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Is the Pope Above Canon Law?

Is the Pope Above Canon Law?

The article “White Smoke, Valid Pope” by Fr. Brian Harrison (March 2001) makes an interesting but flawed argument against the sedevacantists’ claims about Rome. Fr. Harrison argues from canon law regulations on heresy and excommunication in order to show that a pope who incurs latae sententiae excommunication would be a valid but illicit pope. He writes, “While this [heretical] pope would offend God gravely by exercising his office while under an (undeclared) excommunication, all his official acts still would be juridicially valid.”

These arguments that place the pope under the rule of canon law are futile. A closer scrutiny of the situation would reveal that the pope answers only to God: The pope is the author of canon law, which depends solely on his will. Excommunication is a disciplinary decision of the Church, and thus the qualifications that automatically incur excommunication-such as advising someone to have an abortion-are subject to change.

Fr. Harrison writes, “A pope who began his pontificate as an orthodox Catholic but became a formal heretic or apostate during his pontificate would thereby legally incur excommunication.” That statement is an impossibility. The pope is above canon law and is not subject to excommunication.

Thank you for all the good your organization has done. Your magazine is the most interesting and informative Catholic publication I have encountered. 

Mara Mirus 
Nokesville, Virginia 

Fr. Harrison replies: To say that the pope is “above canon law” is a half-truth. It is true in the sense that the pope has no superior on earth who could declare, enforce, or remove any penalty against him for breaches of the law. But it is false insofar as it means that he could never incur, in God’s sight, any such penalty or that he has no moral duty to act and govern the Church according to the law that he himself officially recognizes as valid at any given moment in his pontificate.

Canon law includes numerous prescriptions of divine law that no pope can ever overturn (see for example cc. 330, 925, 849, 864, and 1024 in the 1983 Code). Even the “merely” ecclesiastical law contained in the Code is for the universal Church, and the pope is morally obliged to be the first in giving a good example by living and acting as a law-abiding Christian. Of course, as supreme legislator, the pope may change any ecclesiastical law by officially and expressly abrogating it or derogating from it. But if he were to decree something which broke the law-that is, which acted against an existing ecclesiastical law without expressly adding a clause derogating from that law-then canon law itself (c. 38, 1983 Code; c. 46, 1917 Code) states that such a lawless action, even on the part of a “competent authority” (and that, of course, includes the pope) would have “no effect.” 

By the way, “advising someone to have an abortion” does not incur excommunication. Having an abortion does. 


Love Them Into Heaven


I just received my March 2001 issue, and I thought it was one of the best yet. In “Not Tough Love, Not Soft Love, but True Love” (March 2001), the author, Russell Ford, touched on several issues that are close to my heart. I am also a father, and although none of my children is in prison, I have a couple of godsons who are. And like Mr. Ford I feel I must love them into heaven.

The six suggestions he gave parents-use them, moms and dads. 

Jim Carter 
Iowa Park, Iowa


Basic Catechism Request

I receive This Rock by your most gracious charity because I could not afford it since I am incarcerated. I love the magazine and it is a great help to me on my Catholic journey.

I just read the article entitled “Not Tough Love, Not Soft Love, but True Love” (March 2001). This is a great article for parents of us men and women who are locked up.

In the article, Russell Ford recommended the basic catechism course by Fr. John Hardon that is distributed by Inter Mirifica. Could you print a way to contact the distributors for Catholic inmates who would like to do this study? 

Kevin F. Curran 

Editor’s reply: Fr. Hardon’s correspondence course may be obtained by contacting Ave Maria University Press, 25715 Meadowbrook Road, Novi, MI 48375; phone 888-343-8607; web site www.intermirifica.org/courses.htm. 


Ditto For Russell’s Advice


I wish to express my deepest and sincerest thanks and gratitude for all the indispensable help you provide us here at Taylor Correctional Institute to help strengthen the faith of our weaker brothers. From my own experiences in prison, I highly compliment and confirm everything Russell Ford writes (“Not Tough Love, Not Soft Love, but True Love,” March 2001). I did not see so much as one flaw in his advice to parents of incarcerated children-and I’ve been at this myself in prison for over twenty years. God bless Russell Ford and Catholic Answers. 

Daniel W. Osbourne 
Perry, Florida


Whipping Boys


On behalf of the Catholic community here, I want to thank you for the overwhelming response to my last letter (“Here at Sumter Correctional Institute,” February 2001). We have received some much-needed materials from all across the United States. These materials are being put to good use and have raised the eyebrows of some of the non-Catholics on this compound. The response has shown the men of this community that the Catholic Church is indeed alive and kicking in the U.S. and that our fellow Catholics do care. This means more to us than words can express. This has also shown us that the readers of This Rock are true to the mission of Christ and his Church.

It seems to us here at times that society only wants to use us as whipping boys for all of society’s woes and continually inflict more punishment on us and in turn on our families. So when true Catholics reach out to help us it is a true blessing, the effects of which reach even our children. The men and I request that you pray for our families and us.

I also encourage everyone to visit those who have gone astray and ended up in prison. If you check you’ll find most people know someone who’s behind bars. We need to know we are loved and not forgotten about. 

Matthew McConnaughy 
Bushnell, Florida


Immorality, Nor Opportunity

In the letters section of the March 2001 issue, Jay (last name withheld by request), a homosexual, states he is “denied the opportunity to fall in love with another person in this life” (“Homosexuality Is an Enormous Cross to Bear,” March 2001). Says who? He distorts the word love to mean sexual activity between two persons of the same gender. That’s not opportunity, that’s immorality. Nothing stops him from loving (in the true unselfish meaning of the word) anyone in this life. 

T.J. Russo 
New Orleans, Louisiana


Don’t Lump Animal Activists with Buddhists


In “Tranquility or the Cross?” (March 2001), the author, Alice von Hildebrand, erroneously throws animal rights advocates in with practicing Buddhists. She states, “We have seen that Buddhism in fact denies the existence of the person. The Western world has been infected by this dangerous error to such an extent that many people deny the essential difference of nature between man and animals.” She berates Peter Singer for his profound works on the “rights” of animals. (Dr. Singer is a gifted and enlightened professor and author. Read his works.). She states, “We save endangered species and simultaneously kill millions of babies.”

What she neglects to state is that the same types of corporations and evil people who pay for the baby-killing factories to exist are the same who torture and kill animals for profit. Consider this: A laboratory performing “tests” on animals receives a per diem that exceeds what a major in the U. S. Army gets during wartime. And this is per animal.

I have been active in the animal rights movement since 1982. I saw animals needlessly tortured-eyes sewn shut for the sake of psychological research, caustic chemicals poured into their eyes for the sake of testing beauty products, holes burned into their bodies for the sake of medical research-and their bodies thrown in garbage bins as if they were trash. I saw human nature at its worst. What else did I see? I saw the spirit of Christ reflected in the animals protectors and rescuers. I saw Christians risking their jobs, their freedom, and their very lives to protect these little ones. God gave man dominion over the animals not to torture and needlessly murder them. We are their caretakers.

Dr. von Hildebrand ends her article with a quote from Augustine: “By eliminating misery, we shall do away with the works of mercy. But will the fire of love thereby be extinguished?” Perhaps she should reflect on this quote prior to writing unkind and untrue remarks about the animal advocate movement. 

Bonnie Perry 
Wiesbaden, Germany 

Editor’s reply: Clearly, along with dominion over nature comes the responsibility of stewardship. No reasonable person would argue the immorality of torturing or needlessly killing animals. But this immorality springs not from any “rights” animals have but from humans violating the duty that comes with stewardship. (The issue of whether all research can be regarded as needless torture is an important one, but too large to be addressed here.) And while you may not “deny the essential difference of nature between man and animals,” many people in the animal advocate movement do. In fact, it would be fair to say that radical animal rights activists consider man an evil interloper in the natural world and consider non-moral (or more precisely non-immoral) animals nobler than man. As for Peter Singer, he maintains that “there will surely be some non-human animals whose lives, by any standards, are more valuable than the lives of some humans” (
Practical Ethics, 70). By this he means the life of a healthy dog is more valuable than that of a severely retarded infant, since the dog has a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others. This view doesn’t seem to qualify as “enlightened.”


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