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By Edward Peters, JD, JCD, Ref. Sig. Ap., June 5, 2019
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is and acknowledges himself to be Roman Catholic. His external conduct is, in several respects, gravely at odds with important Church teachings as in, for example, his long-term support for ‘same-sex marriage’ and his recent open invitation to pregnant women to come to California to abort their babies. He also appears to have been married in the Church but later divorced and subsequently attempted a civil marriage, in which relationship he apparently remains. In light of these public factors, Newsom already is, in my view, ineligible to present himself for holy Communion per Canon 916 and, if he presents himself for the sacrament anyway, he should be refused per Canon 915.
My concern here, however, is not for sacramental discipline as it impacts Newsom, but rather, with his vulnerability under penal canon law for his threatened role in attacking the seal of Confession.
California is considering legislation that would require Catholic priests to disclose, in certain cases, information they acquired in sacramental Confession. Setting aside a raft of interpretation questions and practical problems of application, serious obstacles to enforcement, and the certainty of protracted legal challenges, the bill itself threatens priests, bound by divine and canon law (CCC 2490, 1983 CIC 1388) to protect the seal of Confession, with State punishment if they do so. Newsom has signaled that he would sign such a bill into law.
In my view, such an executive act by Newsom would be to “impede the freedom of ministry” making him liable to “a just penalty” under Canon 1375. Besides the plain text of that canon, note that the Pio-Benedictine predecessor norm on which the current law draws expressly sanctioned those “who issue laws, mandates, or decrees contrary to the liberty or rights of the Church” (1917 CIC 2334). Attempting to coerce priests into betraying the seal of Confession under any circumstances unquestionably violates the divinely-conferred rights of the Church to pursue her mission freely and of her priests and people to celebrate their faith correctly.
In addition, should Newsom sign such a bill into law, I think he can be rightly seen as causing “scandal or a grave disturbance of [ecclesial] order” such that he would be liable to “formal rebuke” under Canon 1339. This action, if technically not a penalty itself, could be pursued together with or independently of a prosecution for crime under Canon 1375. Its main predecessor norm, 1917 CIC 2308, was understood by Pio-Benedictine commentators as authorizing formal rebuke even upon the commission of a single act, especially it were related to a canonical crime. See, e.g., P. Love, Penal Remedies (1960) 131-132.
While other canons could be invoked against Newsom in this regard (e.g., Canon 1319 on penal precepts), the two above should give sufficient indication that the Church has, more than once, faced attempts to interfere with the seal of Confession and that she retains in her canon law the memory and means of responding to such threats.
Edward Peters, JD, JCD, Ref. Sig. Ap.
Dr. Peters has held the Edmund Cdl. Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit since 2005. He earned a J. D. from the Univ. of Missouri at Columbia (1982) and a J. C. D. from the Catholic Univ. of America (1991). In 2010, he was appointed a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura by Pope Benedict XVI. For more infomation on Dr. Peters, see CanonLaw.Info.