IN a recent Workshop of the Executive Committee of the Canon Law Society of the Philippines, a nagging question was again raised: What is the canonical status of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC)? The matter was raised by the canon lawyers from Mindanao (priests and a bishop), because of the growing frictions between the ecclesiastical organization and the so-called basic ecclesial communities. In the past, this question had always been sidelined by the lack of any clear theological notion of such communities; hence—the argument went—it was futile to attempt a canonical analysis of the problem.
This time, however, it was pointed out that even if it might be premature to attempt a definition of the canonical status of Basic Ecclesial Communities, some working guidelines might be in order, by way of delimiting the scope of pastoral action of such communities, in accordance with Church Law. In short, even if it might not be possible to categorically state what Canon Law states these communities are, it might be possible to draw from existing legislation what these communities are not. In more practical terms, perhaps we can glean from Canon Law what these communities may and may not do.
In fact, this is the task that the Canon Law Society of the Philippines proposed to tackle in its National Convention in May 2011. As a starting point for the canonical investigation, the CLSP Execom identified a little-known document of the Holy See, which was issued in 1997. To arouse interest in this topic, we are revisiting that document in a 4-part series that started in the previous issue of the CBCP Monitor.
Observations on Content: collaboration vs. participation
In the substantive level, the most important word appears in the title itself of the document. In effect, the title speaks of the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the priestly ministry.
The term initially used in the preliminary discussions was participation. Thus, the title of the symposium in April 1994, which launched the serious preparation of this document, was "The Participation of the Lay Faithful in the Priestly Ministry". However, the Pope John Paul II himself, in his address to that symposium, never used the term participation in this context. In fact, he belabored the distinction between participation in Christ's priesthood by virtue of baptism and confirmation, and the eventual exercise of some tasks entrusted to them by the priests:
"The laity's every ecclesial action or function─including those for which the Pastors ask them to stand in, where possible─is rooted ontologically in their common participation in Christ's priesthood and not in an ontological participation (either temporary or partial) in the ordained ministry proper to Pastors. Therefore, it is clear that if the Pastors entrust them, in an extraordinary way, with some tasks ordinarily and properly connected with the pastoral ministry but not requiring the proper character of Orders, lay people should know that these tasks are existentially rooted in their baptismal ministry and nowhere else! It must always be remembered that the exercise of such tasks does not make pastors of the lay faithful: in fact, a person is not a minister simply by performing a task, but through sacramental ordination."
The terminological shift is important. In effect, participation ("to take part") in the ministerial tasks could not strictly speaking take place without the subject ontologically taking part in the ministerial priesthood itself. This could only happen with priestly ordination. From this we see the aptness of the term collaboration ("to work with") when applied to the non-ordained faithful's cooperation with the ministerial work of priests.
With this in mind, we can point out the following doctrinal conclusions:
1. Lay collaboration in priestly ministry is not a right. The document contains several assertions that call for hermeneutic clarification. Thus, the part concerned with Theological Principles (n.4) says with respect to the tasks and functions which "are considered along the lines of collaboration with the sacred ministry" that "the non ordained faithful do not enjoy a right to such tasks and functions". Obviously, there is no wish here to deny that these faithful can legitimately exercise the tasks and functions mentioned. The document wants to state, however, that the non ordained faithful do not have the right to demand that they be assigned to the above mentioned tasks or functions.
Elsewhere the Instruction says: "the officia temporarily entrusted to them ... are exclusively the result of a deputation by the Church" (Art.1, §2). "Deputation by the Church" is a shorthand expression for "deputation by the Church's lawful Pastors". This complete formulation, used in other passages of the Instruction, avoids an identification of the Pastors with the Church herself. And §3 of the same article correctly indicates that "the temporary deputation for liturgical purposes─mentioned in c.230, §2─does not confer any special or permanent title on the non ordained faithful". The following sentence states that it is unlawful for the non ordained faithful to assume titles such as pastor, chaplain, coordinator or moderator.
2. Lay collaboration is supplementary─i.e., only in cases of necessity. By their ecclesiological nature all of these particular functions belong to the realm of the ordained ministry, in which a lay person, however, can collaborate in cases of necessity, if he has been lawfully deputed to do so. But it must be noted here: "in case of necessity"!
For example, it could never be the Church's objective to replace the Eucharistic celebration by promoting Sunday celebrations without a priest. Nevertheless, wherever there are no other possibilities, the Church is grateful to that lay person who, being well disposed and following the instructions of the Bishop who appointed him, conducts a Liturgy of the Word for and with the faithful who have no other opportunity to celebrate the Lord's Day. It is clear that the lay person here is truly a supplementary aid. Thus, for the good of the faithful─and that is what always counts─he should be glad when a priest is available to celebrate the Eucharist.
3. Responsibility for abuses. The practical provisions of the Instruction are not limited to listing possible or actual abuses, but they always seek to indicate the theological coordinates underlying the respective field of activity and thereby to draw the necessary consequences. Abuses occur when exceptional solutions become alternatives, changing an extraordinary competence into an ordinary one, or, on the other, when the limits provided for collaboration are unlawfully extended and a competence is assumed that has not been given. (To be continued.)
When a priest lives in public sin
(Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university, answers the following query:)
Q: May you please help me to answer these delicate questions? When a priest is in grave sin and publicly known to be in mortal sin (drunk often; with women, etc.) and the bishop allows him to say Mass publicly, what does canon law say about this? Or, if a priest has even impregnated a woman and then encouraged her to get an abortion (a reality for us here), shouldn't that priest have sanctions put on him rather than letting him celebrate Mass publicly? If the bishop says he is not to judge the priests, then who should?—K.G., Sudan
A: These are indeed delicate questions and sad ones to answer. I am not a canonist and so cannot answer regarding the intricacies of the canonical process. However, I can offer some moral pointers with respect to the sacraments.
A priest who falls into grave sin, just like any member of the faithful, should seek sacramental reconciliation as soon as possible. Meanwhile, he should abstain as far as possible from celebrating the sacraments.
By "as far as possible," I mean that if it is impossible for a priest to go to confession before attending to the needs of the faithful, then he should make an act of perfect contrition and celebrate the sacrament. The act of contrition implies both the intention of confessing as soon as possible and the firm resolve not to sin again. This moral principle, of course, is applicable to momentary (and usually secret) lapses.
The case mentioned by our reader would imply a graver situation in which the priest is openly living in an objectively immoral situation with no apparent signs of willingness to change. Although only God knows the heart, a public sin requires some form of public separation from the life of sin. Sacraments celebrated by an unrepentant priest are gravely sacrilegious acts. They would be valid but illicit.
A priest who induces a woman to abort is automatically excommunicated and also irregular and impeded from exercising his ministry (Canons 1398, 1041.4; 1043). He cannot celebrate any sacraments nor himself receive sacramental absolution until the excommunication is formally lifted. If he were to continue to act as a priest, not only would the celebrations be sacrilegious, but the sacrament of penance and matrimony would also be invalid.
If his excommunicated state were publicly known, then the faithful should not assist at any celebration nor request any spiritual goods from him except in the case of imminent danger of death. Even if he were the only priest available, the faithful should not go to one of his Sunday or daily Masses.
In such situations a bishop cannot "allow" a priest to continue as normal. The bishop has a grave responsibility toward assuring the holiness of the sacraments. A bishop could not give a positive permission for a sacrilegious act without himself becoming guilty of the sin of sacrilege. If he were to knowingly turn a blind eye, he would become morally responsible due to culpable negligence and would have some serious questions to answer on Judgment Day.
At the same time, the faithful should not presume that the bishop is aware of everything that goes on. If they have certain proof, and not just hearsay, of a priest's publicly immoral behavior they should present it to the bishop. If the evidence is solid, the bishop should follow the established canonical procedures, first removing the priest from ministry and then deciding how to move forward. If the bishop refuses to act, they should address the case to the apostolic nuncio or directly to the Holy See.
In the first case, and provided there was no abuse of minors involved, the bishop should see if there is any hope of an authentic conversion by the priest that would allow him to start anew in some other situation where his past weakness was unknown. I am aware of several such conversions, such as one in which God made use of a grave illness to bring a very corrupt parish priest to his senses and recover the meaning of his mission and his life. Today, many years later, he is regarded as an exemplary minister of the Gospel.
If change seems impossible, or if he abused minors, he should be removed from ministry. If he has fathered children, his parental responsibilities have priority over remaining in the priesthood.
In the case of the priest automatically excommunicated by inducing an abortion, the gravity of this sin must necessarily exclude him from the exercise of the priesthood. One hopes that he will repent and have the excommunication lifted, but he can no longer function as Christ's representative. His removal from ministry is a just and even minimal punishment for having been instrumental in taking innocent life.
Such sad and heartbreaking situations should move us all to pray for the holiness of priests and make reparation for their sins.