Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Confusion on Abortion, Confession, and the Pope's Letter

Guest Blogger, Benedict T. Nguyen

There is a lot of confusion going on today about the Pope’s letter on the Year of Mercy, and not just from the mainstream media either. The bulk of the confusion concerns the Pope's apparent grant of the ability of confessors to absolve the sin of abortion.  

Unfortunately, I believe some of the problem is due to the Pope’s letter itself being somewhat confusing on this point. I have an article that is about to come out on the ambiguities of the letter and I’ll link to it when it does but in the meantime, the following is my take on it.

Several questions have arisen. What exactly is the Pope granting here?  Aren’t priests already able to absolve sins in confession including abortion?  What about the “latae sentientiae” (or “automatic”) excommunication involved with the sin of abortion under canon 1398? Understanding some canonical background and principles greatly helps to bring some clarity on this.

Prior to the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there were some sins that were considered “reserved sins,” i.e. sins for which absolution was reserved to the bishop or to Rome.  The Eastern Catholic Churches have retained this practice (see CCEO, can. 728) but the Latin Church did not retain the practice of “reserved sins” in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.  The Latin Church did however retain the practice of reserved PENALTIES, that is, certain canonical penalties that in particular circumstances can only be lifted by a bishop or by Rome (see can. 1355).

What many people are missing is that abortion is BOTH a sin (contra the 5th commandment) and ALSO carries with it the penalty of “latae sententiae” (so-called “automatic”) excommunication (cf. can. 1398) which can only be lifted by an Ordinary, mainly the Diocesan Bishop.

The first crucial thing to keep in mind is that there are two distinct though related things going on here – the SIN of abortion and the PENALTY of excommunication associated with it.  The SIN of abortion must be absolved since mortal sin is a moral condition.  However, in addition, the PENALTY of excommunication must be lifted since it is a canonical penalty with outward juridic consequences (see can. 1331). So two things must be done for the penitent, the lifting of the penalty of excommunication and then the forgiveness of the sin of abortion.

A second crucial point must be kept in mind – despite the misleading term “automatic” that many use for the excommunication, a “latae sententiae” excommunication does NOT necessarily apply or fully apply if there are certain exempting circumstances (see can. 1323) or possibly mitigating circumstances (see can. 1324). Furthermore, if the excommunication has not been declared by a competent authority, the effects do not fully kick in (see can. 1335).  When we look at these circumstances, it is rather unlikely that nowadays a Catholic woman, or another person such as a husband or boyfriend who was an accomplice who has committed the sin of abortion, has also incurred the penalty of excommunication.  A good confessor would discern through good questions whether or not there were the exempting circumstances of canon 1323.

Now, given all of that, if a penitent has committed the sin of abortion but is not determined to have also incurred the penalty of excommunication, a Latin priest who has the ability to hear the confession has always, since 1983, been able to absolve the sin.  However, if a penitent has committed the sin of abortion AND is determined to have incurred the excommunication, a priest hearing that person’s confession must refer the person to the bishop so that the bishop can lift the excommunication (cf. can. 1355.2)  so that the penitent can receive sacramental absolution which he would not, under normal circumstances be able to receive if he were still under excommunication (see can. 1323.1.2). In most dioceses in the U.S. and in Europe, however, bishops have delegated this ability to lift the penalty of excommunication to all priests who have the faculty to hear confessions so that they can also immediately give them absolution from the sin.

Since the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Latin Rite priests who are able to hear confessions have always had the ability to absolve from the sin of abortion but not necessarily the ability to lift the penalty of excommunication, unless their bishop has allowed them to do so, which again, almost every diocese in the U.S. does already allow. Thus, currently, in just about every diocese in the U.S. and Europe, if a person comes and confesses the sin of abortion, the priest can both absolve the person from the sin of abortion AND lift the excommunication if the excommunication was in fact incurred (i.e. there were no exempting circumstances). 

We now see the problem with Pope Francis’ letter – it clearly only grants priests the ability to FORGIVE THE SIN of abortion and says NOTHING about the ability to LIFT THE EXCOMMUNICATION.  But even if it did, most priests in most dioceses already are also able to lift the excommunication.  The Pope’s letter leaves us scratching our heads as to what additionally has he granted in the letter that most priests don’t already have the ability to do. 

There are also some other unresolved questions that the letter raises in my mind, such as whether in granting this to ALL priests, this includes priests who are “laicized,” priests who are under penalty of suspension or who have had their faculties revoked, etc.?  Also, does the Pope’s grant (whatever it is) here trump the ability of the local bishop to restrict a priest’s faculty to hear confessions in these cirucumstances?

Some other questions also remain regarding the grant of the ability to absolve sins validly and licitly to the priests of the Society of St. Pius X but I won’t go into those here. I do raise it in my upcoming article though.

I hope these observations can help to clarify the misunderstandings that many are having regarding this issue and to flag some of the problems in the Pope’s letter. It is also my hope that Rome comes out with some clarifications on this soon.

Benedict Nguyen, M.T.S., J.D./J.C.L., D.Min (ABD)
Canonical Counsel & Theological Advisor
Diocese of Corpus Christi, TX

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Of missions and mercy

In case some of you are keeping track, we have completed another cross-country move. God's mysterious ways have brought our family to the Lone Star State. That's right. We're now Texans.

Why did we move again? Many people have asked me this question. The short answer is that my husband works for the Church. He is good at Churchy stuff. It's what he does best. While the Church can be a wonderful place to work, let's just say it has some quirks. Instability can be one of them. Many people who have worked for dioceses or apostolates know this to be true. Many people have found this to be discouraging, that lay people who have families would be subjected to fluctuating paychecks, low salaries for high academic requirements, and the interesting dynamic that the absence or change of a bishop brings to a diocese. I used to struggle with that. In fact, to my shame, I have even caught myself telling my children not to work for the Church. I know they don't take to heart everything I say. I hope they don't remember that one.

This past May, a colleague and friend of my husband's greeted my children and me at the last graduation ceremony for a program he had created. Instead of being filled with bitterness at events that had unfolded to cause the program's end, he spoke to my children with words of fatherly wisdom and encouragement. He knew we were on our way to moving to another part of the country, and he remembered the struggles his own children had experienced during the time when his own job was in transition. He told them not to let these times discourage them in their faith or cloud the way they see the Church. He shared how his children, now grown, look back upon their teen years as a time of growing in faith and strengthening them in the skills of meeting new people and being able to adjust to change. This prepared them to be Christ's disciples, ready to deal with life's peaks and valleys, and readied them for their work as adults in the faith.

It was a sobering encounter with a chasm I had created. I was willing to follow Christ, but when the road got rocky, I would complain about the journey and curse the road Christ was leading me on. He has picked this road especially for me. He knows that I need to be challenged, and that I whine when I am. He knows that I need to be humbled in the compassionate words of a wise man who would contradict my bad advice to my children.

In the past, young people have asked me how we got started working for the Church. They were on fire for their faith, and they couldn't wait to get out there and set the world ablaze with the light of Christ. Too often, I have looked at them with tired eyes and the battle wounds of a seasoned soldier just ready to go home. I regret this lack of enthusiasm, this subtle attempt to dampen their spirit. It was pride that told me if they knew what I know, they would bolt.

I believe that our country is in the midst of a great awakening. As I look around, I see that many people are just starting to realize how strong we are going to have to be in our convictions, how much courage it is going to take just to live our faith in our everyday lives. A new generation of Catholics is on the horizon, ready to fight the battles and win souls for Christ, equipped with fresh supplies of the New Evangelization and the heritage of good catechesis and renewed faith. Regardless of momentary slips in judgment or bad counsel I gave them, mercifully, I see it in my children's eyes. They know they are called to mission. They know the time for witness is now, and they are ready for spiritual combat.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Out of an endless summer

This year I missed out on experiencing the seasons as I always had. We moved to Florida from Wisconsin last summer, and I didn't anticipate how a year without dramatic changes in temperature would make me feel.

There were many things to appreciate. Not having to scrounge for socks, hats, mittens, or coats. Getting to keep out my summer clothes year-round. Not having to shovel snow or drive on icy roads. Going strawberry picking in January. Taking walks outside without having to bundle up.

But there were times when the good weather bothered me. And I couldn't make sense of it until I realized, quite suddenly, that it was already May. In Wisconsin, May is a beautiful month. Flowers are starting to sprout from their bulbs. The trees are budding. Neighbors come out to greet each other after a long winter spent indoors. Everything is coming to life again. And we celebrate Our Lady who brought Light into the world.

In Florida, May is also a beautiful month. Every day is beautiful. So I guess that's what hit me. Every. Day. Is. Beautiful. There is no winter hardship here that binds people together in suffering and compassion. No frozen darkness out of which the great warmth of spring emerges. No sense of joyful anticipation. Only an expectation that each day will be as beautiful as the last.

I have often heard the question, "Why would an all-powerful and loving God permit us to suffer so terribly in this life?" People don't deny that suffering is a part of life. Suffering is inevitable and universally recognized. But the question remains.

So many people have friends, money, and power. Yet true happiness eludes them. Each day is a fulfillment of their physical desires, yet the soul cannot be quenched. They have an expectation all needs will be met, and they find themselves dulled to appreciate even the temporal pleasures that they once pursued so vigorously. They become difficult to please and even harder to live with.

Attempting to live a life free of suffering is like wishing to read a book without the conflict. Yawn. We all love an inspiring tale of heroic bravery or overcoming great obstacles, yet we tend to flee at first indication of personal sacrifice. Our lives are a great story being written with all the peaks and valleys that come with it. Aren't the peaks more triumphant when the valleys have been deeper? Absolutely. And so it shall be in our heavenly home.

An answer that has come to me in the experience of an endless summer.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Fifty Shades: What hits the fan

Ladies, who are we kidding with this? Ourselves. Each other. If you have happened upon this series, and participated in reading them, I will chalk it up to a moment of weakness, of indiscretion, perhaps of temporary insanity. But you insist upon defending this insipid junk porn, or worse, recommending it to others, I must take issue with you. You cannot blame anyone but yourselves for the perpetuation of ignorant female characters in literature, for the promotion of domestic violence, and for the misdirection of our daughters into the hands of men who will devalue them in every way.
After researching this vapid piece of cultural excrement that is known as "Fifty Shades," I have come up with a list of responses to those who would attempt to defend it. Many of them are analogies to eating poop.
Gullable and undiscerning: I wanted to read it just to see what all the fuss was about, and I had to finish reading it, because I always finish what I start.
Translation: Everyone was eating this thing, and I realized halfway through that it was poop, but I thought, well, I always finish what I start. (See Ratatouille. Q."What are you eating?" A."I don't really know.")
Lusty lady: Well, the violence and dominating aspects bothered me a little, but it really energized my sex life.
Translation: So, I ate this giant pile of poop, and buried deep within it was some chocolate that really gave me a sugar rush. It's not for everyone, but it really helped me.
Hopelessly delusional: It's only the first book in which he abuses her. He's really just hurting on the inside. After reading all the books, you can see that she heals him from his brokenness.
Translation: I ate this poop because everyone told me I could eat candy for dessert. (AND, by the way, isn't the abused woman's mantra, "Oh, you just don't know him like I do." Mix with a big dose of "I can change him," and call me when you're an emotional and physical wreck. Or dead. You could be dead, but then you couldn't call.)
Bandwagoner: I saw that everybody was reading this book, and I thought it looked a littler naughtier than my usual reads, but I had to read it to keep up with the culture. It's harmless fun.
Translation: I knew it was a big pile of poop, but everyone was eating. It's fun to eat something other than what I usually eat, and I didn't want to be left out of talking about how fun it was to eat the poop.
Avid reader: Well, at least it gets people reading.
Translation: Better to eat poop than to starve.

Finally, one thing to ask yourselves...
If Christian Grey sported a mullet and a handlebar moustache, wore a grease-stained t-shirt with flannel pajama pants, lived in his parents' basement, had missing teeth and bad breath, would his behavior still excite you?
If the answer is no, you have been seduced into accepting a horrifying and damaging situation by the glitz and glamor of a wealthy, high-powered, and well-groomed monster.

Don't see the movie. Don't promote the books. Don't laugh it off. Spread the word. It's not too late.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Je suis Flopsy

Oh, rabbits. Lots of people are talking about them. Their cuteness, their reputation as prolific procreators, their improvident nature.

The term, "rabbits," is well known by faithful Catholic women. When directed at a Catholic woman who has been given the gift of fertility, is taken to be a slur because it is a slur. I remember hearing this metaphorical term attributed to irresponsible procreation for the first time in college.

A college friend of mine was showing me around the campus. Our dorm was situated on the top of the hill. As she guided me along, she pointed out a row of broken-down, sad-looking buildings that were littered with dirty toys and tricycles.

"Those are the rabbit hutches," she pointed out with a nod and a wink.

"Rabbit hutches?" I asked.

"Yeah, you know, married student housing. Breeding like rabbits?"

It was my introduction to a mentality that would strike fear into the hearts of all young women who ended up with an unplanned pregnancy. The rabbit hutches served as a sort of cautionary tale, a symbol of derailed dreams and compromises.

"Oh, God, I don't want to end up there," I remember thinking.

Fast forward a year and a half later. A trip to the student health center. What was one of the images that flashed through my mind as the health worker read me the result of my pregnancy test?

Those stupid rabbit hutches.

I had earned the insult, I thought. I was one of them. I became a rabbit, and I was making other rabbits. I was irresponsible, impulsive, and extremely fertile. And so was my boyfriend who I ended up marrying as soon as we had our baby bunny.

Fortunately, we were able to prepare for our marriage with a pretty fantastic priest who had us read encyclicals about marriage. We attended Natural Family Planning courses that helped form us in God's plan for married love as being open to life while having the knowledge about fertility.

I am glad that we got to have such fantastic formation, but what is sometimes left unsaid is that NFP can have a bit of a learning curve. And it might take a few bunnies to master. And, gosh darn it, isn't that a huge part of marriage anyway?

That being said, the narrative of the out-of-control mindless rabbits, I would suspect, is one that hits a nerve with many faithful Catholic women. Because we've heard it whispered in the grocery store as we pass by with a cart-full of kids. Because we've been shocked by our own fertility. Because we've had to sacrifice and give up marital relations on the only days that we have desire (ladies, you know this to be true). Because we've struggled with difficult pregnancies. Because we've been mocked by our own family members. Because we've been haunted by the image of a house that is dirty and in disrepair...and how would we be witnessing to life if people saw how our children have torn clothes and run recklessly through the streets causing mayhem?

Just today, I read a delightful post by Father Dwight Longenecker about the March for Life. His post reformed this slur into an image of adorable humility and bravery...and humor. Just picture it... hundreds of thousands of bunnies marching for life. Demonstrating the beauty of fertility. In your face. Many other women, after getting through their initial hurt at an off-the-cuff and I'm going to say rather reckless comment, have joined in on the teasing. It is a good and healthy thing to find humor in these situations.

Another one of my friends wrote a little comment about Flopsy bunny. For those of you who may not be familiar with Flopsy, I urge you to read the Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter. It's in the second grade curriculum for many homeschool and independent schools. Potter describes Benjamin and his wife, Flopsy, to be "improvident"...not concerned about the future. From a human standpoint, the reader might be tempted to feel superior to these foolish rabbits. 

Instead of feeling superior to Flopsy, I have found myself warmly united to her in all her "rabbitness." Perhaps she and Benjamin had too many children too quickly. They didn't have enough to eat, and they had to scrounge for food. Benjamin had been killed trying to do just that. Maybe they weren't always "responsible." But one thing is clear. Flopsy loves her children. She grooms them, she disciplines them, and she does so with great care and concern. Benjamin and Flopsy had four bunnies..Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter...and probably would have had more if not for the untimely death of Benjamin. They were, after all, rabbits.

It is said that the best way to conquer an insult is to transform it. So let's talk about rabbits. So what if the rabbit hutches are laughed at and the eye-rolls abound when we bring all of our kids to the store at once? Rabbits. So what if the society and even some in the Church suggest that I am being irresponsible because I'm trying to live according to how my well-formed conscience and the Church have encouraged me throughout two thousand years of doctrinal consistency? Rabbits. In entrusting my fertility to God, I have to call myself improvident, in the sense that I trust in God's providence. Any amount of planning could be derailed by another, better plan that God has for my life. Married life has taught me that. So call me a rabbit. I am like one. And if you knew what ultimate joy there is in being "like a rabbit," you'd hope to be like one too.

Je suis Flopsy! And I love my rabbits.