Canonist Ed Peters on Archbp. Burke on the Kennedy funeral

The other day I posted that His Excellency Most Rev. Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, spoke in Washington DC. 

He said in clear terms that Catholic politicians who publicly commit scandal by promoting immoral policies also contrary to the Church’s teaching should not be given Communion or funerals unless they first will have made public reparation for the damage they did.

Now I see that the excellent canonist Ed Peters of In Light Of The Law has a piece analyzing some distorted coverage in Politics Daily of Archbp. Burke’s remarks.

Here is Peters, with my emphases and comments.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I doubt Abp. Burke charged "the Church" with erring

While journalists usually have some say over how their writings are edited, even the best reporters tend to have little control over how their articles are headlined. Over the years I’ve cringed at some of the titles pasted atop my work, so I want to avoid assuming David Gibson’s responsibility for the goofy charge that headlines his report of Abp. Raymond Burke’s recent address to guests at’s 14th Annual Partnership Dinner.

The title to Gibson’s article reads "Vatican Official: Church Erred in Holding Kennedy Funeral." Not only did Burke never say "the Church erred" [NB: saying that the "Church" made a mistake is far too broad a claim] in this way or any other (seriously, can anyone imagine Burke making such a reckless claim about the Church?), Gibson’s own article makes no such allegation.

What Burke did say about Catholic politicians who publicly support abortion (and a few other issues gravely at odds with Church teaching) was that "Neither Holy Communion nor funeral rites should be administered to such politicians", adding that "To deny these is not a judgment of the soul, but a recognition of the scandal and its effects." [for the umpteenth time, it is about the scandal.] In speaking thus, Burke falls squarely within the bounds of Catholic canon law and orthodoxy, however little companionship he might enjoy there these days.

It was only later, in a line Gibson adequately paraphrased, but which he should have quoted, that Burke said "with greatly sinful acts about fundamental questions like abortion and marriage, [a politician’s] repentance must also be public" adding, "Anyone who grasps the gravity of what he has done will understand the need to make it public." Again, a pastorally sound position, in my opinion.  [Exactly.  When people commit public scandal, they have the obligation to help to repair the damage done to the best of their ability.  Say for example – and I know a case of this – a priest writes a letter in the public secular daily newspaper in a large metropolitan area in which he denounces the Church’s teachings on some matter of faith or morals – say, for example, he denounces the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically sinful –  then that priest should be required to recant that denunciation again in the newspaper.  He should correct that previous attack in a way proportioned to the way he originally made it.  So too, Catholic politicians who have made public statements in favor of abortion, must make public statements in which they declare that they have corrected their position.]

But, from these two utterances, Gibson concludes that Burke "openly oppose(d) the judgment of Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley . . . regarding sacraments for Kennedy . . . and (held) that politicians like Kennedy should not be provided a (Catholic) funeral." Now, while Gibson’s characterization of Burke’s statements still doesn’t support a headline claiming that Burke charged the Church with erring, Gibson does claim that Burke disagreed with O’Malley’s decision to accord Kennedy a Catholic funeral. Hmmm. I wonder about even that.

I don’t know whether Burke disagreed with O’Malley’s decision, but Burke’s actual statements here (at least the ones I have access to), when taken at face value, express no such disagreement.

Consider: what Burke actually said was that Catholic politicians who work in open contradiction to Church teaching on certain grave issues are ineligible to participate in the sacraments (like the Eucharist under c. 915) and sacramentals (like funerals under c. 1184). All correct, in my opinion.

But, what Burke did not say was that such politicians, if they give "signs of repentance", should nevertheless be denied a Catholic funeral. (Really, show me where Burke ever said that.) Instead, what Burke said was that, in his opinion, such signs of repentance must be "public". Ah, I see how people are confused.

In speaking as he did, Burke seems to be accepting of the current legislation (and, as far as I can tell, of the unbroken line of interpretation given thereto*) that Catholic funerals can be accorded to public sinners who give "signs of repentance", [NB: Peters was of the opinion that Sen. Kennedy probably did give adequate private signs toward the end of his life and thus a funeral was justified.] but that, in light of the obvious consternation caused in some cases by the current law, Burke wants to see canon law come to require "public signs of repentance" (as opposed to what we witnessed in Kennedy’s case, namely, traditional but "private" signs of repentance, like calling a priest to his deathbed, and so on).

That’s a very different claim, folks.

[Now the scholar of canon law kicks in.  This is interesting.] Many people feel that Kennedy’s funeral exposed a weakness in the current canon law on funerals, and that the Code should be amended to require public signs of repentance before funeral rites are accorded public sinners like Kennedy. That’s fine; one can certainly argue that. Even if I think that some such calls have been prompted by the terrible way that Kennedy’s funeral was actually conducted, and that the present law, while not perfect, is better than any proposal I’ve seen to amend it, I grant that questions about how the law ought to read are much better assessed by ecclesiastical leaders like Burke than by little lawyers like me. [A measure of humility there.] 

But, in the meantime, I do know how the law reads now, and I know how that law has been consistently interpreted over the centuries, and so I know that the decision to accord Ted Kennedy a Catholic funeral was made in accord with the current canon law on funerals.

And that’s all I’ve ever argued. + + + [Fair enough.]

* "The privation of ecclesiastical burial by this canon [1917 CIC 1240, today 1983 CIC 1184] has the nature of a penalty, and hence is to be strictly interpreted; moreover [NB:] any sign of repentance before death excuses form the penalty; this means some positive sign, such as calling for a priest, kissing a crucifix, an expressed desire not to die without the sacraments. [All of those things are outward gestures people can see and understand.] In doubt the Ordinary is to be consulted, but if the doubt in favor of the deceased remains, the decision should be in his favor." Bouscaren & Ellis, Canon Law: a Text and Commentary (2nd ed., 1951) at 683, original emphasis.

Again, we see how the Kennedy funeral continues to be grist for our mills.

Again, I am of the opinion that the late Senator should have had a funeral, for the sake of praying for his soul.  I am not convinced that what happened was a funeral in that sense. 

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  1. sparksj3 says:

    I certainly respect the work of Ed Peters, but I think in this case, he completely missed the boat. It is very, very strange to claim that he doesn’t know “whether Burke disagreed with O’Malley’s decision, but Burke’s actual statements here (at least the ones I have access to), when taken at face value, express no such disagreement.”

    Think about it. The Kennedy Funeral is one of the foremost items in the Catholic pro-lifer’s mind these days. Right in the midst of the dust storm raised by the scandalous funeral, Apb. Burke makes a public statement saying that unless there are public signs of repentance, a Catholic politician supporting abortion cannot receive a Catholic funeral. One would have to be blind to miss the connection between the events. He did not have to name names to make his point more clear.

    I wish Ed Peters would simply disagree with Apb. Burke, rather than try to make his words say something they don’t. And I do mean this with all respect to Ed Peters, who I enjoy reading. The situation is not helped by clouding the waters more. The Church is certainly broad enough for different interpretations of Canon Law. Let his own merits stand–rather than misinterpret the words of another to try and claim unity of thought.

    Apb. Burke’s statement could not have been more clear. In the Kennedy case, a Catholic funeral should not have been given. I think there is definite wisdom there.

  2. TNCath says:

    Although I support Senator Kennedy’s being given a Catholic burial, I am nonetheless still extremely confused and bewildered by the events of August 29, 2009, and am not sure I will ever fully accept that the Funeral Mass and subsequent Rite of Committal was properly handled liturgically.

    I live in a diocese where the Catholic population is less than 5% of its total population. While the Church is definitely a minority here, it nevertheless plays a prominent role in our community. Events such as these make it extremely difficult to credibly respond to our non-Catholic brothers and sisters who admire and share our commitment to life issues but cannot help but recognize, as many of Catholics do, a very clear inconsistency between belief and practice as well as the public scandal of Senator Kennedy’s support for abortion on demand that he never publicly recanted. While canon law does not explicitly require someone to public repentance, there was scandal nonetheless.

    No matter how well intentioned Cardinal O’Malley, the priests involved in the funeral, and Cardinal McCarrick may have been in the desire to give Senator Kennedy the Rite of Christian Burial, the many departures from the rubrics of the ceremony, i.e., the political jabs under the guise of General Intercessions, the constant editorializing and reading of the letters between the Pope and the late senator, and the general “style” (sorry, the only word I could come up with) in which these ceremonies were conducted left a very bad taste in the mouths of many Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

  3. Hi sparksj3.

    Whatever might have been the “tenor” of the archbishop’s remarks, I can only go on what he said and, where what he said is capable of receiving either a “consistent with” or an “inconsistent with” canonical intepretation read, I’ll assume the archbishop intended a “consistent with” assertion.

    Besides the great majority of commentators who agree with me here, yes, I’ve encountered several other people who disagree with my read of these canons; but I’ve yet to encounter a single one who adduces for his/her position anything other than, “I disagree.”

    Sometimes I wonder why I even offer citations for my positions. No one else does. Sigh.

  4. Brian Day says:


    I don’t think that Dr Peters missed the boat at all. While Abp. Burke stated his preference for public signs of repentance, Dr Peters notes that current canon law does not require “public signs”, just “signs” – which we are not privy to.

    So there is no disagreement based upon what the canon law actually says.

  5. This could of all been avoided if the funeral was private…, but I agree, public sin, public penance.

  6. sparksj3 says:

    Hello Dr. Peters.

    Thanks very much for the response.

    The quotations we have from Archbishop Burke are, as provided by Deal Hudson:

    “It is not possible to be a practicing Catholic and to conduct oneself in this manner.”
    “Neither Holy Communion nor funeral rites should be administered to such politicians….To deny these is not a judgment of the soul, but a recognition of the scandal and its effects.”
    “[When a politician is associated] with greatly sinful acts about fundamental questions like abortion and marriage, his repentance must also be public.”
    “Anyone who grasps the gravity of what he has done will understand the need to make it public.”


    I would love to see the full transcript of the talk, and sincerely hope that it will be made public. Going with what we have, though, I do not see how you can say that “Burke wants to see canon law come to require ‘public signs of repentance'”. Nowhere did he imply that he wanted some future law about this. The words he used are plain: “his repentance *must* also be public”. With the word “must,” it is clear that he is referring to a present reality.

    Perhaps what he is doing is stepping beyond the realm of strict Canon Law and into the realm of Moral Theology, particularly with regard to scandal. While I completely agree with you in your study that all the Church has required traditionally is some minute sign of repentance, could it be that these situations are different? As Fr. Z has so often stated, it is about the scandal. Here we have a politician that has consistently called to himself priests and prelates that have been favorable towards his anti-Catholic positions. This despite the fact that he knew that the Magisterium disagreed. Seemingly, this persisted to the end, and his conscious rallying of heterodox priests–as far as we can tell–to his side never ended. I hope and pray that something happened that we are all unaware of, but we cannot act on unknowns.

    To his death, Kennedy claimed to be a Catholic in good standing, despite the seemingly pertinacious adherence to positions absolutely at odds with Catholic teaching. How can one be forgiven if one refuses to admit the sin? This is very different than, say, a case of a murderer who called a priest in at the hour of death. The parallel does not work in the slightest.

    Given that his behavior vis-a-vis the priests who should have been the guides, healers, and teachers of his soul became one of the very sources of this scandal, could perhaps Apb. Burke be considering this? Could this be the reason why he insists that public repentance is necessary even now?

    I simply offer this for consideration.


  7. Henry Edwards says:

    Apart from any canon law considerations, perhaps here is something all of us here at WDTPRS (if not elsewhere) can agree on:

    A prelate shows poor prudential judgment when he allows in a church under his jurisdicion a public (e.g., televised) funeral for a public sinner who is not publicly repentant.

  8. Fair enough, sparksj3. But I’m sure you see, no?, that I addressed these very points in my post, and there and elsewhere I provided independent citations to the authorities upon which I rest. All of which get completely ignored by my nay-sayers.

    Generally, I hesitate to debate non-canonists on points of law, because it’s almost imposssible for me to do so without coming across as heavy-handed, but too many of the criticisms I’ve received from people who virtually nothing about Church law in this area are embarrasments to them, whether they know it or not.

    Still, I think people have a right know what the law says and how it’s interpreted, if only so they can make informed criticisms of it, instead just emoting about it. Believe me, I can emote with the best of them, but that’s not why people read my blog. They read it for the law.

    Best, edp.

  9. TNCath says:

    Henry: While I understand what you say and agree with you in principle, aren’t all Masses open to the public in a parish church? Furthermore keeping the media out of the church only arouses more suspicion and invites more speculation. I think the problem wasn’t so much having the Funeral Mass as much as it was the WAY it was conducted. Had the rubrics of the Mass with no deviations from the text and with absolutely no eulogizing or editorial comments by anyone, including the President of the United States, I don’t think we would have had as many objections it’s having taken place.

    Granted, while Cardinal O’Malley may have exercised poor prudential judgment by not insisting that the funeral rites not become an “honoring” of the deceased, in light of the fact that he received the sacraments before death, forgiveness of sins are presumed and the benefit of the doubt is given to the deceased. So, I’m not sure Cardinal O’Malley had a choice not to allow a Funeral Mass. He DID have a choice as to how it was to be conducted.

  10. TNCath says:

    Correction: Had the rubrics of the Mass BEEN FOLLOWED with no deviations from the text and with absolutely no eulogizing or editorial comments by anyone, including the President of the United States, I don’t think we would have had as many objections TO ITS having taken place.

    Sorry, yet again.

  11. sparksj3 says:

    Dr Peters, as I’ve said, I’ve no problem with your taking the position regarding the canonical appropriateness. That is a certainly a matter where canonists are free to interpret in the manner they deem most faithful to the letter of the law and the mind of the legislator. I certainly respect your position. And, yes, I have seen the very admirable job you have done providing the sources regarding your canonical interpretation. It is extremely helpful and proof that you take your job very seriously. Again, my difficulty was not in your interpreting Canon Law in that manner.

    My principle problem with the above post, was reconciling how at one and the same time it is possible to think that Apb. Burke had no disagreement with Card. O’Malley’s decision (to allow the funeral, not to allow the liturgical non-funeral to happen) and at the same time hold that Catholic funerals must be denied to Catholics who have not publicly repented. It would seem that the one excludes the other.

    Again, I just think that Moral Theology must, by necessity, enter in here. When the canons in question refer to scandal and signs of repentance, there is certainly an interpretive line of history to respect, but both cases also call for an external referencing of principles of moral theology. My opinion is that this is where the difference of interpretation comes in. I think what happened is that Archbishop Burke believes in these cases the requirements were not met and came to a different conclusion.

    Perhaps a full transcript of his talk will be released–that would be helpful to all involved, I think. Certainly he shared more than just a few soundbites.

    Thanks very much for clarifying, Dr. Peters. And thanks for the work that you do–I’m sure it can be a thankless job!


  12. Traductora says:

    I agree with TNCath. A private funeral, that is, mostly family members or close associates and not open to the press (this is a decision the church administrators can make) would have been fine. We don’t know what his last moments were like. But he was a public sinner, and to have gotten the grand send-off (turned into a political occasion) without any outward, publicly known signs of rejection of the public positions that caused great harm to his country and to many of his fellow Catholics – that was undeniably a scandal.

  13. Good comments, sparksj3. Briefly, careful: I didn’t say “that Apb. Burke had no disagreement with Card. O’Malley’s decision” I said Burke EXPRESSED none. He might well have disagreed, but in the quotes avialable to us, he did not say that. Call it the lawyer in me.

    More basically, Burke links two things here: manifest sin in regard to admission to the sacraments, esp. the Eucharist (c. 915), and manifest sin in regard to a Church funeral (c. 1884). Now, while one might be rehabbed for Communion under c. 915 only by PUBLIC signs of repentance from PUBLIC sin, the standard for signs of repentance required for funerals is MUCH lower, i.e., ANY sign of repentance satisfies, as I have shown.

    Now, if some want to argue that the stanrd for funerals should be higher, even as high as that needed for Communion, fine. Make the case. But I don’t think anyone can argue that the law reads that way now. Cuz it doesn’t. Perhaps this is distinction in “how much” of a sign of repentance is required, is what various people have overlooked.

  14. ps folks: the distinction some assert between a “public” funeral/Mass and a “private” one, assuming people can define the difference (which no one has) anymore, is, I suspect, a rabbit trail not worth running down. such distinctions in Masses have greatly dimisished over the last 40 years, and maybe even virtually disappeared, and in any case, are not reflected in the current canons on funerals. today, you either get a Church funeral and Mass, or you don’t.

  15. Clinton says:

    Henry Edwards, you have perfectly stated my own view on this matter. It is unfortunate that current canon law does not reflect what
    seems to me to be simple common sense. By the way the law reads now, Madonna, Bill Maher, and Dr. Kervorkian could all demand
    Catholic funerals without ever having to make a public rejection of their past public sins.

  16. albizzi says:

    Hasn’t the Canon Law been changed SINCE Vatican II?
    In the past, in grave matters, when there was a public scandal due to erring writings or statements, the culprit had to make a public retractation before being forgiven.

  17. Cavaliere says:

    Dr. Peters, since you have responded to several of the comments here I hope that you can answer this question. On what do you evidence do you believe that Sen. Kennedy gave private signs of repentance for his views on abortion, homosexual marriage, et al? The fact that he had a priest present?

    It would seem from the letter that Sen. Kennedy penned to Pope Benedict he felt sorry for some of the wrongs he did throughout his life. But he makes no mention of his position vis a vis abortion, homosexual marriage, ESCR. In fact he makes the statement that he always believed what the Church believes.(teaches? I don’t remember the exact wording)Now that is obviously false given his public positions on these issues which clearly contradict Church teaching. Now I will not accuse him of deliberately lying, I don’t know. We do know that he was originally opposed to abortion and that through the counsel of various priests he was led to believe (wrongly) that he could be personally opposed but publicly support abortion, ne c’est pas? In which case it would appear reasonable that he didn’t feel the need to confess his errors on abortion, et al. Now between the time he wrote to Pope Benedict and his death did he finally come to understand that he was wrong on those issues and repent? In fact we also have the statement from Cardinal Mahoney that one of his regrets was never getting the Senator to see his error on abortion. So back to the question, do you have anything more than the fact that a priest was present? Because from what I see everything suggests that he was so hardend on his opinion that he didn’t feel it was wrong and therefore wouldn’t see a need to confess.

  18. NLucas says:

    Fr. Z: “He [Abp. Burke] said in clear terms that Catholic politicians who publicly commit scandal by promoting immoral policies also contrary to the Church’s teaching should not be given Communion or funerals unless they first will have made public reparation for the damage they did.”

    This is wise pastoral counsel, IMO, and it sure seems that canon law (if I understand Mr. Peters) supports such a statement. I also understand that a lot of the scandal associated with the Kennedy funeral comes from a perception that there is a different standard for treatment if you’re an influential politician than if you’re an ordinary layman.

    But I started thinking about that connection. For right or wrong, prelates seem to have historically accomodated notorious public sinners when they died, when it seemed prudent for the interests of the Church. For instance, Habsburg Emperor Joseph II openly suppored Voltaire against the Church, serverely suppressed the Catholic Church in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and apparently died unrepentant. He received the full rites of the Church and was buried with his family in the imperial vault of the Kapuziner Church in Vienna. Louis XIV openly pursued a Gallicanist policy in regards to the Church and lived a publicly dissolute life, even using his influence with the Church in France to financially take care of his children by his paramours–yet he received the full rites of the Church when he died.

    Why would that be? In the case of the monarch, it would likely have been very counterproductive to the interests of the Church to alienate the royal family by denying a Catholic funeral and burial, even considering the scandal.

    Could the reasoning behind the Kennedy funeral Mass been similar? Does that impact the moral weight of the decsion at all? Would, especially after the Kennedy family had been schooled by prominent Catholic theologans in how to support abortion, it be possible to reason that the damage to the interests of the Church in denying a full, public Catholic funeral to Sen Kennedy outweigh the scandal involved in a decision?

    I don’t think that it would, but is there room at all to give the prelates involved the benefit of the doubt? I’m not trying to justify it, I’m trying to see if my initial reaction of revulsion was perhaps too harsh.

    In Christ,

  19. Hi Cavaliere. I can’t respond to each post that might arise, so I respond to ones that, imho, move the conversation forward, even then, if I have time. I have already addressed your questions many times in my previous posts. Please consult my blogs and the many reliable news articles on this matter. Best, edp.

  20. Dr. Peters: We are glad to have any of your attention and time! Thanks!

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