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A Primer on Canon 915

2/5/2004 - 11:30 AM PST

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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 latć sententić 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 latć sententić 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 Theologić; HI = Homilić 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,, 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:

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Canon 915

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