SPECIAL: A Primer on Canon 915
By Barbara Kralis
2/5/2004 – updated 7/22/2004
Unquestionably, canon 915 is the most discussed canon in the Codex Iuris Canonici, or Code of Canon Law, in recent Church history. Many in the media have reported on the January 8, 2004 canonical actions of Archbishop Raymond Burke, then bishop of the La Crosse, Wisconsin diocese.
Archbishop Burke’s discipline on legislators has rocked the Catholic Church worldwide. Because of misinformation, speculation and outright resentment, confusion reigns regarding the Archbishop’s promulgation of his ‘canonical notification’ based on canon 915, the official communication of what the Church’s discipline is.
I would like to make some important clarifications, with appropriate documentation, in hopes that people of all faiths will understand the Archbishop’s actions, why it was appropriate for him to discipline persistent, obstinate, manifest pro abortion Catholic legislators, and why no other U.S. Bishop can refuse to immediately follow the same procedures in their own dioceses. All Bishops must protect the Eucharist from sacrilege.
As Bishop of the over 200,000 Catholics in the diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin for the past nine years, Raymond L. Burke, D.D., J.C.D., a doctor of canon law, first conducted private communications to three ‘Catholic’ legislators, imploring them, “to make their consciences correct with Magisterial teachings.”
After all three politicians refused to meet with him, saying they instead reject the Church’s infallible teachings, Archbishop Burke, as ‘Priest, Prophet and King,’ then took the necessary steps to issue the four paragraph ‘canonical notification’ to address the scandal they were causing in his diocese by their conduct ‘which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm’ (EE n.37).
The notification declares: “…Catholic legislators who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse and who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion. They are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, should they present themselves, until such time as they publicly renounce their support of these most unjust practices” (canon 915).
Archbishop Burke exhorted, “No good bishops could stand by and let this happen. These public legislators are in grave sin.”
In fact, on February 2, 2004, Archbishop Burke, with apostolic daring, challenged Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley, stating that if leading Democratic presidential candidate, pro-abortion ‘Catholic’ John Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, came up to [Burke] for the Eucharist, he Burke] would deny him Communion. Archbishop O’Malley still held to his false policy that Kerry would not be denied Communion in the Boston diocese.
On April 6, 2004, Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz, D.D., S.T.D., of the Lincoln, NE diocese, stated through his office to this writer that his diocese would deny Holy Communion to any manifest, persistent, obstinate sinner.
Referring to canon 915, Bishop Bruskewitz said, “We agree completely with Archbishop Raymond Burke in the action he has taken and we would take the same action in the diocese of Lincoln with regard to manifest, persistent, obstinate sinners, including politicians, regardless of which diocese they are from.”
Bishop Bruskewitz in May 15, 1996,l, issued a successful diocesan synodal law, still enforced today, which carries an automatic penalty of excommunication.
Informing all Catholics in his diocese of the list of dissenting organizations whose activities are contrary to the Catholic Faith, Bruskewitz has literally ‘cleaned house.’
In an exclusive interview with this writer (www.catholic.org), Bishop Robert Francis Vasa, M.Div., J.C.L., Bishop of Baker, Oregon, said in July 2004 that he absolutely would agree with Archbishop Burke and Bishop Bruskewitz’s canoncial diocesan disciplines.
Bishop Vasa said, “I literally could not give Holy Communion to a professed and actively committed pro-choice politician.”
In August, 2004, three Southern Catholic bishops promulgated diocesan wide disciplines which would deny the Eucharist to pro-abortion legislators in their dioceses. The bishops are Archbishop John F. Donoghue (Atlanta), Bishop Peter Jugis (Charlotte) and Bishop Robert J. Baker (Charleston).
In the past several years, only several other U.S. Bishops have made half hearted attempts to stop the sacrilegious Holy Communions and scandals caused by pro-abortion politicians in their dioceses. Unfortunately, they all stopped short of publicly promulgating a canonical notification of canon 915.
There is no easy way to find out if a politician in your diocese is Catholic unless he advertised himself as such. La Crosse’s Dr. Arthur Hippler, Director of Office of Justice and Peace told this writer:
“We have the so-called ‘Blue Book’, which lists politicians in the State of Wisconsin but the book doesn’t list religious denomination. We have no exact count how many Catholic politicians there are in the diocese. In the case of the politicians with whom His Excellency corresponded, he had letters from the lay faithful, asking him to address such-and-such politician, who was Catholic and pro-abortion. The Bishop was responding to scandal among the faithful.”
This confirms just how imperative it is for the laity to write letters and to send ‘denunciation packages’ to their Bishops in protest to these scandalous so-called Catholic pro-abortion legislators.
To help you do this, Chuck Wilson, Executive director of St. Joseph Foundation, San Antonio, TX , an independent apostolate comprised of canonical lawyers and advisors, have prepared a ‘generic denunciation package.’ It is available free of charge, with no obligation on your part, to anyone who wishes to denounce a politician to his bishop, who has the power to do something.
It would be up to the individual person (cosigners are also encouraged) to collect the evidence, but the simple package makes that preparation easier. Contact Chuck Wilson to email you your ‘generic denunciation package’ at: CWilson@St-Joseph-Foundation.org
Most everyone in La Crosse is waiting to see how the new Bishop, still unnamed, will uphold the notification. I spoke to La Crosse’s Chancellor, Mr. Benedict T. Nguyen about this.
“The new Bishop will understand the notification was given in response to the specific scandalous situations that existed in the diocese. If a new Bishop coming in says that these conditions have not been met, he would cause great confusion,” said Nguyen.
Archbishop Burke further clarified, “If there was a contradiction in this ‘notification’ with the next Bishop of La Crosse, the people certainly could go to Rome for clarification.”
The Code of Canon Law is not ‘Puritanism.’ The canonical laws are indeed the Church’s Sacred Discipline and are binding on Catholics who reject these laws and know they are rejecting the Church.
All diocesan priests and deacons are ecclesiastically bound to obey the canonical notification (c.915). Canon 915 places the responsibility on the minister – ‘ne admittantur’ – who, in some canonists’ opinion, could be punished according to canon 1389 §2, should he unlawfully administer the sacrament with the consequent danger of scandal for the rest of the faithful. In addition, canon 1339 prescribes the possibility of punishing any person who causes grave scandal by any violation of a divine or ecclesiastical law.
The Code of Canon Law (CIC), or “Codex Iuris Canonici” has always been in effect. It was codified in l917 and contained 2,414 canons. It was revised in l983 by Pope John Paul II and contains 1,752 canons.
Canon 915 is promulgated within CIC, Book IV, “The Sanctifying Office of the Church,” within Title III, “The Blessed Eucharist,” within Chapter I, “The Celebration of the Eucharist,” within Article 2, “Participation in the Blessed Eucharist.” Neither this canon 915 nor Bishop Burke’s ‘notification’ applies to the reception of the other Sacraments.
Cases considered in this canon 915 also include: 1] any interdict or excommunication ferendæ sententiæ (one inflicted by the superior); 2] the same penalties latæ sententiæ (inflicted by the perpetrator on himself…by his very act); 3] grave manifest sin, obstinately maintained, which could be the case of the estimated 500 Catholic pro-abortion politicians in the U.S.
Divorced and remarried Catholics also fall under this canon 915. As some canonists point out, citing Pope John Paul II, regarding canon 915: “In the case of the above 3], attention must be paid to the clear discipline of the church in cases of Catholics who: a) prefer to contract a merely civil marriage and who reject or at least defer the religious marriage; b) divorced persons who have remarried. In the first case, the pastors of the Church will, regrettably, not be able to admit them to the sacraments; and in the second case, the Church reaffirms its practice of not admitting them to Eucharistic communion from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church, which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (JPII, Ap.Exhort. FC nos. 82, 84; AAS nos. 74, l83, l85; TPS n. 27  § 71, 73; PCLT: HCDCRC).
The revised l997 CCC also addressed divorced and remarried Catholics, saying they may receive the Eucharist if, ‘they have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence’ (‘frater soror’ or as brother and sister) (CCC ¶ 1650).
Canon 915 is a ‘sacramental law’ that talks about the Eucharist and how not to suffer scandal; it is not a penal law. There are four parts to canon 915 that must be satisfied: 1) The sin must be obstinate; 2) the person in question must persist in the sin; 3) the person in question must be a ‘manifest’ (that is ‘public’) sinner; and, 4) it must be a grave sin. When all requirements are met, the Bishop, bound by canon 915 to protect the integrity of the Eucharist, must give the public notification to his priests and deacons not to allow sacrilegious Communions, and to not cause scandal to the people. The Bishop here is not putting ‘sanction’ on the persons in question; they have, in fact, fallen under the canon 915 sacramental prohibition themselves.
Some say there are contradictions concerning the canonical notification (c.915) and the application of justice of other ‘human rights.’ Let me explain.
On November 11, 2003, during the USCCB’s Fall plenary meeting of its 275 active bishop members, attempt was made by several bishops to consider which Catholic politicians who dissent from Magisterial teachings should be denied the Sacrament of Holy Communion, including the abuse of such human rights as the death penalty, questions of war and peace, the role of marriage and family, the rights of parents to choose the best education for their children, the priority for the poor, welcome for immigrants. These Bishops were trying to revive from the grave the late Cardinal Bernardin’s false ‘seamless garment theory.’
Archbishop Burke said on EWTN’s interview, “The ‘seamless garment’ can be interpreted incorrectly. Many fail to recognize the particular gravity of abortion and euthanasia. These are the gravest matters. If we care about abortion and euthanasia, all the other (human rights) will be therefore cared for.”
Some Catholics, both clergy and laity, falsely say that the death penalty is on a par with abortion and euthanasia, and therefore anyone who defends the death penalty should be disciplined under canon 915. Archbishop Burke says they are wrong:
“Pope John Paul II’s ‘Gospel of Life’ teaches clearly the death penalty is not on a par with abortion and euthanasia. Abortion is the greatest evil attack on innocent, defenseless life. John Paul II said it is difficult to understand why a State would have to put someone to death (EV n.56), but it is not a definite exclusion (CIC, c. 2267). To say the death penalty is on the same level is not correct.”
Chancellor Nguyen said, when asked if supporting the Iraq War, as some Bishops have claimed, was a condition for imposing canon 915, “Pope John Paul II certainly criticized the American invasion of Iraq, but he at no time ‘condemned’ the war, that is, issued a statement binding on the conscience of the faithful.”
Do the Bishops really believe that the above mentioned social issues constitute mortal sin and grounds of excommunication in the same way that abortion/euthanasia, cloning, IVF, sodomy, and contracepting do? Are these other human rights to be classed in the same category as infallible teachings in faith and morals? Alternatively, are our U.S. Bishops just creating a diversion against canon 915?
Do the Bishops now rescind what they stated back in 1998: “Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community” (LGL n.23).
Pope John Paul II teaches in his l988 Apostolic Exhortation, “Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights – for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture – is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination” (CL n.38).
Bishops are, as ‘Priest, Prophet and King,’ called to ‘govern’ and ‘correct.’ An unworthy public or private Holy Communion, willfully chosen by an obstinate, persistent, manifest sinner ‘of his own volition,’ is a grave, serious matter. When a ‘pro death’ Catholic politician disregards a bishop’s directive and comes to Holy Communion ‘of his own volition,’ and the bishop or priest does not deny them as canon 915 directs them to do, the bishop or priest is doing evil (CIC, n.1755), and what Pope Paul VI condemned when he said “one cannot do evil so that good may follow there from” (HV n.14; Rom.3:8). According to the principle of double effect, even in a moral dilemma the act in question must be good or at least neutral. One may not do evil in order to accomplish good. The end does not justify the means.
We next approach the erroneous understanding of separation of church and state and canon 915. Archbishop Burke said, “There’s an ongoing scandal in our country with pro abortion politicians. If they want to remain Catholic, they need to know how to act. They must publicly rescind their support for abortion and euthanasia. ‘What the majority wants’ is an erroneous argument if it is contrary to natural laws and God’s laws. A few decades of very weak catechesis manifested itself in confusion of what is truly right and truly wrong. My priests (in La Crosse) have been grateful for the clear direction of my Pastoral Letter. I have asked them to preach from it on the Sunday of January 18 or Sunday of January 25. I’ve told them to give the people the document to study.”
Regarding the proper understanding of separation of church and state, Chancellor Nguyen said, “Archbishop Burke is not asking the legislators to impose beliefs distinctive to the Catholic faith on an unwilling populace. It would be a sad day for America when only Catholics believe in the protection of innocent life. Rather, he is calling upon them to defend innocent human life, which is a basic responsibility of all civil institutions.
Archbishop Burke is not trying to ‘influence legislation.’ Rather, as a pastor of the faithful in the Diocese, Archbishop Burke is protecting the dignity of the sacraments, and addressing the grave scandal of Catholic legislators who fail to defend innocent life. It is the obligation of the Bishop to follow canon law for the salvation of souls.”
The CDF’s ‘Doctrinal Note’ regarding the participation of Catholics in politics (November 24, 2002): “John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them [DN n.4; cf. JPII, EV n.73].
Shortly after the CDF’s issuance of ‘Doctrinal Note,’ in the CDW’s December, 2002 Notitiae edition, we read from its former Prefect, Cardinal Medina-Estevez:
“Another fundamental right of the faithful, as noted in Canon 213, is ‘the right to receive assistance by the sacred Pastors from the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the Sacraments’. In view of the law that ‘sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them if they are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them’ (Canon 843 ¶1), there should be no such refusal to any Catholic who presents himself for Holy Communion at Mass, except in cases presenting a danger of grave scandal to other believers arising out of the person’s unrepented public sin or obstinate heresy or schism, publicly professed or declared.”
In January 2003, two months after the CDF’s ‘Doctrinal Note’ was issued, both Massachusetts’ Senators Kennedy and Kerry cited church-state separation as their guiding principle. Kerry, who is running for president, said: “As a Catholic, I have enormous respect for the words and teachings of the Vatican, but as a public servant I’ve never forgotten the lasting legacy of President Kennedy, who made clear that in accordance with the separation of church and state no elected official should be ‘limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation [sic].’ ”
The Pope and diocesan bishops possess legislative power and they have a right to enact laws for their dioceses, including penal laws, which impose latæ sententiæ penalties (canon 1315, canon 1318). The Church has an innate and proper right to coerce offending members by means of penal laws or sacramental disciplines (canon 1311).
The Code of Canon Law further instructs bishops: “A person is to be punished with a just penalty, who, at a public event or assembly, or in a published writing, or by otherwise using the means of social communication, utters blasphemy, or gravely harms public morals, or rails at or excites hatred of or contempt for religion or the Church” (canon 1369).
Furthermore, the Code of Canon Law states that “A person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latæ sententiæ excommunication” (canon 1398), and “[those] who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” (canon 915).
Charles Wilson, Executive Director of The Saint Joseph Foundation said, “Dust has gathered on the canon law books of bishops across the country. The bishops haven’t used the Church’s penal system in years, despite obvious and serious canonical infractions especially by Catholic politicians,” he said.
Known courageous world bishops who did uphold canon 915 include Archbishop George Pell of Sydney. Moreover, San Diego’s Bishop Leo Maher, in l989, informed Catholic pro-abortion assemblywoman Lucy Killea that she was banned from receiving Holy Communion under canon 915. Yet, neighboring Bishop Quinn of Sacramento criticized Maher and told Killea she could receive in his diocese, anytime, any place. In 2001, the Archbishop of Lima and Primate of Peru, Juan Luis Cardinal Cipriani and Calgary Bishop Fred Henry, 2003, both said they would deny Communion according to canon 915. Mexican Cardinal Norberto Rivera in l999 said pro abortion Catholics in his diocese were excommunicated.
The Catholic Church consistently teaches that Catholics who are in the state of grave sin should not receive Holy Communion, for this itself is a grave sin and a sign of grave contradiction. St. Paul teaches this in 1 Cor. 11:27-29, as does the CCC (1385, 1415). Even in the parish Missalettes throughout the U.S., Catholics who are in grave sin are warned not to receive the Eucharist (11/29/99 NCCB).
St. Thomas Aquinas answers, “A distinction must be made among sinners: some are secret; others are notorious, either from evidence of the fact, as public usurers, or public robbers or from being denounced as evil men by some ecclesiastical or civil tribunal. Therefore Holy Communion ought not to be given to open sinners when they ask for it” (STh, III: q 80: art 6).
Today, abortion is thriving. Abortion clinics supply the medical establishment a virtually endless supply of human tissue that would otherwise be unavailable had our Catholic Bishops enforced canon 915. Pharmaceutical companies and research hospitals all pay top dollars for organs, limbs and tissue from l.5 million ‘recorded’ aborted babies each year. How many unborn children would have surely been saved from the death of abortion had the 195 Bishops, 30 years ago, spoken out on the canonical law canon 915?
Six Bishops out of the 195 U.S. dioceses had the rectitude of intention to follow the clearly defined canonical disciplines of the Catholic Church. Before Vatican II, clergy were vigilant to protect the Eucharist from sacrilege. Today, most clergy are more likely to deny the Eucharist to the faithful whose posture is one of reverent kneeling, rather than standing.
Bishop Bruskewitz’s Vicar General, Monsignor Timothy J. Thorburn, J.C.L., addressed this writer’s question of whether Lincoln’s synodal law applied to legislators from other dioceses that were manifestly pro-abortion. Monsignor Thorburn answered it is best for ministers of Holy Communion to err on the side of reverence of the Eucharist:
“If I had denied holy Communion to someone who is known to be manifest, persistent and obstinate in his grave sin and he later demonstrates that he had, in fact, publicly denied his promotion of, say, abortion, I then would publicly apologize to him.”
Archbishop Burke said the most compelling reason why he issued the canonical notification (c.915) was the many letters written by his flock to press him to refuse the Eucharist to pro-abortion politicians. “It’s a serious situation in our country; we need more good statesmen…I did not excommunicate these politicians; however, if they persist in their sin in a public way, there will be further disciplines against the politicians.”
There we have it, our marching orders! Let us start lobbying (writing letters, making phone calls, sending emails, mailing denunciation packages) to our Bishops today! Tell them the sacrilegious Communions by pro-abortion politicians scandalize you.
Abbreviations: AN = Acerbo nimis; AAS = Acta Apostolicae Sedis; EE = Ecclesia De Eucharistia; EV = Evangelium vitae; FC = Familiaris consortio; CIC = Codex Iuris Canonici or Code of Canon Law; CCC = Catechism of Catholic Church; NCCB = National Conference of Catholic Bishops; USCCB = United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; CL = Christifideles laici; CDF = Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; CDW = Congregation of Divine Worship; TPS = The Pope speaks; LGL = Living the Gospel of Life; DN = Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life; c. = Canon; PG = Patrologia Graeca; HV = Humanae vitae; JPII = Pope John Paul II; STh = Summa Theologiæ; HI = Homiliæ in Isaiam; PCLT = Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; HCDCRC = Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics.
© Barbara Kralis – 2004
Barbara Kralis, the article’s author, writes for various Christian and conservative publications. She is a regular columnist at Catholic Online, RenewAmerica.us, Life Issues, The Wanderer newspaper, New Oxford Review Magazine, Washington Dispatch, Catholic Citizens, Illinois Leader, NewsBull, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Phil Brennan’s WOW, ChronWatch and others. Her first journalism position was with Boston Herald Traveler, l964. Barbara published and edited ‘Semper Fidelis’ Catholic print newsletter. She and her husband, Mitch, live in the great State of Texas, and co-direct the Jesus Through Mary Catholic Foundation. She can be reached at: Avemaria@earthlink.net
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Barbara Kralis – Director, 903-532-5555