Can a Lapsed Catholic Have a Catholic Funeral?

Q: My girlfriend’s grandfather stopped going to church after Vatican II, because he didn’t like all the changes in the Mass.  Now he’s getting old and the family is thinking about the possibility of an upcoming funeral, since he hasn’t made any burial plans for himself whatsoever.

They asked the pastor of their own parish what they could do.  He insists they can have a Catholic funeral for him if they want, no problem.  He said this, even though as pastor he has never even met the man.  Is this accurate, or is he just trying to be nice to the family?  I always assumed you had to be an active member of a parish if you expected to have a funeral Mass. –Conor

A: At first glance, it may certainly look like something is amiss here.  After all, Catholics are generally aware that a non-practicing Catholic can’t simply walk in off the street, after living for many years away from the Church, and expect to receive the sacraments—with confession being the one understandable exception.  A Catholic who has willfully failed to attend Mass regularly on Sundays and holydays, as is obligatory, has been engaging repeatedly in an objectively grave sinful act (cf. c. 1247, CCC 1389 and 1857); and he needs to get that straightened out with God through sacramental confession, before his status as a Catholic can be considered to have returned to normal (cf. c. 960).  In particular, a lapsed Catholic must first celebrate the sacrament of penance before receiving Holy Communion (c. 916).  In short, before joining in the regular sacramental life of the Church, a non-practicing Catholic has to return to the Church first!  So why would the issue of having a Catholic funeral for a lapsed Catholic be any different?

Many Catholics may be surprised to learn that in actual fact, every Catholic, whether he practices his faith or not, has the right to a Catholic funeral (c. 1176.1).  The wording of this canon is very strong: the faithful must be given a church funeral according to the norms of law.  The grammar used in the official Latin text of this canon couldn’t be more forceful!  You don’t have to be attending Mass regularly in order to be buried with full Catholic funeral rites.

There is no contradiction here, because there is actually a significant theological difference between permitting a non-practicing Catholic to receive the sacraments, and giving him a Catholic funeral.  A funeral is not a sacrament.  Think about it: once a Catholic has passed away, he’s obviously no longer able to receive the sacraments.  The Church’s funeral rites serve a different purpose, as the Catechism explains:

The Christian funeral confers on the deceased neither a sacrament nor a sacramental since he has “passed” beyond the sacramental economy. It is nonetheless a liturgical celebration of the Church.  The ministry of the Church aims at expressing efficacious communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community. (CCC 1684)

You might say that the Church’s funeral rites constitute a sort of spiritual escorting of the deceased Catholic to the throne of God.  We who are still living have no way of knowing the ultimate spiritual fate of the deceased person with certainty; but even if he lived a life far from God and the practice of his Catholic faith, it is always possible that through the workings of God’s grace, he expressed true repentance and was reconciled to God before his death.  If his soul is in Purgatory, celebrating a funeral Mass for him will also provide relief from his sufferings there.  The Church cares about the salvation of every member of the faithful—even the ones who during life, don’t bother caring about their salvation themselves.

It’s also worth noting that there are plenty of Catholics who don’t attend Mass regularly for entirely legitimate reasons.  It may be physically impossible for many elderly and chronically ill Catholics to travel to church on Sundays and holydays—that’s why televised “Mass for shut-ins” is commonly found in many parts of the world.  On a similar note, in rural areas, or regions where Catholics are few and far between, it might be necessary to travel hundreds of miles to find a Catholic church; and no Catholic is obliged to walk/drive for hours and hours to meet his Sunday obligation (although many devout Catholics around the world do exactly that!).  Thus the fact that a Catholic has not been attending Mass regularly does not automatically indicate that he has left the Church.  Catholics who are genuinely unable to get to Mass for reasons like these are certainly entitled to a Catholic funeral.

Conor indicates that the family’s pastor said they can have a funeral Mass for their relative “if they want”—but technically the priest could have worded this even more strongly.  If the family fails to arrange for a Catholic funeral when their relative passes away, they’re actually denying him his right.

With all this being said… there are exceptions to the rule.  Note that canon 1176.1, mentioned above, states that Catholics must be given a Catholic funeral “according to the norm of law.”  That last phrase is included because there are some Catholics who, according to the Code of Canon Law, are to be denied Catholic funeral rites.  As we saw in “Can a Public Sinner Have a Catholic Funeral?”  canon 1184 lays out the rules.  Unless they gave signs of repentance before their deaths, Catholic funeral rites are to be denied to notorious apostates, heretics and schismatics (c. 1184.1 n. 1); those who chose to have their bodies cremated for specifically anti-Christian motives (n. 2, and see “What Does the Church Really Say About Cremation?” for more on this); and any other manifest sinners, to whom a church funeral cannot be granted without causing public scandal (n. 3).

Imagine, for example, a Catholic who goes to medical school, stops taking his faith seriously, and becomes an abortionist.  Let’s say he spends many years earning his living by performing abortions, and eventually dies without giving any indication of remorse for his actions.  Maybe he had relatives who are still Catholic, and who would like him to have a Catholic funeral Mass.  In theory, it is not impossible that through some spectacular miracle of grace, he may have expressed perfect contrition for his sins before his death; but there’s absolutely no reason to assume that this happened.  Consequently, if a Catholic funeral were given to such a person, it would send a message to the Catholic faithful that performing abortions is not contrary to the Catholic faith.  It goes without saying that this is not what the Church wants Catholics to think—and the need to avoid scandal would, under canon 1184.1 n. 3, trump any right this doctor would have had to a Catholic funeral.

Along similar lines, let’s say a Catholic leaves the Church and becomes an ardent Baptist.  He attends the local Baptist Sunday services regularly, participates in Baptist church events, and urges all his friends—including Catholics—to attend Baptist services with him.  If he dies without giving any sign that he wished to return to the Catholic Church, and the whole local community considers him a Baptist (and an ex-Catholic), it would make little canonical sense to grant such a person a Catholic funeral, as per canon 1184.1 n. 1.

But as Conor describes his girlfriend’s grandfather, it appears that he doesn’t fit into any of these categories.  True, he fails to practice his faith, which is hardly praiseworthy; but it doesn’t sound like he has actually renounced Catholicism in any concrete way.  Unless he somehow shows before his death that he considers himself to have definitively broken with the Church, there is no reason why he shouldn’t have a Catholic funeral, including a Mass.

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