Friday, April 28, 2017 - Updated: 11:20 AM
QUESTION: I have heard that there was a time when a pastor could deny a person a church funeral. Is that so, and did it change?
ANSWER: In the past, Christian burial could be denied to certain individuals, and even today within the law of the church there is still a provision for it. Canon 1184 of the Code of Canon Law begins, “Unless they have given some signs of repentance before their death, the following are to be deprived of ecclesiastical funeral rites.” The law then mentions people who have “notoriously” separated themselves from the community of faith. It also mentions “other manifest sinners for whom ecclesiastical funeral rites cannot be granted without public scandal to the faithful.”
Several things are important when considering this material. It is a principle of law (Canon 18) that “laws which establish a penalty or restrict the free exercise of rights ... are subject to a strict interpretation.” Therefore, the denial of Christian burial is to be considered a very serious matter and one not to be taken lightly or decided upon by individual whim.
One reason for this caution is the difficulty found in determining what actions of a person’s life contribute to classification as a “manifest sinner” or establishing just how notorious one’s sins have become. While the church is correctly concerned about scandal, it is also understandably concerned about erroneous judgment.
Additional reason might be found in looking at the first words of the law: “unless they have given some sign of repentance before death.” It is extremely difficult to exclude the possibility of one’s repentance and contrition. It is also difficult for a person to demonstrate a true change of heart under physical or emotional stress.
The church acknowledges the limitations of its ability to judge in these cases. And thus, faithful to its legal heritage, the church strictly interprets this canon, and the law favors a person’s right to Christian burial while placing the burden of proof on anyone who seeks to deny it.
Furthermore, the law of the church also states that the local bishop should make the final judgment in any case of doubt. It is usually the directives of a diocese to require that a pastor consult diocesan authorities before refusing Christian burial to anyone.
If this approach differs from that of former times, there are several reasons for a new vision. One of the most significant of these is found in what we see as the purpose of funeral rites. Church law (Canon 1176) and funeral rituals cite several. Funeral rites are to pray for the deceased, honor their bodies (as temples of the Holy Spirit), and offer hope and solace to the living.
It is this final point that is important. Not only is the church reluctant to pass judgment on the deceased, but it is also rightfully concerned about the relatives of the departed. Funerals are celebrated for them in mind. The liturgy is intended to foster the hope and consolation brought to us by Christ. It is only for the most serious reasons that such consolation would be denied.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.