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Canon Law and Fr. Gruner's Suspension (a divinis)

by Peter John Vere, JCL/M (Canon Law)

    Document Information

  • Descriptive Title:
    Canon Law and Fr. Gruner's Suspension a divinis
    Description:
    Pete Vere, JCL answers canon law questions about the suspension of Fr. Nicholas Gruner's priestly faculties.
  • Larger Work:
    The Wanderer
  • Pages: 7
  • Publisher & Date:
    Wanderer Printing Company, January 17, 2002

Answering canon law questions posed by Christ's faithful is among my favorite activities. One particular issue that has proven confusing to some as of late is the suspension of Fr. Nicholas Gruner's priestly faculties. In many cases, the confusion appears to arise from a press release entitled "Fatima Priest" Is Not Suspended. This press release is being distributed by a so-called "Committee for the Defense of the Priesthood." Therefore, a canonical explanation of the situation is appropriate.

Yet before proceeding, I would ask the reader to please note two points. First, the "Fatima Priest" to whom this committee refers is not Fr. Robert Fox, whose Fatima Family Apostolate is approved by the Church, but rather Fr. Nicholas Gruner. Second, the Committee for the Defense of the Priesthood does not state in their press release what canonical standing their committee holds within the Church. Nor, if the committee has some standing, does the press release state which competent ecclesiastical authority constituted this committee. This committee might possibly have some standing under the civil law, but so does Pope Pius XIII's religious entity in Montana. Therefore, I will leave whatever civil standing this committee might possess to civil lawyers to unravel, and restrict my comments to the applicable canon law.

Let me begin by citing the opening comments of this committee's response: "On September 12th Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy purported to `confirm' a suspension of Father Nicholas Gruner [.] The Vatican itself imposed no `suspension', but merely claims to be confirming what the Bishop of Avellino did."

In contrast, let us examine the Vatican's actual statement on this point within the Vatican's press release. "The Congregation for the Clergy, upon the mandate from a higher authority, wishes to state that Rev. Nicholas Gruner is under an 'a divinis' suspension, which has been confirmed by a definitive sentence of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature."

In short, Fr. Nicholas Gruner is suspended a divinis. According to canon 1333 §1, "Suspension, which can affect only clerics, prohibits: 1° all or some of the acts of the power of order; 2° all or some of the acts of the power of governance; [and] 3° the exercise of all or some of the rights or functions attaching to an office." Regardless of who initially imposed or declared the suspension against Fr. Gruner, the Apostolic Signatura upheld this penal sanction.

This power is well within the competency of the Apostolic Signatura's jurisdiction, as we read in article 121 of Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus which states: "The Apostolic Signatura functions as the supreme tribunal and also ensures that justice in the Church is correctly administered." Within the context of the current controversy, article 123 §1 of Pastor Bonus clearly sustains the Apostolic Signatura's jurisdiction in this matter, stating: "The Signatura adjudicates recourses lodged within the peremptory limit of thirty useful days against singular administrative acts whether issued by the dicasteries of the Roman Curia or approved by them, whenever it is contended that the impugned act violated some law either in the decision-making process or in the procedure used."

Moreover, when the Apostolic Signatura upholds the suspension a divinis of Fr. Gruner, it presumably does so as an official act of the Holy See. For in accordance with canon 361 of the Code of Canon Law, "[.] the term Apostolic See or Holy See mean not only the Roman Pontiff, but also, unless the contrary is clear from the nature of things or from the context, the Secretariat of State, the Council for the public affairs of the Church, and the other Institutes of the Roman Curia." Therefore, regardless of who initially imposed this penal sanction against Fr. Gruner, the Holy See formally recognizes the legitimacy of this censure. Under canon law, the Apostolic Signatura, and not the Committee for the Defense of the Priesthood, is the judicial forum competent within the Church to render definitive judgment with regards to the legality of Fr. Gruner's suspension.

Having resolved the issues of competency, as well as the authority with which the Church upholds the validity of Fr. Gruner's suspension a divinis, let us now look at the arguments this committee proposes against the validity of this act. The first argument cited in the committee's press release is the following: "Church law (Can. 1321) provides that no one can be punished unless he has actually committed some offense with malice or culpability. " To refresh our memories, Fr. Gruner was ordered by his legitimate ecclesiastical superior to undertake some action; he was warned that failure to do so would result in his suspension a divinis. He did not undertake the action required of him, and subsequently his competent ecclesiastical superior followed through with the threatened censure. In paragraph three of the very same canon the committee cites, we read: "Where there has been an external violation, imputability is presumed, unless it appears otherwise. " Some might argue that Fr. Gruner's imputability appears otherwise, however, it obviously did not appear otherwise to the Apostolic Signatura when adjudicating Fr. Gruner's case. This is important to keep in mind since, as previously explained, the Apostolic Signatura is the competent ecclesiastical court with regards to this matter.

The second argument proposed by this committee within their press release is as follows: "[.] the `suspension' purports to be based on Father Gruner's failure to "to `obey' an order to `return' to Avellino and take up permanent residence in Italy after he was prevented by Vatican officials from finding another bishop. [.] Quite simply, then, Father Gruner cannot be `ordered' to enter Italy as an illegal alien. Under Canon 22 the Church agrees to be bound by applicable civil law on immigration. Since Father Gruner cannot be forced to do what is illegal under civil law, his `suspension' is groundless. "

As I am not a civil lawyer, let alone one who specializes in Italian immigration law, I will not comment on the civil laws involved with Fr. Gruner's potential return to his diocese of incardination. Nevertheless, while the committee might wish to make some emotional arguments based upon this point, their canonical arguments are incorrect. For canon 22 begins with the qualifying phrase, "When the law of the Church remits some issue to the civil law [.]" No canon in the Code of Canon Law explicitly remits immigration issues to the civil law. Furthermore, since the Apostolic Signatura, which acts in the name of the Holy See, upholds the suspension a divinis against Fr. Gruner, then it would seem obvious that the Church has not remitted this issue to the civil law.

Furthermore, in situations where canon 22 might apply, according to the text of the canon it applies "provided [the issue] is not otherwise stipulated in canon law." In Fr. Gruner's particular situation, the competent ecclesiastical authority stipulated that Fr. Gruner either return to his diocese of incardination or incardinate elsewhere, as a condition for not imposing a suspension a divinis. Therefore, canon law stipulated otherwise in Fr. Gruner's case, and Fr. Gruner's failure to carry out either alternative led to the imposition of this censure.

Yet in reading the committee's press release, the reader is left with the impression that Italian immigration law is not the only issue preventing Fr. Gruner from returning to Avelino. In fact, a certain financial interest as well as an interest in continuing to lead a certain apostolate appears to be at stake for Fr. Gruner. This interest is mentioned in the following third argument proposed by the committee's press release:

"Third, even if there were a valid decree of suspension, in her mercy the Church recognizes that one is excused from a penalty if it was impossible or even `gravely inconvenient' to comply with the law that was allegedly violated. (Can. 1323) "

"It would be impossible, and certainly gravely inconvenient, for Father Gruner to enter Italy as an illegal alien at the age of 59, leaving behind his life's work, his home and all his personal affairs, and reside until death in a diocese which has made no provision for his support or old age and has never had a canonical mission for him because he cannot even speak the local dialect."

Since I imagine the local dialect has not changed much since Fr. Gruner's ordination, (and I also assume the Italian language is understood there) why did Fr. Gruner initially get himself ordained for a diocese whose local dialect he did not understand? From the canonical perspective, this question is especially troubling when one considers canon 265 which states: "Every cleric must be incardinated in a particular Church [a diocese or its equivalent in law] or a personal prelature, or in an institute of consecrated life or a society which has this faculty; accordingly, acephalous or `wandering' clergy are by no means allowed." In short, with regards to canon law, Fr. Gruner's diocese of incardination is his home.

Yet this question is merely an aside to the central question, namely, why is it gravely inconvenient for Fr. Gruner to abide by the other acts being requested of him, such as removing himself from his Fatima apostolate? Given the time he has devoted to it over the years, he may find it emotionally difficult to remove himself from this work, and perhaps overcoming such emotional attachment might prove inconvenient for him. Certainly both Fr. Paul Marx and Fr. Frank Pavone initially found it difficult, and probably no less inconvenient, to remove themselves from the full-time leadership position they enjoyed within their respective pro-life apostolates. Nevertheless, they were asked by the Church to do so, and they obeyed. Is Fr. Gruner exempt from doing the same as an act of good faith?

In short, one must distinguish between "differing priorities", "inconvenience" and "grave inconvenience." Canon 1323 specifies the inconvenience incurred must be "grave". It does not appear, at least in the Apostolic Signatura's estimation, that the requests being made of Fr. Gruner are gravely inconvenient. And so while Fr. Gruner's perception of his priorities may differ from what the Holy See believes his priorities ought to be, this would not constitute grave inconvenience according to canon law.

Unless, of course, in upholding the suspension a divinis against Fr. Gruner the Apostolic Signatura finds that Fr. Gruner's private apostolate is harmful to Christ's faithful, since canon 1323 specifies that grave inconvenience does not remove liability from a penalty if the act "tends to be harmful to souls." This could possibly explain why, should Fr. Gruner's following allegation be correct, the Holy See has moved to block any subsequent attempt by Fr. Gruner to incardinate elsewhere.

Yet obedience to the spirit of the request made by his legitimate ecclesiastical authority appears to be an approach Fr. Gruner chooses not to take. At least this is the appearance in the following excerpt from the committee's press release: "[.] even if Father Gruner were validly `suspended' (which is not admitted), he is perfectly entitled to carry on non-priestly duties such as publishing books and magazines, organizing or speaking at conferences, or directing a private Apostolate. (Canons 321-323)"

This is an interesting set of canons for the committee to invoke, given the following text of canon 323: "§1. Although private associations of Christ's faithful enjoy their own autonomy in accordance with canon 321, they are subject to the supervision of ecclesiastical authority, in accordance with canon 305, and also to the governance of the same authority. §2. It is also the responsibility of ecclesiastical authority, with due respect for the autonomy of private associations, to oversee and ensure that there is no dissipation of their forces, and that the exercise of their apostolate is directed to the common good."

In short, the autonomy of an apostolate, even a private one, belonging to Catholics is not absolute. According to canon law, such apostolates are subject to the supervision of the competent ecclesiastical authority, which is specified in canon 305 §2 (hence canon 323's reference to canon 305) as follows: "Associations of every kind are subject to the supervision of the Holy See. Diocesan associations are subject to the supervision of the local Ordinary, as are other associations to the extent that they work in the diocese."

Therefore, the Holy See possesses the canonical right to remove Fr. Gruner from his apostolate, as well as the canonical right to censure Fr. Gruner should he not comply. Additionally, the Holy See could impose a canonical censure on Fr. Gruner that would prohibit him from directing a private apostolate. If indeed the Holy See expects Fr. Gruner to remove himself from his apostolate - as implied by the committee in its statement "leaving behind his life's work" - then according to canon law Fr. Gruner should comply. Otherwise, faithful Catholics are under no obligation to support an apostolate in which the director will not comply with an expectation made of him by the Holy See in accordance with canon law.

Furthermore, regardless of whether or not the committee admits the validity of Fr. Gruner's suspension, the fact remains that the Holy See, through the judgment of the Apostolic Tribunal, which is the Church's Supreme Court, upholds the validity of Fr. Gruner's suspension. And I further reiterate that the Apostolic Tribunal, and not the Committee for the Defense of the Priesthood, is the only competent ecclesiastical Tribunal to adjudicate this matter. Therefore, the committee's non-admission has no canonical bearing upon the validity of the Church's suspension a divinis of Fr. Gruner.

Subsequently, the following argument proposed by the committee is similarly without canonical standing: "In their compulsion to silence Father Gruner at all costs, these Vatican officials trample on Canon 221: `Christ's faithful have the right that no canonical penalties be inflicted upon them except in accordance with the law.'" Again, as previously noted, Pope John Paul II has entrusted the Apostolic Signatura, and not the Committee for the Defense of the Priesthood with the competency to adjudicate this matter on behalf of the Church. Therefore, the penalty inflicted upon Fr. Gruner has been upheld in complete accordance with both the letter and the spirit of canon 221.

Let us now examine the final canonical argument proposed by the Committee for the Defense of the Priesthood within their press release. This argument states: "Even worse, the right of the faithful to seek the truth about Fatima is denied. (Canon 748)" Now here is the text of canon 748: "§1. All are bound to seek the truth in the matters which concern God and his Church; when they have found it, then by divine law they are bound, and they have the right, to embrace and keep it. §2. It is never lawful for anyone to force others to embrace the catholic faith against their consciences." Clearly, canon 748 does not treat all truth the same. Rather, canon 748 speaks of truth within the context of that truth which is necessary to being a Catholic. The Fatima message, on the other hand, is private revelation. It is not on the same level as the Church's infallible teaching concerning the Real Presence and Our Blessed Mother's Immaculate Conception - teachings the Church requires us to believe as Catholics.

Additionally, two other canonical weaknesses exist in the committee's argument. First of all, it fails to take into account the legislation of canon 223, which governs all rights belonging to Christ's faithful. The first paragraph of this canon states: "In exercising their rights, Christ's faithful, both individually and in associations, must take account of the common good of the Church, as well as the rights of others and their own duties to others." In refusing to admit the validity of Fr. Gruner's suspension a divinis, can we truly conclude that the Committee for the Defense of the Priesthood has taken into serious account the obligation of Christ's faithful to abide by the judgment of the Holy See? For while the exercise of some of Fr. Gruner's rights as a cleric might be limited due to his suspension a divinis, in keeping with the second paragraph of canon 223, "Ecclesiastical authority is entitled to regulate, in view of the common good, the exercise of rights which are proper to Christ's faithful."

Nevertheless, the right of the faithful to seek the truth about Fatima is not denied, as Fr. Gruner is not equivalent to the Fatima message. In fact, there are numerous apostolates that promote the Fatima message. Some of these apostolates, such as those under the direction of Fr. Fox, are approved by the Holy See, endorsed by the Bishop of Fatima, and prayed for by Sister Lucy. Fr. Gruner just happens to be in the leadership position of one particular minor Fatima apostolate. To provide a similar example, Fr. Frank Pavone was recently been recalled to diocesan ministry from his current full-time leadership position with Priests for Life. Is this a denial of the rights of Christ's faithful to promote the pro-life message? Obviously the answer is no, and Fr. Pavone (whom I greatly admire) looks forward to exercising his right to preach the pro-life message within his new parish ministry. Therefore, the right to promote the Fatima message would not be denied if Fr. Gruner were removed from full-time Fatima apostolate any more than the right to promote the pro-life message is compromised by Fr. Frank Pavone's return to diocesan ministry.

In fact, if this message were compromised by the removal of any individual, that individual would be Sister Lucy who is the last living seer to receive Our Blessed Mother's private revelation at Fatima. Nevertheless, Sister Lucy does not engage in full-time Fatima apostolate; she resides as a religious in a convent where she submits herself daily to her legitimate ecclesiastical superiors out of obedience (some might even say "neo-conservative" obedience) to the Church. Has the Fatima message been compromised as a result of Sister Lucy's Christian obedience in removing herself from the full-time public preaching of the Fatima message? Again, the answer is definitely no. Rather, the opposite is true; through her joyful submission and obedience to her hierarchical superiors within the Church, Sister Lucy not only is living proof of the authenticity of the Fatima message, but how the Fatima message ought to be authentically lived.

In conclusion, one can either choose the canonical conclusions of a committee of unknown canonical recognition or the authoritative judicial sentence of the Holy See. More importantly, however, in following the Fatima message one must choose between Fr. Gruner's example of disobedience to legitimate ecclesiastical authority, or Sister Lucy's constant example of obedience to the Church. Personally, Sister Lucy's example seems much more convincing and in keeping with the authentic Fatima message, as she was one of the three children chosen by the Blessed Mother of Christ to receive this important private revelation.

© The Wanderer, 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107, 612-224-5733.

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