Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

When bishops don’t fulfill their duties

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 23, 2018

Year after year the Religious Education Conference (REC) in Los Angeles produces a new raft of horror stories: accounts about speakers who gleefully dismiss the established teachings of the Church, cheered on by an audience composed largely of people who are paid, by one American diocese or another, to instruct young people in the Catholic faith. Why does Archbishop Gomez tolerate this festival of dissent? I don’t know.

This year, Joseph Sciambra reports, a priest who works in the Los Angeles archdiocese exhorted parochial-school teachers to “affirm” 2nd and 3rd-graders who announce that they are exploring a different gender identity or sexual preference. To encourage little children in that direction strikes me as a form of child abuse. In fact the word “millstone” pops into my mind. Still that advice was not the most shocking statement that Father Chris Ponnet made.

According to Sciambra’s report, Father Ponnet said:

I assume when I walk into a Catholic mass at a Catholic school, that 40% if not more are non-Catholics….So I try to figure out how to say a Catholic mass without the word Jesus. It’s an interesting approach. Most of my Catholic friends begin to wonder whether I’m Catholic.

And his Catholic friends have reason to wonder, don’t they? A priest who can celebrate Mass without mentioning the name of Jesus (and isn’t it interesting that he speaks of the “word,” Jesus?) clearly is not intent on the re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice. How can he act in persona Christi if he sees the Lord as an unwelcome guest at the event? This priest, by his own words, raises questions about whether he actually intends to perform the Eucharistic Sacrifice—thus, whether he is celebrating a valid Mass.

Does a bishop have any task more important than ensuring that his people have access to the sacraments? And most important of all, to the valid celebration of the Mass? As we enter Holy Week, and recall the institution of the Eucharist and of the priesthood, please join me in praying that Father Ponnet will receive a call from his bishop, and a clear admonition that he should celebrate Mass properly, or not at all.

A few days before reading Sciambra’s depressing account of the REC, I had encountered a a thought-provoking little essay by an old friend. My favorite canon lawyer, Edward Peters, was responding to a piece in USA Today, by a Catholic doctor, Rebecca Luckett, who told the story of her own abortion. In reading how a doctor had chosen to end the life of her unborn child, Peters remarked that he felt “the same anger” that he would feel if he read, say, “an essay by a high-school drug counselor about why she decided to sell drugs to students.”

Unfortunately it is no longer unusual to read a mother’s account of her abortion. But in this case, because Luckett is a doctor and a Catholic, and shows that she was acquainted with the Church’s teaching and discipline, Peters observed that it is possible to conclude that “Luckett has committed a grave ecclesiastical crime.” Under the Code of Canon Law, the penalty for procuring abortion is excommunication. Ordinarily it is not clear whether someone responsible for an abortion has done so freely, and with full understanding of the act and its consequences, including its canonical consequences. But in this case, Peters notes, “much hard information about these very issues has already been freely provided by Luckett herself.”

So there is, at a minimum, significant prima facie evidence that a serious ecclesiastical crime has been committed. What happens next? In all likelihood, nothing. But Peters asks the right question:

Now, if one can imagine SVU detectives reading a column by a man who enslaves kidnapped children but not investigating the claim, or a police chief reading a guidance counselor’s defense of her drug-dealing but not making an arrest, then one could, I suppose, imagine a bishop reading Luckett’s essay about killing her pre-born child and not calling her to account.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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