Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Denying Catholic Funeral Rites

Here is something you don't hear about very often: a Catholic has been denied the right to receive Catholic funeral rites. The article states that Erich Priebke, who died at the age of 100,
was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996 by an Italian court for organizing the infamous Ardeatine caves massacre, in which 335 Italians were executed in reprisal for an attack on German troops by antifascist resistance forces. By his own admission, Priebke personally shot two of the prisoners and supervised the deaths of the others.
Priebke never expressed public remorse, insisting he was following orders, and after his death, his lawyer released a seven-page testament in which the former SS official essentially denied the Holocaust, claiming that alleged crematoria in Nazi concentration camps were actually large kitchens for feeding inmates.
Consequently, the Vicar General of Rome, Cardinal Vallini, determined that no parish in the Roman diocese could offer Catholic funeral rites to Mr. Priebke. In justifying his decision, Cardinal Vallini referred to the Code of Canon Law:
Can. 1184 §1. Unless they gave some signs of repentance before death, the following must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals:
1. notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics;
2. those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith;
3. other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful.
§2. If any doubt occurs, the local ordinary is to be consulted, and his judgment must be followed.
Cardinal Vallini is a local ordinary and he must have had no evidence that Mr. Priebke gave any sign of repentance before death. These "signs" would not have to be "public" as in performed before a group of people or broadcast on television but they do have to be apparent to someone. The article notes that some might disagree with this decision. For instance,
Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier, the former theologian of the papal household under Pope John Paul II, who told reporters Saturday that mercy extends even to "great sinners."
"I hope that in the last instant of his life, this man found a way to change his mind and to repent, but we'll never know what happened," Cottier said in one interview. "God knows, and God can forgive." ...
With Priebke, he suggested taking precautions to avoid scandal, including "a very simple and sober rite." That said, he favored allowing a funeral to take place.
"I think that if funerals were denied to everyone who committed evil during their lives, it would be anticipating the judgment of God," he said.
Yes, we can hope that Priebke repented before death and maybe he did. We should certainly pray for him. Does that mean funeral rites must be allowed? I would suggest it does not. This canon, and law in general, has to operate based on external facts. Do we know the state of Priebke's soul at the point of his death? No, we cannot know that with any certainty. Fortunately, the law does not require that we know it. All the local ordinary can know is based on observable information: this man committed atrocities and did not offer signs of repentance. It is upon these external facts that he bases his judgment. The judgment of God might be different.

One might note canon 1185, which says "Any funeral Mass must also be denied a person who is excluded from ecclesiastical funerals." Does this mean that a Mass cannot be offered for Mr. Priebke? No, it only means that a funeral Mass--which is one of the "funeral rites" along with the vigil service, final commendation and committal, etc.--cannot be celebrated for him. A Mass, however, can be offered for anyone, living or dead (canon 901). For example, I remember some consternation when some parish bulletins announced that a Mass was offered for Osama bin Laden. That is definitely allowed. It may be prudent to keep such an intention private but, on the other hand, we are commanded to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). There is no better, more powerful prayer than the Mass.

October 16 Update

Now I see a story that says the Vicariate was ready to allow a "'private and discreet' ceremony." I don't know what that means. However, it may not matter since I saw another story where a priest (apparently a former member of the SSPX) wanted to conduct a funeral but was thwarted by protesters.


  1. This story about the former Nazi executor being denied a Catholic funeral rite
    brings up a situation that has happened in the US but for totally different reasons.
    Are you aware of Catholic African-Americans in the Chicago area who were
    denied a Catholic burial in a Catholic cemetery around the 1950-60s? I was told this
    by a Legion Of Mary member in the Chicago diocese who was a very devout
    practicing Catholic African-American elderly woman. If this really happened, which I do believe it did given the social-historical situation at the time, how could the Catholic Church rectify such a situation today?

    1. I don't know what could be done to rectify it. Offer Mass, prayers, sacrifices, penances, etc., to try to atone for such a thing, and make sure it doesn't happen again. Do you have any ideas?

  2. Presumably if he'd gone to Confession (and we'd not know what he confessed) and continued to thereafter observe the laws of the Church, this would not have been the case?

  3. That's a good question. Based on the requirements of the Seal of Confession, priests tend to not even acknowledge whether or not someone went to Confession: "Father, did so-and-so go to Confession?" "Ask him, not me." That being the case, a confessor would be hesitant to admit to anyone that a "public sinner" like Priebke went to Confession, if this took place in a private setting. The "public sinner" would still appear, to all the world, to be a public sinner: no one would know about the Confession. If he went to Confession in front of other people, this would obviously be an external sign of repentance and so the man would have been given a Catholic funeral.
    That being said, and having sufficiently muddied the water, yes, I think you could presume that.


Comments, although all moderated, are certainly welcome.