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A brief thought on the phrase ‘manifest sin’ in Canon 915

March 17, 2012

As I look through the continuing blogosphere commentary on the lesbian/Communion case, I see many people confusing the concept of “manifest sin” in Canon 915 with the notion of, I dunno, something like “manifestly sinful”. Those two phrases mean different things*, I suggest, and Canon 915 speaks only in terms of the former, not the latter.

In 2008 I published a CLSA advisory opinion on Canon 915 and two years later posted it on my Canon 915 resource page. I paraphrase part of that opinion for use today:

     Manifest. The additional requirement that gravely sinful behavior be manifest prior to withholding the Eucharist helps distinguish Canon 915, which operates in realm of public order, from Canon 916, which informs one’s personal responsibility to receive the Eucharist worthily. Reception of Communion at Mass is a public action in service to rendering liturgical worship to God; it is not the place for the proclamation of another’s private behavior. However sinful it might be, conduct that is not already widely known in the community is not manifest as canon law understands that term in this context. In something of a parallel to Canon 1340 § 2 (which prohibits imposing public penances for occult transgressions) and Canon 1330 (which prohibits any penalties in cases where no one has perceived the offense) the public withholding of the Eucharist for little-known sins, even though they might well be grave, is not permitted under canon law.

Some folks seem to get the canonical distinction between public and private conduct but think the Church is being too lenient in dealing with grave-but-as-yet-private sin. They’re free to make that case, though I think the Church’s wisdom is more than canon-law deep here. Anyway, though they disagree with the law, they understand it, so my job is done in their regard. + + +

* Example: I keep saying that a would-be Communion recipient’s brief disclosure to a minister a few minutes before Mass that she has a female “lover” does not suffice to verify, among other things, that the sin apparently being admitted to is canonically manifest in the community; others say, c’mon, lesbian sexual activity is manifestly sinful. See? I’m talking about what Canon 915 actually says, while they are talking about what they think Canon 915 says.

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