Friday, January 20, 2012

Like veils; marching through law

As I mentioned in the update to the post below, Mark Shea quite reasonably explains away my tortured tearing at Canon 216:

This, by the way, explains both Italian drivers and the bizarre phenomenon of Americans who stop at stop signs in the middle of the Mojave desert when there is nobody around for a hundred miles. The Latin conception of law is articulated well in Pirates of the Caribbean: “It’s not really a code. More like a guideline.” The Anglo conception is “It’s not a good idea. It’s the law!”

Canon law is emphatically Latin. We Americans are emphatically Anglo. So we encounter this loosey goosey application of law and are driven mad trying to obey every jot and tittle when the Church often takes a much more casual approach. Canon law is there to maintain a semblance of order in the vast herd of cats that is the Catholic Church. Now and then it gets updated (last time was in 1983, long before the Internet) to reflect reality. Canon 216 simply did not envision the possibility of 50 million people starting blogs called “Catholic Cats and Wacky Videos”. Dioceses simply do not have the capacity to police stuff like that. And, in any case, it is deeply counter to the Catholic spirit to even *try* to police stuff like that. The Church is fond of eccentrics, free associations among members, and people who wear their faith on their sleeve. So there is almost no interest in running around trying to tell people to stop calling themselves Catholic. What then prompts a diocese to (on very rare occasions) enforce canon 216? Basically, if you make a big and loud enough spectacle of yourself saying things that make the Church look bad or ridiculous. Bob Sungenis achieved this with his anti-semitic rants (and to his credit, semi-obeyed his bishop) by changing “Catholic Apologetics International to Bellarmine Theological Forum, the better to continue with his anti-semitic rants and quack science. The National Catholic Reporter and Catholics for a Free Choice have likewise achieved this dubious form of notice, but have simply ignored the command of their bishop to stop using “Catholic” in their names. Not too shocking since we already know their reputation of contempt for the Magisterium when it inconveniences them.

See, now, this makes sense.

I was approaching the notion of canon law as if canon law is sort of like the Catechism: basic Catholic "stuff" that Catholics should do their best to understand, appreciate, and, where applicable, follow. Mark's explanation makes canon law seem (and, like all analogies, this is imperfect) like the rules of an organization which club presidents are supposed to impose and enforce, but actually there's a rule in there reminding everybody that the club president has quite a bit of statutory leeway and there are some rules which are mandatory and binding, but others which the club president can choose when, how, and even whether to enforce in regard to individual members.

So it seems to me when it comes to really important canons (and I'm not even going to try to find an example because I'll probably get it wrong) the club president--bishop--can't just ignore the canon and do whatever he wants (and I suppose that there are canons which spell that sort of thing out, too). But when it comes to other canons dealing with areas where the bishop's prudential judgment has a lot of scope, the bishop can choose to apply the canon strictly to anyone to whom it technically applies, or he can choose to apply it when the people to whom it ought to apply make trouble (as in Mark's examples) or, I suppose, he could choose not to mention it at all for some sufficient pastoral reason.

Which means that my definitely Anglo view of things which said that if using the word "Catholic" is wrong without approval then it's wrong for everybody who uses it and the bishop, to correct the situation, ought to inform everybody and set up a hotline in the chancery for every bookstore, blog, website, small business, etc. in his territory to check in and get approval or rename their enterprise posthaste was erroneous precisely because I made the assumption that laws are things which everyone can know about and everyone can--and, indeed, must--follow. Certainly in secular American law you can't tell a judge, "Oh, sorry, I didn't know about that law, and in any case, surely it doesn't apply to me?" because there's a deep understanding behind the American legal system that the law always applies equally to everybody and ignorance of a law is no defense when one is found to have broken it; where the judge gets to act like "club president" is not in enforcing the law, but in handing down the sentence (in which case he might quite reasonably let somebody off with little or no punishment for breaking some small and recently enacted law that the offender clearly didn't know about).

The difference appears to be that lots of individual Catholics might technically be in violation of lots of canon laws, but that technical violation isn't (again, apparently) really important and isn't held against them unless the bishop says it is. So there doesn't appear to be any positive obligation on the part of every Catholic bookstore in America with the name "Catholic" in its title to check in with the appropriate chancery and get approval for using "Catholic" in its name. There is, however, a negative obligation (if I can use such clunky phrasing) for a Catholic bookstore which is caught selling and promoting as good anti-Catholic materials or pagan materials etc. either to stop selling these things or stop calling themselves Catholic, should the bishop be made aware of the situation.

Of course, if a Catholic bookstore were told it could no longer call itself "Catholic Books and Gifts" because they carried books by people the bishop disapproved of such as Mother Angelica or Scott Hahn, while across town the people running "Catholic Gifts, Books, and More" had a large framed photo of the bishop posing happily with the owner next to the piles of books on the enneagram and the racks of liturgical dancewear, the first bookstore might have a legitimate complaint. I honestly believe that this is how the supporters of Michael Voris--and, again, I'm not one, and have watched a total of about two minutes of one of his videos and otherwise know nothing about him--see the situation. On the other hand, the people in the chancery may see it as if the first bookstore were selling nothing but racks of books detailing how Protestants, non-Christians, communion-in-the-handers, and anybody who has ever sung a Marty Haugen song are going to Hell, none of which (naturally) carry imprimaturs.

But is my view here of canon law even beginning to approach the correct view? It struck me today that it probably is more correct than my former view, for a reason I can sum up in a word: veils.

From sometime in the late 1960s until the present Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983, women were technically still under the obligation to cover their heads in church. I was born in the late 1960s, and turned 15 in 1983, and yet I only recall wearing some sort of hat or veil to Mass a handful of times: a few childhood Easters, my First Communion, and so on. And while I can't remember the earliest years, of course, I don't ever remember seeing my mother wear a hat or veil to church, either. In fact, I don't remember seeing women cover their heads at all in those years (though I might have missed a hat or two).

Granted that the post-conciliar years were confusing ones, and granted that many women may have been erroneously told that they no longer needed to cover their heads in church by well-meaning officials who thought that was the case. But still, for a period of at least fifteen years before the change in the law became an official one, women were mainly not covering their heads. Were they all, objectively anyway, sinning, or at least in serious violation of canon law?

The way it seems now, if a bishop had specifically and directly told the women in his diocese that they had to cover their heads in church, then yes. But otherwise, no. And it seems to me that in any case the bishop would probably not have directly ordered the women in his jurisdiction to cover their heads in church, but would have ordered the pastors in his diocese to do so, following the proper chain of command, so to speak, unless the situation was very grave and in need of immediate correction.

So did each individual woman have some sort of positive obligation to call her chancery and find out once and for all if she were required to cover her head in church? Not if the principle outlined in the case of tiny Catholic enterprises calling themselves "Catholic" applies. So long as she wasn't show up to Mass creating scandal by wearing a hat designed to honor a demon or something, she was probably never going to hear from the bishop one way or another about it, unless the Code of 1983 had gone out of its way to inform women that fashion changes notwithstanding they were still obligated to cover their heads in church, complete with a canon or two about what the local authorities should do about the situation--and it didn't, so we're not, and they didn't have to do a thing.

And though my somewhat legalistic mind finds this all extraordinarily hard to grasp, I think I'm getting there. Your patience as I've pondered this all out loud has been greatly appreciated.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

I have been waiting for sincerely committed Roman Catholics to comment first. It seems only right. But none have. Naturally, Mark Shea's way of putting this appeals to me. The less rigid the canon, the more flexibility to accommodate different circumstances, even perhaps different individual ways of understanding phrases or interpreting principles, the better I like it.

Many Protestant canons are quite as coldly inflexible as the 'non-Latin' understanding of the Roman Catholic canon, which Shea somewhat decries. I could no more be a Calvinist or a Lutheran than a Roman Catholic.

But does that all mean, in the end, that there is no canon, no line of authority, that can encompass all human beings within its circumference? Or that any canon must be applied as loosely as the variety of people it seeks to draw into its orbit?

The more religious precepts are treated as “It’s not really a code. More like a guideline,” the less likely it would be that anyone should feel a need to schism or reform themselves out of the existential manifestation of the body. Loosey-goosey is good for unity. Trying to be emphatically Anglo is conducive to rebellion and Reformation.

Perhaps Tetzel was a bit too German, like Luther, considering that that is where the Angles came from, and the Celts were a bit more... Latin.

Tony said...

Since as far as I know (and I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong), but Mr. Shea is not a Canon lawyer. You'll forgive me if I wait to hear from one (such as Dr. Peters) rather than some guy on the internet.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Lawyers defining the requirements of faith strikes me as an oxymoron.