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A note on the “spiritual” reception of sacraments

Had it not made repeated appearances on the website of the always-thoughtful New Oxford Review, Prof. Ines Angeli Murzaku’s essay suggesting “spiritual communion” for Catholics denied sacramental holy Communion (usually per Canon 915, and usually because of a civil marriage following divorce) would not have occasioned my comments. But in light of Murzaku’s repeated assertions that all the sacraments she has received were received “spiritually” I think some clarifications are in order.

First, of course, I cannot imagine the hardships faced by Catholics who lived under the Communist government of Albania. Those who kept the faith under that regime have my admiration; those who fell away from it have my sympathetic prayers.

Now, on to Murzaku’s personal narration.

Murzaku writes: For our wedding [in Albania, my grandmother] invited me and my husband to the kitchen/altar to bless our union, which, due to political circumstances, could not be a sacramental-canonical marriage celebrated in a church. Our marriage was a spiritual marriage. The same was true for the other sacraments I received: baptism (which was a baptism of desire), confirmation (or chrismation), and the [E]ucharist, which came in the form of spiritual communion. Murzaku later repeats: As a Byzantine Catholic who received baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, and matrimony spiritually due to the extraordinary circumstances of persecution in my homeland, I can say that receiving the sacraments spiritually was enormously beneficial.

From the above passages one cannot tell whether Murzaku is, in fact, baptized, confirmed, communicated, confessed, or sacramentally married.

So-called “baptism of desire” is a term of art used to describe not baptism (fervently received or otherwise) but rather the assurance of salvation accorded those who, intending to be baptized, die before they can receive that desired sacrament. CCC 1259. The phrase “baptism of desire” is thus a this-world term for an other-world phenomenon. No one walking around today is considered “baptized by desire” or even “baptized”.

But, if Murzaku is not sacramentally baptized, then she cannot have been confirmed (Canon 842) either; moreover even if she had been sacramentally baptized at some point, if her Confirmation was merely “spiritual”, as she said, then again she has not received that sacrament. The same must be said about her reception(s) of the Eucharist and Confessions.

There is not enough information in Murzaku’s essay to assess the canonical status of her marriage but, whatever “work-arounds” were available to her in terms of the (imho, now out-dated) requirement of canonical form for marriage (and yes, Church law offers some alternatives to form in Canons 1112 and 1116, etc.), if Murzaku was not baptized, then her marriage, even to a baptized person, cannot be a sacrament for her or for her spouse, even if he is Catholic. Again, without sacramental baptism no other sacraments are even possible.

All of this boils down to: if Murzaku’s baptism really was, as she repeatedly states, merely a “baptism of desire”, then none of the other sacraments she claims took effect. Now my personal guess (and hope) is that some heart-felt emotions became mixed up in Murzaku’s description of her sacramental history, and that at some point she really did receive these sacraments, but, even so, the ambiguities in her story should be clarified as they have now appeared, more than once, before a very wide electronic audience that can be confused by how she has repeatedly expressed herself.


Canon Law History: Canon 920

Roman Catholics are generally required to receive holy Communion at least once per year especially during the Easter season (1983 CIC 920). This same obligation was contained in the Pio-Benedictine Code (1917 CIC 859) and in turn rested on legislation going back several centuries at least to the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Clinton, Paschal Precept (CUA canon law diss. 73, 1932) 8-40.

While certificates for “First Communion” are common today, formal certification of one’s annual Communion duty has disappeared–although, as noted above, the obligation of receiving remains in force.

I recently came across a certificate of annual Communion reception issued, as it happens, by a parish church that still serves in Pittsburgh,  and I thought y’all might like to see it.

Mr Boudway would like to continue. Okay.

Matthew Boudway, responding to my post of yesterday against his, writes “It’s usually a bad sign when someone begins his argument by pointing out his opponent’s lack of credentials.” I certainly did this in regard to Boudway’s patent unpreparedness to argue points of canon law.

But may I add, it’s also usually a bad sign when someone who, despite his utter lack of credentials to debate a given technical issue professes to correct an expert in the field (and seriously misrepresents several points along the way), then complains when his lack of credentials to engage in that argument are soberly pointed out by an observer—even though such observation might serve to soften the sting of correction that needs be offered against the amateur’s misrepresentations.

If Boudway is startled that a professional canonist who regularly engages mistaken assertions of canon law made in the public arena has, along the way, noticed a distinct up-tick in the number of amateurs who think that, because canon law is available in the vernacular, their ability to read the canons supplies them the ability to explain canon law to others (even to real experts in the field!), all I can say is, Boudway is even more out of touch with current canonical discourse than I had thought. Scrolling through my blog for the last several years, however, would amply show Boudway how many amateurs—on the ecclesial ‘Left’ and on the ecclesial ‘Right’—seemed confident of their ability to explain the law to lawyers, too.

As many amateurs do when called out by professionals for making serious mistakes in their discussion of an issue, Boudway plays the pity card against Murray and me, ridiculing our degrees, complaining that lo! some words don’t mean in law what they mean in daily speech, and even sarcastically admitting that canon law uses Latin. Still, Boudway’s public misstatements of canon law needed, in my opinion, and received, public correcting, offered for his sake (and yes, some whom I address do change their minds) and for the sake of readers who think that one’s ability to write decent prose, as Boudway does, reflects one’s good understanding of what one is talking about. Which here it does not.

Anyway, the closest Boudway comes to making a canonical follow-up point seems to be his observation that “The terms ‘extrinsically indissoluble’ and ‘intrinsically indissoluble’ are, as the L’Osservatore Romano delicately observed in 1998, of ‘relatively recent’ origin.”  That sounds about right, but Boudway relates them as if to imply that the concepts such terms represent are also of relatively recent origin. If that is his point, he strays, for what is doctrinal and canonical history but, in large part, the unfolding and the specification and the elaboration of truths left to the Church by Christ? The Church started celebrating the sacraments on Pentecost, but it took her a millennium to come up with a common and consistent vocabulary by which to treat such actions.

One could as well complain that terms like “primary and secondary objects of infallibility” are of relatively recent origin, as is “diocesan curia”, “secular institute”, or “diriment impediment”—none of which are found in Scripture. But, are these concepts and dozens more besides, to borrow Boudway’s words, “patch[es] sewn on by certified tailors, made of the finest Roman silk money can buy”? (As I said, Boudway knows little of canon law but he does turn a nice phrase.) I think not.

Unfortunately Boudway leaves unrepaired the central flaw in his attack on Murray and ignores the main point I made in Murray’s defense: that there is at least one exceptionless norm in marriage law, and it is this: consummated marriage between two baptized parties is, by any definition, indissoluble except by death (Canon 1141). For a man who professes to be struck by exceptions to what some suppose are exceptionless norms, I would have thought Boudway might take solace in knowing that at least one exceptionless marriage norm does exist. Yet Boudway avoids it. Perhaps it’s inconvenient.

Enough of this, save for a final observation.

Almost every canon lawyer I know is happy, verging on eager, to explain the Western world’s oldest continuously functioning legal system to persons desiring to know about our Church’s canon law. Virtually every canonist carries on, behind the scenes, a steady stream of information sharing, explanations, advice, and guidance concerning the Church’s law with real people facing real issues. We canonists know, from years of dedicated study and extensive practical experience, how much pastoral wisdom is wrapped up in canons that, to most people, seem dry as dust, and we want to share it.

Had Boudway written privately to Murray (or to me) with questions about the canon law of marriage instead of broadcasting his mistaken theories on the internet, he would have gotten prompt and competent answers. Instead, he chose to write publicly against Murray attacking the canonical and doctrinal points that Murray, and countless others who actually know what they are talking about, had defended correctly.

Boudway’s approach prompted a different kind of response. 

Sententia communis? Just ‘sententia communis’?

My friend and colleague Dr. Robert Fastiggi recently replied to Dr. Edward Feser regarding Feser’s defense of capital punishment in capital cases. Feser holds that the moral liceity of the justly administered death penalty has been established with infallible certitude by the Magisterium of the Church and that a pope is not free to contradict that conclusion. I agree with Feser on his infallibility claim but my focus is now elsewhere.

While Fastiggi disagrees with Feser on the infallibility claim, he seems open to the possibility that Church teaching on the liceity of the death penalty bears the theological note of “sententia communis” which grants that the traditional view of the death penalty represents “common thinking” though it ultimately remains a matter of opinion. Because Fastiggi, in a long essay that proves many points that Feser would not dispute, thinks that “the odds are stacked against Feser” in determining what constitutes Church teaching, one should “stick with the pope” unless and until, one supposes, a later pope comes along to change the teaching again.

Of course Fastiggi, if ever faced with a pope he knew to be preparing to deny publicly an infallible Church teaching, would react to such a looming catastrophe as would Feser and I, by falling to his knees and imploring divine assistance against such a move. But, as Fastiggi does not think that Pope Francis is preparing to contradict something  infallibly asserted, a reaction more along the lines of sober academic curiosity suffices regarding Francis’ recent assertions that the death penalty itself is “contrary to the Gospel” and so on.

Hmmm. Let’s think about this.

Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Tan 1974) presents hundreds of doctrinal and theological assertions according to their “grade of certainty”, including dozens that Ott regards as “sententia communis”. The list includes:

• Christ’s sanctifying grace flows to his Mystical Body, 171;

• Christ’s atonement exceeds the debt of all human sins, 188;

• The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, 294;

• The saints in heaven can help the souls in purgatory by intercession, 322; and,

• Dead people cannot receive sacraments, 344.

Now, taking just the last two examples of “sententia communis” claims, suppose a pope were to “announce” (to use a neutral term) that the intercession of the saints in heaven is useless to the souls in purgatory and that dead people can henceforth receive at least some sacraments. Suppose he threw in an expression of regret that even the Holy See, out of a mentality ‘more dogmatic than Christian’ had itself supported these views until recently.

Would it suffice to respond to such an announcement ‘Well, these views never were asserted infallibly’ so, yes, let’s rewrite the Catechism in regard to CCC 1259 (so that dead catechumens can be baptized anyway) or in regard to CCC 956 and 2683 (so as to make clear that Saints cannot pray for the Church suffering but only for the Church militant)?

I think not. I think Feser would think not. And I think Fastiggi would think not. But if not, why not?

Having asked the question, let me briefly propose an answer, one I suggest is latent in Fastiggi’s admirable deference to the magisterium (papal and otherwise), but one requiring more appreciation of the indicators that such magisterium has already been engaged.

Pope St. John Paul II in his landmark motu proprio Ad tuendam fidem (1998) filled a serious lacuna in canon law when he gave legal expression to the binding character of infallible assertions concerning (what specialists call) “secondary objects of infallibility”. See 1983 CIC 750 as revised, and the penal teeth given the new norm by Canon 1371 as revised. That papal document along with Cdl. Ratzinger’s “Doctrinal Commentary” on the new norms provide us, I think, new and valuable insights into the scope and qualities of infallible assertions that might have been long held in the Church but for which, until recently, we had only limited tools for recognizing as such, thus, prudently contenting ourselves with assigning them lesser theological claims of surety such as “sententia communis”, “theologice certa”, and so on.

It is, thus, my suggestion that many of the assertions hitherto listed by theologians with a surfeit of restraint as merely, say, “sententia communis” might, upon closer investigation in light of the criteria set out in Ad tuendam and its progeny, be found to enjoy infallible certitude, after all, as either primary or, as I think the liceity of the capital punishment qualifies, as secondary objects of infallibility. 

In other words, cautious thinkers such as Fastiggi might, by applying Ad tuendam to a position they could already see as “sententia communis”, come to see in the Church’s long defense of the liceity of capital punishment the marks of infallible certitude as well.

And that conclusion, in turn, changes everything.

Update, 27 oct 2017. Over at CWR, Fastiggi replied as follows: Thank you for your kind and thoughtful article. As you know, I am quite familiar with the text of Fr. Ludwig Ott. Perhaps some of the theses he recognizes as “sententia communis” might be definitive but not all. Each needs to be examined on its own merits. Probably the theological notes of “sententia certa” or “sententia fidei proxima” would be more likely candidates for definitive teachings. Also, some of Ott’s theological notes might be questioned. For example, he assigns the note “sententia certa” to the teaching that “every valid contract of Marriage between Christians is itself a sacrament.” I would think this might be “de fide.”

I knew he would consider my suggestions on their merits. And, yes, no one knows Ott better than Bob.


A note on Madison’s funeral policy

One might be willing to have an informed and dispassionate discussion (that pretty much rules out the internet) about whether Canon 1184, (which in mildly obtuse terms denies ecclesiastical funeral rites to “manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful”) reflects a good understanding of what ecclesiastical funerals do and don’t accomplish for the dead and their familiars*, or about whether these points are generally correctly understood by the faithful, but about whether persons who enter civil “same-sex marriage” qualify as “manifest sinners” under canon law, no, that is simply not a question.

Analysis of the terms used in Canon 1184 essentially tracks that used to understand Canon 915 and, as has been demonstrated many times, persons who enter “same-sex marriage” plainly manifest their opposition to crucial and infallible Church teaching that restricts marriage to one man and one woman. The positions taken by Springfield IL Bp. Paprocki and by the Diocese of Madison restricting funerals in such cases and outlining possible exceptions to those restrictions are thoroughly consistent with the canon law of the Catholic Church. + + +

* “I should like to interject a comforting remark at this stage. It should not be forgotten that [even] an error in this matter of denying Christian burial has none of the consequences that could arise from a refusal to grant the sacraments. This law is purely of the external forum, and the external state of the soul is in no way determined by it. Where the reception of the sacraments may mean the difference between salvation and damnation, Christian burial cannot decide the eternal status of a soul which is already before God, and beyond the power of the Church either to save or to condemn.” Charles Kerin, “Christian Burial Problems” The Jurist 15 (1955) 252-282, at 262.

Boudway vs. Murray is not even close

The nonchalance with which some non-canonists try to argue canon law with canon lawyers these days verges on the remarkable. But, folks, these aren’t fair fights; they are scarcely even interesting. The latest example is Matthew Boudway over at Commonweal.

Somehow Boudway has gotten it into his head that Fr. Gerald Murray (J.C.D., Gregorian University, 1998) thinks that the Catholic Church holds that “all valid marriages are indissoluble” even though the Code of Canon Law (which apparently Boudway looked at the other day) indicates a few instances wherein valid marriages can be dissolved (i.e., the papal dissolution of non-consummated sacramental marriages and of certain non-sacramental marriages per Canon 1142 and the Pauline Privilege dissolution of marriage per Canons 1143-1147). Thinking he has fingered a truth that Murray should find inconvenient, Boudway wonders why Murray (who opposes the assault on the Church’s teaching on marriage being conducted under cover of Amoris laetitia) is not embarrassed by these supposed examples of “the Catholic Church … condoning a narrow category of adultery for much of its history.”

Yes, it’s embarrassing, alright. For Boudway.

I’ll do this quickly.

The Catholic Church does not teach that “all valid marriages are indissoluble”. She teaches, more precisely than Boudway grasps, that all valid marriages are ‘intrinsically indissoluble’ (not a happy adjective, but one that trained canonists understand in this context) meaning that the parties to a valid marriage (be it natural, merely sacramental, or sacramental and consummated) cannot dissolve it. There are no exceptions to the intrinsic indissolubility of marriage. None.

The notion of intrinsic indissolubility leaves open the possibility, however, that an ‘extrinsic’ power might, might, under certain, unusual-to-rare, circumstances be able to dissolve a valid marriage (say by ‘Petrine privilege’ with regard to non-sacramental marriage between a baptized and a non-baptized party); that a subsequent marriage might dissolve a non-sacramental marriage between two non-baptized persons (the Pauline Privilege); or even that a sacramental but non-consummated marriage could be dissolved by papal act. But these cases are not “exceptions” to some ‘rule’ whereby all valid marriages are supposedly ‘extrinsically‘ indissoluble because such a rule does not exist.

What rule does exist, as Murray knows, and as the Church has held since her inception, is the rule now set out in Canon 1141 (but incredibly not cited by Boudway!) that: “A marriage that is ratified [i.e., between two baptized parties] and consummated [i.e., the conjugal act has taken place between the spouses] can be dissolved by no human power (i.e., not a pope, not the state, and not the parties) and by no cause, except death” (my emphasis). Period. End of discussion.

In short: Valid, consummated marriage between two baptized people is (intrinsically and extrinsically) indissoluble (see Canon 1056) except by death; persons in such marriages attempting other marriages enter a state of “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384) and thus may not be admitted to holy Communion (Canon 915).

Fr. Murray understands this perfectly and proclaims it faithfully.

Update, Mr Boudway replied to the above comments here. I replied to his response here.

Good stories tell the whole story

Pope Francis is a story teller who uses stories to make his points. A time-honored method of teaching, of course, but it comes with a risk: omitting parts of a story can leave listeners with a distorted sense of the reality behind the story.

Complaining yesterday for the umpteenth time about Pharisees in the Church—apparently Francis has discounted complaints from Jews that his unrelenting portrayal of Pharisees-qua-boogeymen is lending comfort to anti-Semites—the pope told a story about a pastoral travesty committed in regard to baptism. And it was a travesty.

Per Francis: Three months ago, in a country, in a city, a mother wanted to baptize her newly born son, but she was married civilly with a divorced man. The priest said, ‘Yes, yes. Baptize the baby. But your husband is divorced. So he cannot be present at the ceremony.’ This is happening today. The Pharisees, doctors of the law are not people of the past, even today, there are many of them.

I winced when I read the story not because I assumed, as would any non-lawyer in the wake of those words, that canon law is so heartless as to exclude a father from his son’s baptism, but rather because I know, precisely as a lawyer, how much pastoral wisdom is packed into the Johanno-Pauline Code and how little of that wisdom was brought to bear by the priest’s actions as narrated in the pope’s story

First, let’s us be clear: No canon of the 1983 Code bans parents from sacramental celebrations involving their children and no canon authorizes priests to exclude parents from such sacred events.

In fact quite the opposite approach is taken by canon law: e.g., Canon 226 upholds parental primacy over the raising of their children, Canon 835 § 4 defends this right and duty in the midst of the sacramental-liturgical life of the Church, Canons 867-868 impose parental obligations to seek baptism for children promptly, and Canon 1136 recognizes that parents have “the most grave duty and the primary right to take care as best they can for the physical, social, cultural, moral, and religious education of their offspring.”

So, here, a priest illegally bans a parent from his child’s baptism and yet canon law gets blamed for it. See what happens when key aspects of a story are left out?

But here’s another part of the story, one that the priest who attracted the pope’s ire might have been stumbling toward but which, perhaps being the product of the shabby canonical training that so many seminarians “in a country, in a city” seemed to have received over the last fifty years, he did not understand correctly: canon law (reflecting doctrinal mandates and centuries of disciplinary wisdom) requires for the licit baptism of a child “a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion” per Canon 868 § 1 n. 1.

Ahhh. A “founded hope” of being raised Catholic. Might some vague awareness of that requirement have been behind the priest’s hesitation to treat this baptismal request the same as he would treat a baptismal request from a couple married in the Church and active in the practice of their faith? Or, are all baptismal requests owed an automatic “Sure!” from pastors now?

However illegal was the priest’s decision to ban a father from his son’s baptism (and it was illegal), might the priest’s common sense intuited that Catholic parents who live in contradiction to the teachings of Christ and his Church on marriage diminish the chances that their children will be brought up in an environment conducive to learning and living the requirements of the Catholic faith?  If so, he might have been recognizing exactly what countless of his brothers have recognized in the course of their ministry and, if advised and not ridiculed, he might have been led to spot signs of a “founded hope” for a Catholic upbringing that he overlooked before or, if that were not possible, he might have (as many priests I know have done) used the good desire of the parents to see their child baptized as an occasion to invite those parents into regularizing their own status in the Church both for their good and their child’s.

Either way, though, what the priest would not have done, one hopes, is exactly what canon law seeks to prevent: imposing the burdens of Catholic life on a child unable, through no fault of his own, to fulfill those burdens—perhaps with the pious hope that baptism will somehow just make everything turn out alright.

In any case, none of these, I suggest, highly relevant concerns comes across in the pope’s story. Instead, canon law once again gets blamed for supporting something (here, the banning of a parent from a baptism) that in fact it repudiates, and the possibility that a canonical norm meant to protect children (the “founded hope” requirement) might also have been at issue, is ignored.

+ + +

Postscript. Last fall I commented on Francis’ modification of Canon 868 in regard to the baptism of the children of non-Catholics. The questions I asked then are, to my knowledge, still unresolved.