Q: I am a Catholic, and my husband of nearly 50 years is a member of the Assembly of God, a protestant church that’s popular down South, where he’s originally from. We were married in the Catholic Church and we raised our children as Catholics. There is no Assembly of God church in the area where we live now, so my husband cannot attend his church on Sunday. He doesn’t wish to come to Mass with me, either, so I always go alone. I’ve started wondering what would happen if my husband passes away, and we have to arrange a funeral for him. Is there any way he can be buried by a priest from my parish? Or will we just have to have a funeral without any kind of religious service at all? –Ann
A: Let’s look at this specific question in broader terms: who may be buried with Catholic funeral rites, and who may not?
As a rule, Catholic funeral rites, including a Catholic Mass, are for Catholic persons, who have the right to a church funeral by law (canon 1176.1). This generally holds true even if, at the time of death, the deceased person wasn’t a regularly practicing Catholic. Elderly persons and other shut-ins, for example, who would perhaps be attending Mass regularly if they were physically able to get there, can be buried with Catholic funeral rites from the local Catholic parish. This holds true even if the pastor there had never before been made aware of the shut-in’s presence within the boundaries of his parish! The deceased needn’t have been a registered or contributing member of a parish to be entitled to a Catholic funeral.
The Church may, and occasionally does, refuse Catholic funeral rites to Catholics in certain specific situations. Catholics who have publicly embraced heretical beliefs, or who are “manifest sinners,” such as members of violent gangs and organized-crime rings who are widely known to the public as such, are to be denied a Catholic funeral, if having one would cause public scandal among the Catholic faithful (c. 1184.1). The theological presumption behind the law here is that people who may have been raised as Catholics, but who have publicly accepted non-Catholic teachings or engaged in ongoing immoral activity, have in effect removed themselves from the Church. Holding a Catholic funeral Mass for such people may give the appearance that the Church is sanctioning their conduct, or attaching little importance to it—and the Church wishes to avoid sending such a message to Catholics at large.
At times this may require the pastor of a parish to make a difficult judgment call. Faced with grieving family members who are insisting that they want a funeral Mass for the deceased, a priest must act with great pastoral sensitivity, though without contradicting church discipline. If he is unsure how best to deal with the situation, he is to consult the bishop and follow his decision (c. 1184.2).
We have seen that the Church can, in certain instances, refuse Catholic funeral rites to Catholics who have effectively ceased to live their faith. But can the Church provide a Catholic funeral for a person who may have led an upright life, but who was never a member of the Catholic Church?
Canon 1183.3 provides a clear answer. A baptized person from a non-Catholic church may be permitted to have Catholic funeral rites, if (a) a minister from his own church is unavailable; (b) the diocesan bishop does not disapprove; and (c) the deceased person did not give any indication during life that he did not want such a funeral. This appears to be exactly the situation that Ann describes. Her husband may be a non-Catholic, but evidently he is not violently opposed to the Catholic faith, since he agreed to marry Ann in a Catholic church and did not prevent their children from being raised as Catholics. Unless he has specifically stated that he does not want to be buried with Catholic funeral rites, it seems reasonable to conclude that he would not be against it. And if there is no church of his denomination in the region where he and Ann live, then obviously no minister of his church is available to conduct his funeral.
So if Ann finds herself obliged to make funeral arrangements for her husband in the future, she can approach her pastor and tell him the situation. Unless Ann’s diocesan bishop has a reason for preventing it, her husband should be able to have Catholic funeral rites, including a Mass.