Dear Fr Gregory,
I cannot tell you what I, sitting in your place, would have decided for I do not trust myself - for example, I might have been afraid of the consequences - but I can tell you what I like to think I would have decided, what I hope I would have decided. I hope I would have decided in favour of the man's appeal. Maybe that might have not been the exact legally defined position but then I guess I would have to argue that the law was meant to cover certain situations or abuses and that the man's circumstances were in keeping with the spirit of the law and its intent if not its exact technical wording. I have no idea how, if at all in the slightest, there would be any justification for that argument but I still hope that's what I would have done.
I think I am grasping at or struggling vaguely towards some connection with the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law?
In the recent British General Election we had the fiasco of people being denied their democratic right to vote because some polling stations had insufficient voting papers and at others people queued from 8.30 in the evening and were still queuing when the polling station doors were shut at 10pm. One polling station was kept open to allow people to vote and I heard talk of the Polling Station officer being prosecuted for breaking the law (though thankfully that seems to have been quietly dropped - at least I hope so - for all I know it could be quietly being pursued). I would have had no problem with a police constable being stood at the end of the queue at 10pm to allow no-one else to join as they would be trying to join after the official closing time but I would have wanted everyone who had queued (and in the pouring rain) whether for a couple of minutes or for 90 minutes to vote. Would I have been illegal in so doing? Undoubteldy. Would I care? Not in the slightest.
Am I saying that all these laws can simply be ignored whenever it suits us? No, I am not, I have it in mind that it has long been taught by many that even bad government and law is better than anarchy and chaos. So how I do judge? I have no neat and easy and tidy answers.
So in relationship to Church canons how do I apply them? Well I am certainly not to flaunt them and ignore them just because it suits me or makes me feel better. They are there to help me get it right, to help me do the best for the greatest number of people - but so is economy there for this also. I hope I will never be found to have deliberately just flaunted any canon - and especially not just because it made me feel good. But if I am to get it wrong and if I am to be judged or condemned then I would rather be judged and condemned for showing too much charity rather than too little. But even of this I do not make any absolute rule and certainly not for anyone else and bear in mind that much charity lies behind many canons and they are not just abitrarilly there to make life difficult and those who created these canons no doubt had many insights and much wisdom I don't have. I am no canon lawyer just a pastor trying to shepherd those few people God has called me to.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.