Some people might be wondering — especially in light of the death of Ted Kennedy.

My understanding has always been that every baptized Catholic, with few exceptions, has the right to a Catholic burial. But, of course, there are nuances and gray areas. And exceptions can often be a matter of personal opinion or prudential judgment.

Zenit, as fate would have it, posted this primer from Canon Law just a few days ago:

The Church is usually generous toward the deceased, within limits.

First, we must distinguish between offering a funeral Mass and celebrating a Mass whose intention is the eternal repose of a particular soul.

Since the latter is basically the private intention of the priest, albeit offered at the request of a particular person, and since there are practically no limitations as to whom we may pray for, almost any intention can be admitted. In cases that might cause scandal, especially if the person were denied a funeral Mass, it would not be prudent to make this intention public.

A funeral Mass on the other hand is basically a public act in which the Church intercedes for the deceased by name. A funeral Mass is one which uses the formulas found in the Roman Missal and the ritual for funerals. Some of these formulas may be used even if the deceased’s body is not present.

Because of its public nature the Church’s public intercession for a departed soul is more limited. A funeral Mass can be celebrated for most Catholics, but there are some specific cases in which canon law requires the denial of a funeral Mass.

Canons 1184-1185 say:

“Canon 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.

Ҥ2. If any doubt occurs, the local ordinary is to be consulted, and his judgment must be followed.

“Canon 1185. Any funeral Mass must also be denied a person who is excluded from ecclesiastical funerals.”

In fact, these strictures are rarely applied. In part, this is because many sinners do show signs of repentance before death.

Likewise, the canons are open to some interpretation. In No. 1184 §1 notorious would mean publicly known. Therefore someone who had abandoned the faith and joined some other group would be denied a funeral; someone who harbored private doubts or disagreements would not.

Cases of those who choose cremation for reasons contrary to the faith are extremely rare and are hard to prove (see the follow-up in our column of Nov. 29, 2005).

The most delicate cases are those in No. 1184 §1.3. Many canonists say that for denial of a funeral the person must be both widely known to be living in a state of grave sin and that holding a Church funeral would cause scandal.

About a year ago in Italy the Church denied an ecclesiastical funeral for a nationally known campaigner for euthanasia who requested and obtained the removal of his life-support system. In this case the request for a funeral for someone who was only nominally Catholic was in itself a publicity stunt for the organization behind the campaign. Likewise, someone subject to excommunication or interdict (for example, a Catholic abortionist) would be denied a funeral.

Given the severity of the requirements for denial of an ecclesiastical funeral, people in irregular marriages and suicides should not usually be denied a funeral. In such cases denial of the funeral is more likely than not to be counterproductive and cause unnecessary misunderstanding and bitterness. The Church intercedes for the soul and leaves final judgment to God.

I’m sure that doesn’t cover everything. But it’s a very good start for those curious about this sort of thing.

UPDATE: Elsewhere, people have raised questions about Kennedy’s remarriage, and wondered if there was an annulment. This writer says yes:

This excerpt from Adam Clymer’s 1999 biography may or may not help clarify things:

“Ted was able to take Communion (at his mother’s funeral) because the Catholic Church had granted him an annulment a couple of months before. He and his office never discussed it, but Joan (his first wife) said years later she had not opposed it, and that the ground Ted had cited was that his marriage vow to be faithful had not been honestly made.”

In the eyes of the church there is no marriage if the persons entering into it are not free to marry (i.e., already bound to another in marriage), do not enter freely into the marriage (there must be no coercion), do not intend to be faithful to the other, do not intend the marriage to be permanent, and do not have the physical or psychological capacity to make the marriage work.

The annulment process looks at all of these elements, and if there is proof of fraud or misrepresentation on any count, there is, the church declares, no marriage.

I was told by a mutual friend, but have no other proof, that upon learning of his terminal cancer, Ted Kennedy had a meeting with Joan, his first wife, for purposes of apology and personal forgiveness. I have no way of verifying that, nor am I inclined to want to check it out.

Judgment is God’s work, not mine.

There is more about Kennedy’s Catholicism at that link.

UPDATE II: Canon lawyer Ed Peters has some thoughts on the subject, too — and yes, he also concurs that Kennedy has the right to a Catholic funeral.

More from Beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad