Ecumenism and Canon Law

Thoughts on Cardinal DiNardo’s recent decision to allow the Methodist ordination of a woman in the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, delivers a homily during Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington in this Jan. 22, 2012, file photo. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, recently permitted the United Methodist Church to celebrate an ordination service at the Catholic Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston. This event has set in motion a wave of criticism on orthodox Catholic blogs and websites. The criticism generally has focused on the fact that the Catholic Church does not recognize the validity of Methodist ordinations, and the fact that the presiding Methodist bishop was a woman. The prevailing critiques also charge Cardinal Di Nardo with the sin of scandal. However, the commentary to date has included little discussion of the law of the Church.

A follower of the vigorous criticism directed against Cardinal DiNardo might be surprised to learn that the cardinal’s decision enjoys relatively strong support in canon law. I do not mean that the law commands the accommodation that Cardinal DiNardo made for the Methodists, but rather that it provides him with ample discretion to make such a decision. Although the primary purpose of churches and cathedrals is for Catholic worship, canon 1210 makes allowance for some other uses of sacred places as well.

What other uses are permissible? Such uses must be only occasional, and they must not be opposed to the holiness of the place (cf. can. 1210). An example of an activity that would be contrary to the holiness of a church would be a political rally. By contrast, a legitimate other activity that might occasionally be held in a church would be a historical lecture.

Does a Methodist liturgy qualify as a legitimate other use of the Catholic cathedral? Canon 1210 itself does not directly answer this question, but the breadth of its language seems to allow any occasional use that is not contrary to the sacredness of the place. Moreover, in the 1993 Ecumenical Directory, the Holy See says outright that it sometimes is permissible for a non-Catholic liturgy to take place in a Catholic church.

Many Catholics will be surprised to learn this. However, the Holy See has permitted such use of Catholic churches since its issuance of the first Ecumenical Directory in 1967. Both the original directory and the current one were approved by the then-reigning popes. In fact, the pope who approved the current directory, John Paul II, was the same one who promulgated the current Code of Canon Law in 1983.

Some of Cardinal DiNardo’s critics say or imply that a Methodist ceremony in a Catholic church always is inappropriate because the Church does not recognize Methodist ministers as validly ordained. However, it simply is not the case that this fact disqualifies Methodists from ever using Catholic churches. Since 1967 the Holy See has allowed for the possibility of the “separated brethren” using Catholic Churches in some situations, and it never has distinguished such communities on the basis of the validity of their ministers’ ordination.

What are the circumstances in which it might be permissible for a Protestant community to use a Catholic church? The current Ecumenical Directory (1993) provides that, although Catholic churches generally are reserved for Catholic worship, a diocesan bishop may make a church available for the ceremonies of a non-Catholic ecclesial community that lacks an adequate facility of its own (cf. ED, §137). Thus, a light cause is not sufficient to allow a Protestant community to use a Catholic church, but rather there must be some showing of need.

In this case, the reason for the Methodists’ request to use the Catholic co-cathedral appears to have been that they were holding their annual conference in Houston and lacked a Methodist church large enough to accommodate all of the attendees. If this was indeed the reason for the request, then I believe that it would satisfy the showing of need that the Ecumenical Directory requires. This situation would permit, but not require, the diocesan bishop to make a Catholic church available to the Protestant community.

Given that the law of the Church seems to allow Cardinal DiNardo to make a Catholic church or cathedral available to the visiting Methodists, should he have done so?

As discussed above, I believe that the cardinal’s decision was lawful. In addition, I believe that there has been some excess in the critiques charging the cardinal with the sin of scandal. In everyday English usage, scandal can refer broadly to almost any offensive action that has become a matter of public knowledge. In the ecclesiastical context, however, scandal is a narrower concept that refers specifically to conduct that leads another person into sin (cf. CCC, §2284). Although some fear that the cardinal’s accommodation of the Methodists might lead Catholics to endorse the ordination of women, the general thrust of the commentary suggests that the critics have been more offended by the cardinal’s decision than truly scandalized by it.

That being said, however, I nonetheless believe that the faithful legitimately may disagree with the cardinal’s decision, provided that they do so respectfully and responsibly (cf. can. 212 §§2&3). My own opinion is that, under current law, there is no difficulty in making a church available to visiting Methodists for a regular Sunday or weekday service (cf. can. 1210; ED, §137). In this case, however, the ceremony at issue was an ordination, which was celebrated by a female Methodist bishop and which included women among those to be ordained. That is, the ceremony itself implicated the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopacy. As a result of this circumstance and as a result of the fact that many of the Catholic faithful continue to have difficulty accepting the Church’s teaching on this very point (the reservation of the priesthood to men), my opinion is that the better course would have been to decline permission to hold this particular ceremony in the Catholic cathedral.  

The Church has two codes of canon law, one for Roman Catholics and another for members of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The code for the Roman or Western Church took effect in 1983, and the Eastern in 1990. The Eastern Code, because it came later, contains some improvements over the Western Code. In particular, although both impose upon bishops a duty to work for Christian unity (cf. can. 755 §2; Eastern Code, cann. 902-908), the Eastern Code also includes an injunction to avoid the dangers of false irenicism, immoderate zeal, and indifferentism in ecumenical efforts (cf. Eastern Code, can. 905). The Houston matter suggests that the law of the Western Church on ecumenism may be too open-ended and unstructured to provide much practical guidance to diocesan bishops in concrete cases. As a result, pastors in the West might well look to the Eastern Code for an example of a system that seriously promotes Christian unity, but that also recognizes the dangers into which ecumenical efforts sometimes may fall.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About R. Michael Dunnigan 9 Articles
R. Michael Dunnigan is a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, and he lives and works in Indiana.