriage. For the priest and bishop that will involve confidently and positively presenting that teaching in homily, in pastoral letter, in the pastoral encounters of sacramental preparation and catechesis, and, at times, through the means of social communication. This teaching includes Humanae Vitae - as was pointed out to me in the conversation that has prompted this post, the failure with regard to catechesis on contraception wrecks any defence of the purpose of sexual complementarity against the promotion of same sex unions. It also includes the permanence of marriage - one of my observations in our conversation was that, with the ready availability of re-marriage after divorce, UK law had already re-defined marriage compared to its Christian integrity. For the lay faithful it means being willing to "undertake, individually or as a group, on their own responsibility as citizens guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience" the demands of acting in favour of Catholic teaching. And if the priest or bishop fails in their part of the enterprise, the lay faithful are not able to make up for that failing (and certainly not by launching public criticism of the priest or bishop). And vice-versa, too, since, as the events surrounding Catholic adoption agencies and the votes on same sex marriage amply demonstrate, the priest or bishop is not able to make up for a failing that might occur on the part of the lay faithful.
2. The question of applying Canon 915 to bar from Holy Communion those Catholics who have voted in favour of the present legislation going through Parliament does, I believe, need to be answered in this context. Such an application would do something to establish in the public consciousness, and in the consciousness of the Church's own members, that there is a contradiction between supporting such legislation and an authentically Catholic life. However, if that application is simply undertaken as an act of authority or discipline on the part of the bishop(s) - and this is the sense I gain of the desire of Traditionalists to see such an application - then it is not going to deliver the witness to Catholic teaching on marriage that it intends, being diverted instead into an argument about the authority of the bishop over the lay person (which in the particular sense discussed above, I do not believe the bishop has). If it is going to be undertaken with an intention of "reversing" in some sense the poor witness of lay Catholics, again, it is just not going to deliver that. The whole manner of such an application needs to be carefully thought through and undertaken in a profoundly pastoral rather than authoritarian way. However, the promotion of the demands of Canon 916 - that those who have supported the current legislation should not present themselves to receive Holy Communion - might well provide an alternative that can be explored and that might just as effectively offer a witness to Catholic teaching on marriage.
3. What is a parish priest to do? I would suggest that they reflect on what is their part of the enterprise of witnessing to Catholic teaching on marriage .... that is, teaching about it in homily and pastoral encounter, and the need for this was part of my recent conversation. If some of the lay faithful are not doing their bit for the enterprise, the priest cannot replace them in the sphere of politics and culture to undo what they have done or not done. He can only teach again ....