Canon Law Exists to Magnify Christ, Not Mute Critics

Wantonly distorting canon law to silence critics is the first step to allowing chaos and injustice to set the Church's agenda

A controversy on Twitter is hardly news. The platform seems to exist for controversy, and #CatholicTwitter seems particularly adept at internecine tweet wars.

But a recent Twitter controversy is worth commentary, or at least clarification. Two weeks ago, a Twitter user suggested that EWTN ought to be given a canonical penalty, an interdict, unless it fired Raymond Arroyo, host of “The World Over.”

The controversy exploded when the suggestion was retweeted by Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, a papal confidante and editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit-run journal overseen by the Vatican's Secretary of State. Many people were surprised that someone so closely connected to the Pope, and the Vatican, would apparently support such an idea. 

I am employed by EWTN, and Arroyo is a colleague. But we work in different cities and have never met. In fact, I don't own a television and have only occasionally seen “The World Over.” This is not a commentary about Raymond Arroyo. It is a commentary about canon law, and about a troubling trend of antinominianism in some corners of the Church.

An interdict is a canonical penalty, applied by the Church if a person has committed certain delicts, or canonical crimes. An interdict forbids a priest or deacon from celebrating sacraments, and forbids any Catholic from participating in the sacramental life of the Church. It is intended to be a “medicinal penalty” to convey the gravity of an offense, and to call a Catholic to repentance and conversion. 

A person can be the subject of an interdict. But an institution — an entity or an apostolate — cannot be. And corporately, as an apostolate, EWTN, which is not a “juridic person” — an entity officially commissioned or overseen by the Church's hierarchy — is not able to be charged with the commission of some canonical crime.

In short, it makes no sense to suggest that EWTN could be the subject of an interdict. I suspect that the tweet retweeted by Fr. Spadaro intended to say that the Church should find some way to silence a commentator who some, apparently, find objectionable. That suggestion itself is concerning, especially since the Holy Father has so strenuously called for dialogue. But it is particularly concerning that a priest of influence in the Church and in the Vatican would give voice to a concrete suggestion that so obviously misunderstood the Church's canon law.

Canon law exists to serve justice — to ensure that all Catholics can, in an ordered and just way, pursue the Church's mission, the salvation of souls. Canon law matters. And wantonly disregarding it, or distorting it, to settle scores or silence critics is the first step to allowing chaos, injustice and sheer power politics to set the Church's agenda. Our theology — our belief in human dignity and human rights — cannot abide that. This is not a commentary about Raymond Arroyo. It is a call for the Church, and all her members, to respect the role of law, and the liberating effects of order and justice, within the communion of Christ's body.