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The category in Maiorem looks sound, the criteria less so

There is a good impulse behind Pope Francis’ document, Maiorem hac dilectionem, providing a path to beatification/canonization for those who offer their lives for others, if only because Maiorem addresses more cogently the awkward notion of “martyr of charity” developed by Pope John Paul II in regard to such luminous figures as St. Maximillian Kolbe.  The distortion of the idea of “martyrdom” inherent in that novel terminology has led, I fear, to a lurch from recognizing as “martyrs” (for the Faith) pretty much any Catholic who dies as a victim of religious persecution, something that has never sat well with the traditional understanding (and values) behind the concept of martyrdom. Unfortunately, making that technical point has long labored under the shadow of impiety, and I am pleased that Maiorem deals with it more forthrightly.

No, my concern about Maiorem is not with the category, it’s with the criteria.

Eligible for a process under Maiorem are those who “have voluntarily and freely offered their lives for others and have persevered until death in this regard.” Problem: This status includes tens of thousands of soldiers, policemen, firemen, and, countless others whom, we all know, put their lives on the line for others constantly and in many cases do in fact ‘voluntarily and freely offer their life for others’. And that is to say nothing of innumerable spur of the moment, but ultimate, sacrifices. If Mairoem is retroactive—and nothing suggests that it isn’t—local Churches first, and then Rome, could be deluged with sympathetic petitions. Deluged.

Unless some other criteria limit potential petitions. So, do any?

Well, the candidate for recognition must have lead a life of “ordinary Christian virtue” prior to his or her sacrifice. Problem: Such a criterion, aside from being quite vague (and hence of little use in a legal process) also seems easy to satisfy for countless cases. Under it, one need not have led a Kolbe-life prior to taking another’s place in the death cell, one just needs to have been an ordinarily decent Catholic man or woman. So, not very many petitions can be eliminated on that score.

ASIDE: Strictly speaking, if the greatest love is shown by one who gives his life for another (and we know that is true because Jesus told us so), why is it necessary to have led an ordinarily decent Christian life prior to offering one’s life for another in order to be recognized in this manner as having given one’s life for another? Cannot the crisis of a life and death situation lead one, in an instant, with the grace of God, to put aside a sinful life and choose the highest act of love? Does Maiorem, as stated, suggest that self-sacrifices by ‘less-than-honorable’ individuals are less significant?

Next there must be “signs of and a reputation of holiness, at least after death.” Now the procedural requirement regarding a reputation for holiness, especially one after death, has always been a problem in Church life. On the one hand, the Church has rightly been on guard on against excesses of piety toward local sons and daughters morphing into de facto canonizations—hence the many rules over the centuries restricting public cult for non-blesseds and non-saints (see, e.g., 1983 CIC 1187). At the same time, the Church does not want to investigate a figure whom no one cares about anymore. The tension between these two values has led to the unhappy compromise of looking for, well, some attention but not too much. No longer being able to thin cases by the requirement of a life of demonstrable “heroic virtue”, the reputation problem remains in these new norms, but stories apparently eligible for consideration under Maiorem are going to suffer, at least in the short run, from an inability to show a “reputation for holiness” after death in part because Catholics who honor the memory of their fallen ones might have avoided, even discouraged, reputations for holiness precisely out of respect for the Church’s reticence toward such accolades, especially in the cases of so-called “ordinary Christians”—the group explicitly included in the new norms as being eligible for consideration.

The final requirement, that of a miracle attributable to the candidate, adds nothing to what is already required and, for that reason, it will do nothing to decrease the number of cases eligible for local and Roman investigation under Maiorem—which is, of course, the tedious and taxing part of the process. So, once again, the new norms seem of limited practical value.

I say again, I think that the basic idea behind Maiorem is sound but I also think that some fairly significant practical issues have not been adequately anticipated or addressed in a document intended by its genre to address practical issue.

So, we’ll see what happens.

Post-script. I see Latin took another one on the chin here. This morning’s Bollettino introduced the Italian version of Mairoem as “the text” of Francis’ letter and identified the Latin as a “translation”. The fact that Maiorem sports a Latin title means little for so did Evangelii gaudium (2013) and it was officially released in Italian. Last I checked is still not out in Latin.

About that ‘Humanae vitae’ rumor

Too many Roman rumors, it seems of late, have turned out to be true (or close enough to true) to rule out recent rumors that a “papal commission” has been set up “to reconsider” (perhaps as a step toward repudiating?) Bl. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae (1968). In any event, a few observations.

1. Humanae vitae itself, as brilliant as it was and as prophetic as it turned out to be, was not an infallible exercise of the (papal) magisterium. But rather than defend that view against the few serious-thinking Catholics who might disagree let me move directly to my second point.

2. In my opinion the central teaching in Humanae vitae—that contraception between married couples (both terms being correctly understood) is intrinsically evil—is a proposition infallibly taught by the (ordinary universal) magisterium of the Church. I say this in light of my third point.

3. That the substance of Humanae vitae is infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium is masterfully argued in: John Ford & Germain Grisez, “Contraception and the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium”, Theological Studies 39 (1978) 258-312. This article expands on ideas considered in John Ford & Gerald Kelly, “Can the Catholic Teaching Change?”, in their Contemporary Moral Theology  (Newman Press, 1963) II: 256-278, but the 1963 article, while very good, need not be read in order to follow the 1978 discussion. If Ford and Grisez are correct (as I think they are, even in the face of some important challenges over the years) then no substantive modification of Humanae vitae can be wrought by any commission, papal, dicasterial, or otherwise.

4. What one could imagine being discussed hereabouts is whether the rejection of contraception set forth (I would say, infallibly) in regard to conjugal relations is applicable to non-conjugal relations. Some theologians, solidly committed to defending Church teaching against conjugal contraception, have flagged the fact that the anti-contraception tradition, witnessed to in Humanae vitae, has been clearly articulated, so far at least, only in regard to conjugal sex. See, e.g., Ramón García de Haro (Spanish priest, 1931-1996), Marriage in the Documents of the Magisterium: a course in the theology of marriage (Ignatius, 1993) 297-298. To be sure, others (including the esteemed William E. May, translator of García de Haro) argue that the Church’s rejection of contraception between married couples, already part of the infallible magisterium, also applies to non-conjugal sex (sex that is, of course, by definition, objectively immoral); but it is also possible that the Church’s rejection of conjugal contraception does not apply outside of that context. I grant, of course, that explaining that difference, not to mention keeping it from morphing into a license for all sorts of morally illicit acts, would not be easy in age ill-equipped to follow subtle discussions and ill-disposed toward even trying, but for those respectful of the Church’s tradition of precision in complex matters, drawing the distinction seems a possibility.

In any case, my main point is this: before any commission or study group could move against the substance of the Church’s teaching reflected in Humanae vitae, the arguments for its infallible certainty, arguments set forth and steadily defended by Ford and Grisez, would need to be addressed and soundly rejected.

Something I don’t see happening. At all.

Rossi’s mean remarks

Civil lawyer C. T. Rossi, in his essay Permission for Divorce and the Catholic Lawyer’s Dilemma, complains that “the Church has done little to educate its legal practitioners about their responsibilities as Catholic lawyers”, complains that it is sometimes difficult for attorneys to know whether it is “morally safe for them to assist a potential client”, and complains about prelates “who refuse to lift a finger to assist in the moral burdens that American Catholic lawyers face every day.”

My initial reaction to Rossi’s litany of woes, however, (something akin to “Okay. So, deal with it.”), is insufficient given that, not only does Rossi aim these complaints-qua-accusations at “the Church” herself, but he manages to mangle nearly every point he addresses and, in regard to the Jesuit Felix Cappello, he truly, truly, embarrasses himself. Where to begin?

How about with the canard that “the Church has done little to educate its legal practitioners about their responsibilities as Catholic lawyers”.

Has Rossi ever, I mean ever, picked up a classical moral theology text book, perused a collection of reliable Catholic Q&A columns, or read a canonical journal? Virtually everyone one of these publications has dealt many times with the duties of Catholic lawyers toward their clients and the civil legal system. How can anyone remotely familiar with the Catholic moral tradition not be aware of the frequent treatment that these questions have been accorded by esteemed thinkers in the Church? Unless, that is, one is not really so familiar with the Catholic moral tradition, in which case, though, one is hardly in a position to accuse the Church of not addressing these serious issues.

What’s that? Can’t find reliable textbooks on moral theology? Okay, how about googling “John Paul II”, “lawyers”, and “divorce”, which is it all it took me to find reports on that sainted pope’s famous 2002 address to the Roman Rota in which he considered exactly the questions Rossi claims the Church has neglected. Frankly, I think that the pope’s rhetoric in that address was a bit narrow (or better, the word “divorce” needs to be understood the way the canonical tradition understands it) but at least I have a right to an opinion on it because I’ve actually read the address. I see no evidence that Rossi has even heard of it—unless he skipped it as an inconvenient counter example to his claim about the Church not addressing his concerns. Which I frankly doubt.

Rossi refers to a controversy between ‘Mary’s Advocates’ and a local bishop about whether Catholics need a bishop’s permission to file for divorce. He mentions my published commentary on the canon law in this area and notes the remarks of another canonist who takes a different position. Rossi, not being a canon lawyer, declines (at first) to arbitrate the dispute. Fine, although the impression that my article (extended and supported by pertinent citations) has been effectively countered by talk-show remarks from another lawyer is an impression that Rossi should have cautioned against.

But, in any case, having just admitted his lack of qualifications to weigh in on this canonical argument, Rossi attacks bishops for their (alleged) disregard of “Catholic lawyers … right to see canon law enforced [by] the local bishop giving or withholding approbation of a civil divorce proceeding”! Does Rossi not see it? That is the precise point at issue, whether bishops have to issue such rulings in the first place! So, is Rossi qualified to conclude that bishops have such an obligation, or not? I say, not. Not at all.

But finally—and what really got me to sit down and make this reply—were Rossi’s painfully and obviously ignorant remarks about Felix Cappello, sj, who was probably the finest canonist-moral theologian of the 20th century—you know, the tradition Rossi shows no signs of ever having actually studied.

Cappello makes, among many other points in this area, the time-tested and universally-accepted observation that, under certain circumstances, confessors can leave penitents ‘in good faith’ about a situation that the penitent is, in fact, wrong about, but not wrong with what the tradition would recognize as a ‘studied will’. Rossi crudely casts this advice as a “don’t ask, don’t tell”, something that “arguably promotes some of the favorite vices of the modern day Church: sloth, cowardice, and pride”, and suggests that Cappello’s position (whom Rossi refers to in scare-quotes as a “renowned Roman canonist”) believes “it’s easier for the churchmen if the sheep remain blind.” That’s not just wrong to the point of ridiculous, it’s insulting to the memory of a man whose reputation for holiness perdures decades after his death.

What Cappello (and every other trustworthy moralist who has ever addressed the matter) knew was that “material error” is bad, but “formal error” is spiritually worse and that the first duty of a spiritual physician is to do no harm! Cappello’s advice, by the way, it would doubtless surprise Rossi to find out, was offered by his colleague, the Dominican Prummer, in regard to advising civil lawyers about divorce cases, writing, “In practice a confessor should not cause disquiet to any Catholic advocate who cannot refuse to undertake such cases without very serious inconvenience, provided that there is no scandal and nothing more is intended than the civil effects of the divorce.” Prummer, Handbook (1956) n. 949 (my emphasis). Why should civil lawyers get some slack here, while their clients don’t? 

The Servant of God Felix Cappello is buried in the St. Ignatius Church in Rome, a few feet from where his well-worn confessional stall stands today. Rossi might stop by there some day and peer through its glass panel. He would see therein a seat littered with slips of paper left there by pious faithful asking for the great man’s intercession or thanking him for favors that some think he has accorded.

Rossi might also ask for the grace to avoid accusing the Church of a negligence she has not shown and ask forgiveness for his mean remarks against the memory of a fine priest about whom he knows nothing.

+ + +

Update (11 July 2017): Mr. Rossi has replied, here.

The problem with internet debates, even between intelligent writers, is that there is no impartial judge to rule responses irrelevant, out of order, repetitious, and so on. Thus both sides can go on arguing “You missed my point” or “I never said that” and so on, pretty much forever if both sides are inclined. I could well make these kinds of responses to Rossi’s reply and add that, if he didn’t follow my points the first time I made them, why would he follow them the second, especially some points that, I reiterate, he simply does not realize he is in fact making. Sed cui bono?

Instead, let me say this: I have the academic credentials Rossi has (a law degree), so I understand broadly how lawyers think, but he does not have the credentials I have (a canon law degree and decades of experience in the field) so he often does not understand how canonists think, and he does not understand that he does not understand it. Many will take that observation, I know, as condescension–since experts who point out the errors of amateurs are pretty much always viewed as condescending. Oh well. I leave others to draw their own conclusions on that.

As to the deeper issue that Rossi seems to support, the interpretation of canon law that holds all Catholics bound to seek episcopal permission prior to divorce, I have set out canonical arguments for my views with which some others (so far, quite unqualified others) disagree. But I frankly wonder, why are some so upset that I disagree with their reading of the law? I will not decide what happens to their petition, so why, in the end, should they care what I think about the law in question? If I am right I am right, and if I am wrong I am wrong. Either way, it’s not my call. And lawyers in both traditions would agree, I am sure, that a lawyer might be quite correct in his arguments and yet the court yet rule wrongly, and vice versa. But as it is not my call, the distress that my disagreement with the views of some on this matter is, in the meantime, apparently causing them, and their reactions to my disagreement, is startling.  (And I frankly have Rossi less in mind here, he being a newcomer to the matter.)

But, unless and until an “authentic interpretation” on this matter comes down contrary to how I read the law (something that can’t happen in a recourse action against denial of an imprimatur, see c. 16), or unless someone (likely a qualified someone, but someone) provides a canonically cogent refutation of my interpretation of the law here, I will continue to defend faithful and bishops alike against ill-informed views that, in my considered opinion, chastise the consciences of those who are acting quite within the latitude left to them by law.

Bp. McGrath’s letter on sacramental service

In 1977, during the darkest period of canonical confusion that ran from the end of the Second Vatican Council until the promulgation of the 1983 Code, then-Fr Patrick McGrath earned a doctoral degree in canon law from the Lateran University in Rome. Now-Bp Patrick McGrath of San Jose is surely aware, then, that multiple canonical requirements for sacramental participation exist and he would, I imagine, be distressed to learn that his recent letter, implying that “good faith” is the only criterion for admission to the sacraments, could be pastorally misleading.

A key—not the only, but a key—norm controlling the administration of sacraments to the faithful is Canon 843 § 1 which states: “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.” Phrased negatively (because, given the fundamental right of the faithful to receive the sacraments established elsewhere in the Code, the burden is on ministers to demonstrate why they should refuse someone requesting a sacrament), this canon sets forth three factors that can require a minister to withhold sacramental services from a member of the faithful, namely, a petitioner’s: (1) bad timing; (2) inadequate disposition; and/or (3) canonical ineligibility. Bp. McGrath’s letter, expressing only one criterion (“good faith”), is already confusing, therefore, for those who do not know that at least three factors, and not just one, impact sacramental administration.

Now, about those three requirements.

1. That requests for sacraments be made at “appropriate times” is not an issue here and so I pass over it.

2. That “proper disposition” for sacraments must be shown by a member of the faithful is contested by some and unappreciated by many in the Church these days. Thus, failing even to mention this requirement does not advance the cause of pastoral clarity.

A closer look at the pastoral tradition on “proper disposition” for sacraments (or “worthiness” for them, per most older commentators) suggests that two questions are involved here, specifically, what we might call ‘external disposition’ (e.g., completion of catechesis, public comportment with the Faith, even dress and decorum) and ‘internal disposition’ (e.g., the state of one’s soul, level of belief, advertence to the act). While, as will be seen shortly, some aspects of the third requirement (canonical eligibility, below) can impact one’s disposition for sacramental service, in brief, the failure to show a suitable external disposition (including, therefore, public comportment with the Faith) leaves a minister little choice but to withhold sacramental service; in contrast, one’s internal disposition can, in most cases of public administration, be presumed. None of these important nuances would be apparent, of course, if one is told that “good faith” alone (even if that phrase is understood as something akin to proper internal disposition) suffices for sacramental administration.

3. Finally, that one must be canonically eligible for a sacramental service would, in earlier days perhaps, be so obvious as to not need restating. But these are not those days and, again, failing to mention this requirement does not advance the cause of pastoral clarity.

But that we might be clear, for example, Catholics who do not repent of extra-marital sexual acts (whether heterosexual or homosexual) cannot be absolved in Confession; Catholics who undergo a “sex-change” operation cannot receive a new Baptism; two Catholics of the same-sex cannot marry each other (nor can a Catholic cleric officiate at such a ceremony); and Catholics who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin” as that phrase is understood by the tradition and those who take the time to study it, must not be given holy Communion or granted Christian funeral rites.

Bp. Paprocki’s decree, unlike Bp. McGrath’s letter, underscores the exclusion of certain persons (more precisely, of persons who have taken certain public actions) from sacramental services based on the express or implied canonical requirements established by the Legislator. And Paprocki (a canonist, too, Gregorian Univ. 1989) goes on to indicate the canonically recognized conditions under which some or all sacramental services might be restored to such persons—information omitted from McGrath’s letter as being, one supposes, unnecessary if “good faith” is really all that is needed for sacramental service.

I do not know whether McGrath’s letter was really a ‘response’ to Paprocki’s decree, but I do know that the latter’s document is a much more complete and accurate presentation of Church discipline on sacramental administration than is the former’s.

Much.

Bp Paprocki’s norms on ‘same-sex marriage’

A few days ago, doubtless in response to pastoral questions he had been receiving from ministers in his local Church, Springfield IL Bp Thomas Paprocki issued diocesan norms regarding ministry toward persons who had entered a ‘same-sex marriage’. These norms, hardly remarkable for what they say, are nevertheless noteworthy for being necessary and for Paprocki’s willingness to state them clearly while knowing what kind of vilification he would suffer in their wake.

Predictably New Way’s Ministry attacked Paprocki’s norms using equally predictable language and arguments and by hosting a combox replete with personal attacks on the bishop. All of this is sad, but none of it is newsworthy. Worth underscoring, though, is the glibness with which Robert Shine, an editor at New Ways, attempts to school Paprocki, of all people, on canon law, of all things. A little background.

Paprocki has, besides the master’s degree in theology that Shine claims, a further licentiate degree in theology and, even more, a licentiate and doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. While I can’t quite say that Paprocki “wrote the book” on the defense of rights in the Church, he certainly wrote a book on it, his 580 page doctoral dissertation, Vindication and Defense of the Rights of the Christian Faithful through Administrative Recourse in the Local Church (1993), which tome I can spy from my desk right now. And before his canon law studies, Paprocki had already earned a civil law degree from DePaul University and had centered his legal practice around services to the poor.

And now Shine (sporting zero legal credentials) is going to tell Paprocki how canon law should be understood? Okay …

According to Shine, among the “other things wrong with Paprocki’s new guidelines” is their use of Canon 1184 which, as Shine correctly notes, restricts ecclesiastical funeral rites for, among others, “manifest sinners” whose funerals would provoke scandal. But then Shine attempts to explain what Canon 1184 means by the phrase “manifest sinners”.

Per Shine, “It is discrimination to target LGBT people when, in a certain sense, all Catholics could be deemed ‘manifest sinners.’” Channeling Fr. James Martin’s outrageous claim that “Pretty much everyone’s lifestyle is sinful”, Shine apparently thinks that, because it is manifest that everyone sins, everyone’s sins must be “manifest”. But Paprocki, having actually studied canon law, knows what canon law means by the phrase “manifest sinners”.

Paprocki knows, for example, that the CLSA New Commentary (2001) discussing Canon 1184 at p. 1412, understands one in “manifest sin” as one “publicly known to be living in a state of grave sin”. That’s a far cry from Shine’s rhetorical jab, delivered as if it were the coup de grace to Paprocki’s position, “Who among us, including Bishop Paprocki, does not publicly sin at different moments?” Hardly anyone, I would venture, and so would Paprocki. But the law is not directed at those who, from time to time, commit sin, even a public sin; it is concerned about those who make an objectively sinful state their way of life. Fumble that distinction, as Shine does, and one’s chances of correctly reading Canon 1184 drop to, well, zero.

Yet Shine goes on, thinking that offering some examples of supposedly-sinning Catholics who yet are not refused funeral rites should shame Paprocki into changing his policy, citing, among other debatables, “Catholics who … deny climate change.” Yes. Shine actually said that. And this sort of silliness is supposed to give a prelate like Paprocki pause?

There are several other problems with Shine’s sorry attempts to explain the canon law of ecclesiastical funerals, but I want to end these remarks by highlighting a much more important point: Paprocki’s decree is not aimed at a category of persons (homosexuals, lesbians, LGBT, etc., words that do not even appear in his document) but rather, it is concerned with an act, a public act, an act that creates a civilly-recognized status, namely, the act of entering into a ‘same-sex marriage’. That public act most certainly has public consequences, some civil and some canonical.

Bp Paprocki, by long training and awesome office, understands what the consequences of ‘same-sex marriage’ are and are not and he is much more likely to be thinking clearly about them than is Mr Shine.

Update, 28 June: An interview with Bp. Paprocki in the wake of his norms.

Concerning the Diocese of Ahiara

I know nothing about the ethno-ecclesial dispute in the Nigerian Diocese of Ahiara beyond what can be found in news reports and so offer no comment on it. Regarding the remarkable demands made by Pope Francis against the clergy of that diocese, the following points might facilitate informed discussion thereof.

1. Popes have “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” which they are “always able to exercise freely”. Canon 331. The authority of the pope to issue demands such as those linked above is not in question.

2. Phrasing in papal documents must be understood in light of how such phrases are typically understood in the Church. Thus, Francis’ demand for “total obedience” must not be read literally (the implications of such literality being too bizarre to contemplate) but rather, requires of clergy only, but completely, that obedience which is already required of them in light of, say, Canon 273. Accepting a papally-appointed bishop (Canon 377) unquestionably falls within this obligation, even if the pope did not require that acceptance to be included in a cleric’s letter.

3. Francis’ demand that every cleric incardinated in Ahiara send a submission letter asking “for forgiveness” might grate on those who have not opposed the appointment of the new bishop and, in my view, they should feel free to offer that observation in their letter. But the obligation on all clergy to send a submission letter seems clear.

4. The 30-day period in which to send the letter is not unreasonable but would still need to be assessed according to the usual norms on time (Canons 200-203).

5. The pope’s threat that a cleric’s failure to comply with his specific demand for a submission letter (as opposed to, say, a cleric’s simply accepting the designated bishop) will result in two consequences, suspension a divinis and loss of office, is problematic. Making these two canonical consequences latae sententiae (automatic) further complicates them. As usual.

Assuming that the pope’s June 8 statement amounts to a penal precept (Canons 49, 1314, 1319)—to which, of course, the ‘affirmative defenses’ against incurring sanctions listed in Canons 1323 and 1324 would apply—let’s assume that a cleric is liable to some sanction under it: What then?

Arguably, such a cleric would be suspended, but, suspension (as its name implies), while it prohibits acting in one’s office, does not deprive one of the office itself. Canon 1333. Moreover, most acts as might be performed by a cleric who is automatically suspended, though illicit (reason enough to avoid performing them), are nevertheless valid absent a subsequent declaratory sentence (which is not mentioned in the pope’s statement). Finally, suspended clerics remain eligible for diocesan and religious institutional support, etc. In short, canonical suspension, which might be likened to administrative leave with pay, sounds more grievous than, strictly speaking, it practically is for a cleric (setting aside the inconvenience that the faithful suffer when their clergy are prohibited from pastoral ministry—another consequence of suspension).

Perhaps these factors led the pope to add the threat of loss of office itself to the threat of mere suspension from office.

Canon law treats actual loss of ecclesiastical office (such as pastor, episcopal vicar, tribunal judge, and so on) for crime as an “expiatory” penalty and, as an expiatory (not a “medicinal”) penalty, loss of office cannot be incurred automatically. Canon 1336. I take, therefore, Francis’ threat of loss of office to be a blunt warning about what he is prepared to do in the future, should Ahiara clergy not send the letter demanded by the pope, rather than—pace Canons 18, 194, 221, 1321, 1341, and so on—reading it as some sort of implicit derogation from several canons.

From here this crisis could go in a couple of different directions canonically and speculation on those directions is premature, but the above should suffice to inform discussion of the matter as it now stands.

Do Catholics need to seek Church permission for divorce?

Simmering in Catholic circles for some time has been the assertion that Catholics need permission from their bishop to divorce. Proponents of this alleged requirement (one that, if observed in any meaningful way, would pose an enormous practical burden on bishops or, worse, might occasion a massive and deliberate rejection of ecclesiastical authority by lay faithful) usually invoke Canons 1151-1155 and/or Canons 1692-1696 to support their claim.

Their assertion recently took on a more formal canonical aspect when an author, who had been refused an ‘imprimatur’ for a text because it claimed that ecclesiastical permission for civil divorce is required by canon law, took recourse to Rome against that refusal; moreover, part of the disagreement between the author and the diocese turns on the weight to be accorded a 2015 letter from Cdl. Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, wherein he opines against the assertion that Catholics must obtain episcopal permission prior to filing for divorce. On the dispute between the author and the diocese, and on what weight, if any, should be given Coccopalmerio’s letter, I express no opinion.

But on the wider discussion about how to read the above-mentioned canons I have ventured some thoughts as follows: Edward Peters, “Do Catholics need ecclesiastical permission to divorce?”, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 40/1-2 (Spring-Summer, 2017) 61-64. The current FCSQ is hitting mailboxes now and it will eventually appear on-line, but till then this PDF will serve. Readers will decide for themselves what they think about my analysis.

Here I say only this: I am not shy about criticizing Cdl. Coccopalmerio (see, e.g., here, here, and here), so, if I thought he were wrong in holding that Catholics are not obligated to seek episcopal permission prior to filing for divorce, I would have said that. But my analysis of this issue leads me to the same conclusion he reached: episcopal permission for civil divorce might sometimes be required of Catholics in ‘concordat nations’ but not in ‘non-concordat nations’ such as the USA.

Update (21 May): “Mary’s Advocates” has posted a “Rebuttal to Ed Peters” taking issue with the arguments I set out in the FCSQ, or at least, with how they understand my arguments. I don’t see much use in replying, I’ve made my case and they’ve made theirs. Readers can form their own conclusions about which presentation is more likely correct and, more importantly, Roman authorities will certainly reach theirs in due course.