Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, September 30, 2004

A New Donatism? 

The ongoing debacle that I like to call 'CommunionGate' has spurred another round of discussion on St. Blog's. In particular, a fine blog by the name of The Fifth Column has given us a recent commentary, which makes the future of our Church in the United States appear somewhat bleak. There are a few aspects of Steven's commentary, however, with which I would beg to differ, and, with his indulgence, offer some constructive commentary of my own.

First, as regards the canonical dimension of Eucharistic denial, I refer readers to Dr. Edward Peters' fine Canonical Case Study of the denial of communion to pro-abortion politicians. Steven, you see, begins with a relatively sane assumption - that pro-abortion politicians should be denied communion - then leaps the canonical gorge to the grave sanction of excommunication, and then on to nationwide interdict. The well-known canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, as Dr. Peters demonstrates, involves a fairly restrictive aspect of sacramental discipline, and is not a formal, ecclesiastical penal canon. Hence, no other ecclesiastical penalties (e.g., excommunication or interdict) could follow from the application of c. 915, nor would they be justified by this canon. They would involve extensive ecclesiastical and juridical formalities, namely, a formal canonical trial, which would certainly involve recourse to Rome in this case.

Secondly, some theological questions. Steven, in his discussion of sacrilege and communion, seems to confuse what moral theologians refer to as the distinction between formal and material sin. As the Catholic Encyclopedia defines it,

"An action which, as a matter of fact, is contrary to the Divine law but is not known to be such by the agent constitutes a material sin; whereas formal sin is committed when the agent freely transgresses the law as shown him by his conscience."
Thus, the act of cooperating in abortion or sacrilege might well be material sins, or even grave material sins; this does not, for that purpose, render them formal sins. A formal sin is constituted by an individual's being both subjectively aware of the sinfulness of that action, and wilfully intent on carrying out the sinful matter involved in the action.

Steven mistakenly predicates the denial of communion upon the recipient's being in a 'state of grace.' Canon 915, however, does not require this; it requires only that the recipient be in a state of manifest grave sin. Hence, a public official who publicly and deliberately cooperates in the crime of abortion can and ought to be denied the Eucharist, regardless of the state of his soul. One cannot, however, reason from a person's state of grave sin to that person's spiritual condition. Neither the Church's theological teaching nor her canonical judgments permit us to go that route.

When, therefore, we move towards a consideration of a minister's culpability in the crime of sacrilege, we are on dangerous ground. 'Sacrilege,' as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2120 consists in "profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God. Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist, for in this sacrament the true Body of Christ is made substantially present for us." The footnotes for this paragraph take us to the Code of Canon Law, which reserves the penalty of excommunication only for the cleric who 'throws away' or steals the Eucharist for a sacreligious purpose (c. 1367). No specific canonical penalty is prescribed for other offenses, nor is an ecclesiastical trial mandated.

Certainly, when the Eucharist is received unworthily, a profanation occurs. But the culpability for this act, it seems, would fall squarely on the shoulders of the unworthy communicant (though not, mind you, the responsibility for its occurence, nor the culpability for scandal, which is quite another matter altogether). The minister of the sacrament would only share in this culpability to the extent that he (a) is fully aware, not only that the recipient is in a state of objective sin, but that he is not in a subjective state of grace, and that, as a result, the act which is being carried out is a sacrilege; and (b) fully intends that an act of sacrilege be committed. These are the normal conditions for any formal cooperation with evil to be committed. Otherwise, the cooperation is purely material, making the culpability of the ministerial party quite minimal. And, as can be deduced, the possibility of these conditions being present are virtually nil, in any case.

Hence, Steven's claim that 'every bishop who administers the Eucharist to [public sinners] is committing a grave sin by knowingly participating in the profanation of the Eucharist' falls short of reality (even, again, if it is true that he commits a sin by effecting scandal). The act of participating in sacrilege would not, seemingly, be committed knowingly, nor would the offense necessarily be grave (except in its objective manifestation). His conclusion, that 'that same bishop must also refuse the Eucharist to any consecrated man who administers the sacrament to [John] Kerry' also does not follow. To return to canon 915, the denial of communion requires that the crime on the part of the recipient be (a) manifest, (b) obstinate, and (c) grave, as Dr. Peters demonstrates in the article cited above. While it might certainly be true that a pro-abortion politician falls into this category (and therefore, that the denial of communion is justified), it is not at all clear that the minister who distributes communion in this case falls into this category. For this, it would be required that this bishop (a) publicly flout, not only his willingness to give communion to a public sinner, but the fact that he has in fact done so; (b) absolutely refuse to repent of this action, even when warned by an appropriate authority of the possible sanctions that will follow if he so refuses (in this case, most likely the Holy See); and (c) it would have to be demonstrated that Eucharistic profanation does indeed constitute grave matter (and this does seem to be the case, it seems to me).

But, finally, even if a bishop were, in accordance with c. 915, denied communion by another bishop, this would not per se constitute a cessation of either bishop's communion with the other, or of either bishop's communion with the Catholic Church as a whole. As I have said above, along with Dr. Peters, c. 915 deals with a mere matter of sacramental discipline, and does not involve the formal penal sanctions which would bring about a cessation of formal, ecclesiastical communion. Much less would a formal schism occur. A case in point. The New York times carried a rather shocking article yesterday involving a certain bishop's indictment on charges of child rape. Now, granted that none of us know the credibility of such an accusation (from what I've heard, this bishop would be the last to commit such a heinous action), if one of his fellow bishops were to find grounds for believing it, and to turn the former bishop away from the communion line, we would not for that purpose have a schism in the Church. We would have a simple case of one bishop not giving communion to another. Both would remain bishops, and both would remain in communion with one another and with the Holy See. To state otherwise would be to confuse subjective moral disposition with objective ecclesiastical affiliation.

Thirdly, a problem of methodology. Steven begins his article with the claim that, according to the judgment of the USCCB, 'heresy is diocese-specific.' He goes on, however, to discuss the crimes of abortion and sacrilege. I fail to see, in either case, where formal heresy is involved. Both of these are moral crimes, not heresy, which involves a public and obstinate denial of a tenet of the Church's faith. Now, this is more than a mere quibble with terminology. The problem of heresy is a very grave one. If a bishop were, Lord forbid, to involve himself in formal heresy, we would indeed be in grave straits. Not that a bishop's commission of grave sin (even if that were proven to my satisfaction, which it has not) is any less serious, but it certainly carries less weight in the canonical-juridical sphere. We would, in the former case, have solid grounds for the highest level of disciplinary action, if not penal sanction. Schism would be a sobering possibility. I have to say, I sweated when I began reading this article, fearful that formal heresy had been committed by one of our shepherds. When I realized that what we had on hand was a matter of sinful shepherds, I heaved a sigh of relief. Sinful shepherds, my friend, are nothing new; as Steven himself cited, in the English Rebellion, all of England's shepherds save one bowed to Henry and severed ties with Rome. Concluding that we are in the end times, that the apocalypse is upon us, as some in St. Blog's are wont to do, does not to me seem justified. Rather, it seems somewhat historically short-sighted.

What I fear, among the faithful in our modern Church, is a tendency towards what I call a 'New Donatism.' The Donatists, of course, were a fourth-century North African separatist movement defined by a rigorist morality and a narrow ecclesiology. When a bishop who had apostasized during the Diocletian persecution - and subsequently repented - involved himself in subsequent ordinations, a pocket of his fellow bishops protested, insisting that the act of apostasy represented a moral impediment to the juridical validity of sacramental action. Though few today would be guilty of Donatist sacramentology, more than a few, in my opinion, are in danger of falling into a Donatist ecclesiology, or rather, a Donatist manner of 'thinking about Church.' For the Donatists, in the end, the sinfulness of clergy constitute an obstacle to the realization of Church. The Donatist Church was a static reality, shuttered and unyielding, a martyr Church whose moral brilliance was only outshone by her refusal to brook sinners within her midst. Yet, paradoxically, the holiness of the Donatist Church was rendered unstable and feeble, since even the moral taints of a handful of clergy were enough to stain it.

It was, then, the Church of St. Augustine which became our inheritance. This Church bears a holiness which bears a cosmic and metaphysical stability, a holiness so sure that the willful rebellion of its members - even its highest members - can do nothing to shake. For the holiness of the Church itself is merely the 'shadow' of a higher holiness, that of Christ and the heavenly city; it is from this city that the supra-natural potency of the Church's rites springs. And it is not enough that these rites are administered by holy men; rather, it is they that make men holy. And it is by making men holy, not merely by containing holy men, that the Church gathers the inheritance of the nations to her bosom.

This is not to say we must lapse into a laxist morality, or even that we must lower our expectations of our Church's clergy. It is rather to say that, above all else, we must never lose sight of that queen of virtues, the fraternal bond of charity, which is exactly the bond of unity which binds us together as a Church. It is against this charity that the Donatists sinned, when they determined to violate the Church's unity to entering into schism, however worthy or unworthy their doctrinal or moral motivations:

"On the question of baptism, then, . . . and since this is a most manifest schism which is called by the name of the Donatists, it only remains that on the subject of baptism we should believe with pious faith what the universal Church maintains, apart from the sacrilege of schism. And yet, if within the Church different men still held different opinions on the point, without meanwhile violating peace, then till some one clear and simple decree should have been passed by an universal Council, it would have been right for the charity which seeks for unity to throw a veil over the error of human infirmity, as it is written 'For charity shall cover the multitude of sins.' For, seeing that its absence causes the presence of all other things to be of no avail, we may well suppose that in its presence there is found pardon for the absence of some missing things" (De Baptismo Contra Dontatistas, 1.18.27).

# posted by Jamie : 3:17 PM


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