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Catholics are the church: what Catholics need to know, and why the hierarchy doesn't want us to.

CAN DIVORCED AND REMAried Catholics receive Communion? How about prochoice Catholic politicians? Do parishioners have a right to know how the pastor and the bishop are spending their contributions? Should parishioners have a voice in how their money is spent? Do you have a right to disagree with fellow Catholics--even bishops--about social issues?

Listening to some people, you'd think that Catholics have no right to think for themselves, or to ask questions of their priests and bishops, or ever to disagree with a Vatican opinion. California's Governor Gray Davis was encouraged to excuse himself from worshipping as a Catholic because he represents the views of his constituents--not his bishop--on matters of reproductive health and rights. US Senator Tom Daschle reportedly got a similar message from his own bishop--for the same reasons. The church hierarchy and conservative Catholic activists want to tell people how to think and act, not just in regard to religion, but in all areas of their lives. Do they have the right to do this or do lay Catholics have a right to think and act according to their own consciences?

According to Paul Lakeland, author of The Liberation of the Laity and chair of the religious studies department at Fairfield University, a Jesuit university in Connecticut, "all institutions, the church among them, have a tendency towards the demonic. Intolerance is their metier. Thus, the founding fathers inserted checks and balances into the Constitution precisely in order to hold the tyranny of the majority in restraint.... There is that little fascist impulse to demand that the individual subordinate herself to the whole. We see it wherever self-righteousness drives opinion. But in well-ordered societies, this demonic impulse is moderated by the force of law. Perhaps surprisingly, this is also true in the church."


The Code of Canon Law is a collection of laws of the church. The code demands respect for people's rights. In 1983, when the latest version of the law was published, the pope said one of its most important contributions was its recognition of the rights of the laity.

Lay Catholics have a right to know what's going on in their churches, to speak out about important issues--both religious and secular, and the right to be treated fairly. Unfortunately, most Catholics don't know what their rights are. For a long time, the laity heard that their role was to "pay, pray, and obey." But that is a long way from the truth. Church leaders also have responsibilities to the people in the pews.

In the church's law rights and obligations work together. They must be seen in the context of a community. Some rights are qualified, usually to protect rights of others or to avoid conflicts between people. And the exercise of one's rights in the church is also subject to regulation in the interest of the common good, for instance, in order to respect others' rights.

Even the bishops have to follow the rules, and while they may have additional rights and responsibilities because of their roles in the church, the bottom line is this: the church's law unequivocally recognizes the fundamental equality of all of its members.

However, bishops around the world have recently been exposed for withholding information from the very people who need it, and whom they are ordained to serve--the members of their church. Whether it is information about priests who have committed crimes against children, or about money paid to silence victims or pay attorneys, the bishops have not respected this right.


Catholics have the right to receive an education--not just a religious education, but a general education--as well as technical or professional training, and the opportunity for taking advanced studies. The code says that "parents as well as those who take their place are obliged and enjoy the right to educate their offspring." (Canon 793 [section]1) Appropriate instruction about sex and sexuality is a necessary element in this education--from childhood and continuing through adolescence and young adulthood. The church requires a healthy and accurate understanding of sexuality to he married or ordained ha the church, and therefore this education is essential.

At advanced levels, people pursuing religious studies in Catholic universities and seminaries enjoy academic freedom, but at the same time are required to give appropriate respect to the church's teachers. This includes an attempt to understand the hierarchy's teachings before one publicly questions or criticizes it.

The law also recognizes the levels of authority that exist in the church's teaching, and though Catholics may not dissent from those beliefs that form the core of the faith, much of the teaching of the church--and most of the issues debated in society--is contained elsewhere. It is the right and responsibility of religious scholars to help investigate, explain, and, at times, to advance the church's teaching. And, Lakeland points out, "the latitude that canon law allows is greater than the Vatican's watchdog Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seems to favor."


Each person is "bound to follow [his or her] conscience faithfully in all activity...." People "must not be forced to act contrary to [their] consciences. Nor must [they] be prevented from acting according to ... conscience." [Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty).] Following logically from the rights to education and information is the right and responsibility for Catholics to decide how to act in response to the information they have received. The ability to decide, based on accurate information, is needed in order to exercise another right, to share one's opinion with fellow members of the church.

All Catholics have a right to speak their minds on matters that affect them and the church, and to tell their priests and bishops what they need from the church. Even more, canon law recognizes the right, and "at times even a duty," for those who have special knowledge, competence or status to express their opinions on matters that affect the church to their bishops as well as to the rest of the faithful. The lay response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis has given eloquent testimony to the importance of this right and the effectiveness of its employment.

Inside the church, the law recognizes that many people may have something important to say, and recognizes that they should be heard, though this is usually more honored in the breach than in the observance. Parents and teachers can speak out about the quality of education children receive in Catholic schools. Religious scholars are to have the academic freedom not only to study but also to discuss and publish their work. And people with financial expertise can and should advise the church's administrators on how to be good stewards of the donations of the faithful.

Many people have been troubled by the heavy hand of one of the Vatican's offices, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the publication of two recent documents. The first chastises politicians who represent their constituents' wishes when they diverge from the conservative Catholic agenda, and the other all but commands Catholic politicians to actively oppose legislation recognizing legal rights for same-sex couples. Although public opinion may be at odds with the Vatican's officials, it seems that those same officials are failing to consider the opinions of the people-which church law requires. Paul Lakeland points out that the bishops "do not perhaps recognize that on such matters of largely prudential judgment, rather than the enunciation of doctrine, the rights of Catholics to disagree with them are clear. And this obfuscation was made very clear in the campaigns in many dioceses to suggest that all good Catholics ought to sign the petitions putting pressure on state governments to 'defend the family'."


Church law demands that Catholics be treated fairly in two specific ways. The first is the protection in the code for a person's rights to privacy and to his or her good reputation. The second way is through due process in the church's juridical and administrative actions.

The protection of a person's privacy and reputation is a basic right. Our human dignity demands that we are allowed to control some important aspects of our lives, and the safeguarding of privacy enables us to do that. Catholics also have a right to a good reputation. Slander and libel are against the church's law. Sadly, there is no effective mechanism to defend oneself or to demand reparations when one Catholic defames anther. Too often, this has allowed vocal persons or groups to attack a fellow Catholic publicly with no fear of retribution from the church authorities.

One of the worst examples of violating this right is when a Catholic is told he or she is "not a Catholic" or cannot call himself or herself a Catholic. This is a tactic used by individuals and groups, clergy and laity alike, to damage the reputation and privacy of a fellow Catholic. These claims often come out in the press and are most commonly related to political issues. For example, following the Vatican's edict demanding that Catholics obstruct efforts to recognize same-sex unions, the Archbishop of Ottawa publicly questioned the faith of Canada's Prime Minister, a lifelong Catholic, who pledged to support gay marriage legislation in that country and the American Life League frequently rakes out ads in the US claiming politicians who disagree with its views are no longer Catholic.

What is the same about all of these kinds of declarations is that they are false. The church claims all baptized Catholics as members, and despite one's standing in the church, one's degree of participation, or Favor with local hierarchy, no one can tell a baptized Catholic that she is not, or cannot call herself, a Catholic. Indeed, even the excommunicated Catholic is just that--a Catholic.

Catholics have rights to due process in three ways. First, canon law affirms the right of every Catholic to defend his or her rights ill a church forum. This is heartening for those who believe their rights have been violated, but where are they to find such a "forum"? Sadly, it is nearly impossible for Catholics to defend their rights in this way because, with few exceptions, the bishops have failed to establish places for this to happen.

Second, if and when Catholics are judged, only a person with the legal authority can serve as a judge. In most cases, this authority is a bishop or the pope, or a person specially appointed by them to judge a case. Contrary to claims of groups such as the American Life League or parish priests who refuse communion to Catholics who belong to this or that political party, these people have neither the right nor the responsibility to judge another Catholic according to the law.

Third, punishment is only to be imposed according to the rule of law, in eluding a process allowing a reasonable the to defend oneself. Arbitrary, punishments are unacceptable, as is any punishment that a Catholic receives without some kind of fair, legal process. Here again, though, the people who have the oversight of these processes are often the very ones who have a vested interest in the outcome of a case--the hierarchy. They are also the ones who have control over the availability of the sacraments, and, frankly, over the actions of most ministers and employees of the church.


Catholics have the right to participate in the faith life of the church. They have a right to receive the sacraments. While there may sometimes be restrictions on when and where the sacraments will be celebrated, the unjust denial of the sacraments to a Catholic or to a group of Catholics fulfills no good purpose. In fact, it obstructs the very work the church sets out to rid fill.

There may be times when a Catholic cannot receive a sacrament. For example, a person who is excommunicated cannot receive Communion. During those times though, the person is certainly not excluded from attending worship and, once the punishment has been lifted, he or she is to be welcomed back to receive the sacraments with the rest of the community. However, while canon law is clear that the divorced and remarried may be excluded from Communion, Catholic moral theology is by no means so sure, and pastoral practice is at least as likely to follow moral theology as it is canon law. Yet, even here canon law may be more flexible than many imagine.

People are to be judged individually in canon law, and according to the principles of due process. And the sacraments, since they are so important to the Faith, should be denied only in the most serious circumstances.


Catholics also have a right to follow a spiritual life that they choose, provided it is consistent with church teaching. Together with this spirituality is a right to choose how to live one's life in the church, whether it is as a single or married lay person, whether in a religious community or in the secular world, and for men, whether or not to pursue a vocation as a priest.

While many people argue that gay men may not be ordained to the priesthood, this is unjust discrimination raider the law. Canon law does put limits on who may be ordained--namely, baptized men only--but the exclusion of such a man solely because he is gay is not based in the church's law. The law does exclude women from receiving orders and allows marriage only between a man and a woman; though there is a healthy debate about the legitimacy of the reasons lot these exclusions, at fine moment they are nonetheless present in the law.


We often hear that "the church is not a democracy." True enough, but neither is the church to he merely a vehicle for the opinions of one or even a few powerful men. The law of the church does not allow for anyone to be treated as a second-class citizen. It does not allow for deception or misinformation by leaders and administrators. It does not allow for all dissenters to be silenced. People who tell you otherwise are either uninformed or not being honest.

Unfortunately, the rights outlined above do not get a lot of attention from the hierarchy. And even more unfortunately, the bishops of the world have not made the effort to establish--as the code indicates they should--avenues for Catholics to defend their rights.

Is this because the rights of Catholics are more often infringed or violated by the hierarchy than by lay Catholics? Is it because the bishops and priests fear a well-informed, active laity?

Whatever the reason, it is unacceptable. It is time for the church--the people-to demand accountability from its leaders.

SARA MORELLO, JCL, is a canon lawyer and the Director of Research and Writing at Catholics for a Free Choice. She is also the author of Catholics and Abortion, Notes on Canon law, 2003, available from CFFC.
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Author:Morello, Sara
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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