Can a Public Sinner Have a Catholic Funeral?

Q: When opera star Luciano Pavarotti died in Italy in 2007, he had a big funeral in a Catholic church. Lots of famous people attended, and the bishop was there. Even the Pope issued a statement saying positive things about him. But nobody seems to be paying much attention to the fact that some years ago, Pavarotti left his wife and ran off with a woman half her age, whom I assume he married outside the Church. Why did church leaders ignore his scandalous life, and allow him to have a Catholic funeral, after he openly flaunted the Church’s teachings on marriage? –Betsy

A:  In “Can a Non-Catholic be Given a Catholic Funeral?” we looked at the possibility of celebrating a funeral Mass for a non-Catholic who had been married to a Catholic. In the course of that discussion, we saw that in general, deceased Catholics have the right to a church funeral, including a burial Mass (c. 1176.1).

The Church may, however, refuse a church funeral to Catholics in certain specific situations. Canon 1184.1 notes that unless they gave signs of repentance before death, Catholic funeral rites are to be denied to public sinners, if a church funeral could not be granted without public scandal to the faithful.

As we have already seen frequently in these articles, canon law is guided by theology, and this particular canon is no exception. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the whole point of having a Catholic funeral: “The Church who, as Mother, has borne the Christian sacramentally in her womb during his earthly pilgrimage, accompanies him at his journey’s end, in order to surrender him ‘into the Father’s hands’” (1683). If a person continuously and publicly engaged in activity that is directly contrary to church teaching during his life, and gave no indication of contrition for these actions before death, it is reasonable to presume that the person had chosen both to leave and to remain outside the Church. Catholic funeral rites, in such a case, would be highly inappropriate. Furthermore, holding a Catholic funeral Mass for such persons 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.

While they have generally not been publicized (for understandable reasons), there have definitely been occasions here in the U.S. when well known criminals have been denied a Catholic funeral. When necessary, the diocesan bishop himself is consulted and makes the final decision, in accord with canon 1184.2.

But before we jump to hasty conclusions about the decision to permit a Catholic funeral in the individual case that Betsy mentions, let’s take a careful look at the wording of the abovementioned canon 1184.1. It is important to note that a funeral may not be denied to any Catholic, no matter how openly sinful his life may have been, if he has manifested repentance before his death. By the grace of God, it’s always possible that a notorious criminal may choose to make a good confession and thereby reconcile himself to God and His Church. Note that while the sin may have been public, there’s no requirement to publicize the sinner’s repentance. But to avoid scandalizing the public, who may be questioning why the deceased is being permitted to have a funeral Mass, it may be prudent for church officials somehow to indicate in general terms that he was in fact reconciled before his death.

Let’s now look at what happened in the particular case to which Betsy refers. The famous opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who died on September 6, 2007, was raised a Catholic in Italy. He was married to the former Adua Veroni for nearly 40 years, obtaining a civil divorce in 2001. Several years earlier, revelations of an affair with his secretary, Nicoletta Mantovani, had caused tremendous scandal. Mantovani was 34 years Pavarotti’s junior. In 2003 she gave birth to the couple’s daughter, and they were married later that year in an Italian theater (i.e., outside the Catholic Church).

Objectively, there is no question that such conduct is contrary to the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Pavarotti did not seek, much less obtain an annulment of his first marriage, and his second marriage took place outside the Church. Both Catholic theology and canon law clearly hold that in such a situation, he in fact remained married to his first wife, and was consequently living with his former secretary without the benefit of marriage.

Yet Pavarotti’s funeral Mass took place on September 10, 2007 in the cathedral of his home town of Modena, with full Catholic funeral rites. He was lauded publicly by church leaders, including not only Modena’s own Archbishop Cocchi, but Pope Benedict himself, who noted that the tenor had “honored the divine gift of music.”

So what’s happened here? Did church officials turn a blind eye to Pavarotti’s actions and wrongly allow him Catholic funeral rites merely because of his fame?

Not at all. Several news sources outside the U.S. (primarily in Italy) observed that Pavarotti’s pastor, Fr. Remo Sartori, had stated openly that Pavarotti had been reconciled to the Church before his death. He indicated in some detail that he had visited the singer in the hospital, and that Pavarotti had been happy to see the priest. Father Sartori also noted that when Pavarotti’s death was approaching, he had administered to him the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, otherwise known as last rites.

It might be objected that Father Sartori did not say that Pavarotti had confessed his sins and repented of them—and that’s true. But as every priest knows, the content of a person’s confession may never be revealed (c. 983.1), and the penalty for violating this law is excommunication (c. 1388.1). Therefore it is legally impossible for Father Sartori ever to speak about this directly!

But look closely at what Father Sartori did say. Before his death, Pavarotti received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. This is an important piece of information which the priest was certainly permitted to state publicly. The purpose of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, according to canon 998, is to commend to the suffering and glorified Lord those faithful who are dangerously ill so that He may support and save them. Accordingly, this sacrament is to be administered only to sick Catholics who have asked for it (c. 1006). If Pavarotti had willfully turned his back on the Church for good, he presumably would not have agreed to receive this sacrament.

Furthermore, canon 1007 notes that this sacrament is not to be conferred upon those who obstinately persist in a manifestly grave sin. It would make no sense to anoint a dying sinner who has stubbornly refused to repent! A priest may not, therefore, agree to anoint someone whom he knows to be impenitent.

It seems pretty clear that Father Sartori is indirectly telling us that Pavarotti did, in fact, confess his sins and return to the Church before his death. He may have previously met the definition of a “public sinner” for the purposes of canon 1184.1, but with sacramental absolution came a return to the bosom of the Church. At his death, he thus was absolutely entitled to Catholic funeral rites, including a Catholic funeral Mass.

Let’s keep in mind that being a sinner, in and of itself, does not render a Catholic unworthy of a funeral Mass. If anyone stands in need of the graces that flow from the Holy Sacrifice, it’s someone who has sinned! Rather than condemn this man for his past sins, let’s commend him and all others like him to the mercy of God. Surely we ourselves, who are also sinners, after our own deaths will want nothing less.

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