Priest, Barred From Communion by Mahony, Appeals to the Vatican

Times Religion Writer

Controversial Roman Catholic priest Terrance A. Sweeney, barred from receiving Communion by Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, has appealed the ban to the Vatican.

Sweeney resigned from the Jesuit order under Vatican pressure in 1986 and married actress Pamela Shoop a year later in an Episcopal Church ceremony.

The appeal, sent Thursday to the Apostolic Signatura, a body of 24 cardinals at the Vatican, was based upon “an unprecedented action,” according to a top church lawyer of the U.S. Catholic Church.

“It’s not that unusual for a priest who marries to be in ‘bad standing’ or in an ‘irregular situation,’ ” said Father James Coriden, who teaches canon law and is dean at the Washington Theological Union, a Catholic seminary in Silver Spring, Md. “What is extremely unusual and unprecedented in my knowledge is to be publicly denied the Eucharist or to have a letter go out saying that no priest is to give him Communion.”


Will Serve as Advocate

Coriden said he will serve as an advocate for Sweeney if the Signatura takes up the case.

Mahony first informed Sweeney of the ban in January, 1988, several weeks after Sweeney had approached Mahony to receive Communion at Immaculate Conception Church in Los Angeles.

Because of Sweeney’s “well-publicized and canonically irregular marital union and my own obligation to foster good order within the archdiocese,” Mahony wrote, ". . . I ask you to refrain from presenting yourself to me, to my auxiliary bishops, or to any priest or minister of the Eucharist for reception of the Eucharist as long as you persist in retaining your present marital status.”

“I will renounce neither my wife nor my priesthood,” countered Sweeney, 43, in a subsequent letter to Mahony.

Sweeney resigned from the Jesuits after 24 years rather than yield to Vatican pressure to destroy his research into attitudes of the hierarchy toward optional celibacy for priests and the ordination of women. His unauthorized poll of the nation’s 312 Catholic bishops revealed that almost one-fourth of the 145 who replied said they would favor married priests.

In a letter addressed to Mahony and delivered Thursday to Msgr. Stephen Blair, chancellor of the archdiocese, Sweeney contended that Mahony’s directive to “offer not Communion but a blessing only” if he appeared at the altar rail is contrary to church law.

“The laws mandating celibacy for priests and forbidding priests to marry are morally wrong and therefore invalid,” Sweeney wrote. Copies of his six-page appeal to Cardinal Achilla Silvestrini, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, and a background paper by Sweeney, “Seven Reasons Why Requiring Celibacy by Law Is Immoral,” were attached to the letter to Mahony.

Sweeney also furnished copies of the documents and letters between Sweeney and Mahony to The Times.

Mahony said Friday that he considered receiving the materials “as merely advising me of the action in sending it (the appeal) to Rome. . . . My position is still the same,” Mahony added through archdiocesan press spokesman Bill Rivera. “When one creates a position of public scandal, I don’t have the freedom to permit him to receive Communion.”

Since he was forced out of the Jesuits, Sweeney is no longer under the authority of the religious order. He technically remains a priest but cannot exercise sacramental ministry. His marriage did not incur excommunication, but denial of his right to receive Communion is the same penalty imposed upon those who are considered to be excommunicated.

Father Francis Fajella, a canon lawyer who is a specialist in church vocational affairs, said in a telephone interview from his mission station in Panama City, Fla., that the Apostolic Signatura is not obligated to answer Sweeney’s appeal, and thus may choose to ignore it.

“The Signatura doesn’t say who’s right or wrong,” Fajella said. “But they could hear it. And that could take years.”

Fajella added that Mahony may be within his rights as head of the archdiocese because he is “the legislator, the executive and the judiciary all rolled into one.”

Fajella and canonist Coriden agreed that though it is now common for Catholic priests to drop out and marry, Sweeney’s case is exceptional because of his high visibility.

Sweeney has won an Emmy for his film work and he was technical adviser for “The Thorn Birds,” a television series based on a novel about a Catholic priest who fell in love with one his parishioners. He attracted national attention when he released the results of his bishops’ survey.

“Terry is a very unique individual in a very unique situation,” Fajella said. “All he’s doing is churning up the water and making a public issue of it. He’s using it (the ban) as an attention-getting device.”

Mahony “has general responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the archdiocese,” Coriden said. “If he sees that (Sweeney’s taking Communion) as . . . producing scandal among the faithful, then perhaps his action might be justified. . . . The whole issue is a tough call.”