An Explanation, not an Excuse: Canon 915 and the American Episcopate Pt. II

Pt II: McCarrick Doctrine

In the previous article, we sketched the history of the Modus Vivendi, or way of life, of Catholic participation in American politics. Catholics will be tolerated, so long as they forswear letting their faith inform their moral choices. This was first articulated by John F. Kennedy during his successful presidential run sixty years ago and remains implicitly in effect to this day, the most prominent recent example being the hostility shown to Amy Comey Barrett’s faith during her confirmation hearings.

All these intricacies and tensions in the Catholic political space mean little at the Vatican, concerned with the entire world and the faith as a whole. This has caused friction in the past (there was even an Americanist heresy) but of all the points of friction between the American Catholic Church and Rome, perhaps none are so embarrassing or threatening to the Modus Vivendi than Canon 915. This has reached a breaking point with the presidency of Joe Biden, a baptized Catholic who regularly presents himself for Holy Communion but consistently promotes anti-life positions.

Canon 915 is a law or rule of the Church that seeks to enforce the scriptural command that persons in a state of mortal sin are not to present themselves for Communion:

“Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.” Corinthians 27-30 New American Bible

The Canon reads as follows:

“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.”

In terms of threatening the Modus Vivendi, this is an act of war. The Church would be vilified in the press for attempting to influence politics. Catholics’ loyalty would be questioned. The seat at the table, hundreds of years in the earning, would be taken away. 

The Vatican has been unsympathetic. In 2004, The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith published a document entitled  “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles”  written by then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. The document explicitly clarifies that anti-life politicians are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” and that they are not to be given Holy Communion.

This was so disastrous for the Modus Vivendi that then-Cardinal McCarrick allegedly hid the true contents of the letter during a 2005 conference about the matter of admitting pro-aboriton politicians to Communion. This was much to the chagrin of the then-Archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Raymond Burke. Questions of intentional manipulation remain to this day. 

The American episcopate took the path of splitting the baby by making it a diocese by diocese decision, which is blatantly illegal and puts the onus of breaking the “truce” on individual bishops. These bishops are well aware that they will stand alone against media outrage.

There have been several cases of priests who have refused Communion to Democrat politicians, and those priests were publicly rebuked. When a South Carolina priest refused then-candidate Biden Communion, leading lights in American Catholicism, such as Father James Martin and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, condemned him. 

This attitude has been rationalized by what’s known as “McCarrick Doctrine.” The McCarrick Doctrine can be summed up in three statements by Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop (Now Cardinal) Cupich, and Cardinal Weurl:

“There is significant concern about the perception that the sacred nature of the Eucharist could be trivialized and might be turned into a partisan political battleground.” – Former Cardinal McCarrick, Interim Task Force’s Reflections on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians Statement, 2004

“I would not use the Eucharist or as they call it the communion rail as the place to have those discussions or way in which people would be either excluded from the life of the Church. The Eucharist is an opportunity of grace and conversion. It’s also a time of forgiveness of sins. -Archbishop Cupich on Face the Nation, 2014

“We never -– the Church just didn’t use Communion this way. It wasn’t a part of the way we do things, and it wasn’t a way we convinced Catholic politicians to appropriate the faith and live it and apply it; the challenge has always been to convince people,” – Cardinal Wuerl, 2009 Interview with Huffington Post

The McCarrick Doctrine is a pastoral objection to enforcing doctrine and has always been flagrantly contrary to Canon 915, which makes no exceptions on prudential and pastoral grounds. The pastoral argument in particular falls flat on its face because, after seventeen years of the McCarrick Doctrine, there has been little conversion but much scandal. 

But is Modus Vivendi even worth protecting? It has never really benefited the Church other than allowing people who are Catholic-in-name-only be elected to office. Instead of advancing Catholic interests, it does the exact opposite, once again demonstrating that even implicit compromises with the world end in disaster. The only “benefit” it brings is the avoidance of conflict, but we know that the Gospel will cause conflict:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.’” Matthew 10: 34-36

The McCarrick Doctrine outlines the limits of dialogue as well. The private dialogue and discussions on abortion with politicians has been going on for decades. During this period of dialogue, the Church has lost ground and the Democrats have escalated from “Safe, Legal and Rare” to taxpayer funded on demand. Why stick to a failing strategy? How many decades of discussion are required to explain that abortion is murder? Christ instructs us on what to do when those we evangelize remain obstinate:

“Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.” Mark 6:11 NAB

In terms of prudential questions, of course the Gospel is imprudent:

If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.” John 15 18-19 NAB

Finally, Christ attaches a warning to those who are tempted to go down the path of playing down doctrine for political reasons:

“What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself? Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:25-26 NAB

This is to say nothing of the stinging rebuke that comes from overseas. Ours is a nation blessed with religious liberties beyond the wildest dreams of oppressed Catholics everywhere. The American episcopate, being vastly over-deferential to a state that can do little to punish it, is an embarrassment. We are to cling to the faith, even under pain of torture and martyrdom. Many of our brothers and sisters are doing exactly that at this very moment. The worst that the United States government could do is attempt to revoke tax exemptions that will invariably end in failure. 

Canon 915 needs to be applied aggressively and uniformly. There is a moral imperative as it is the law of the Church, taken from Scripture itself. Prudential and pastoral alternatives to Canon 915 have failed. Catholicism’s influence is waning in the public sphere. Stand up now, while your voice counts, instead of continuing to attempt to appease an unappeasable world. As laymen we should pray to Our Lady, do penance for our sins, and offer sacrifices of reparation.