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A canonical gloss on Abp. John Myers’ letter on marriage

September 27, 2012

Abp. John Myers of Newark NJ is a pastor and his recent document on marriage is a pastoral exercise. But Myers is also a lawyer and, even in a pastoral statement, he writes with the care (though without most of the technical trappings) that one expects from a good canonist. For now I limit myself to remarks on just one passage of his letter; as it happens, this passage is attracting disproportionate attention from the secular press.

Myers writes: [B]elief about the permanence of marriage has been proposed infallibly by the ordinary universal Magisterium and defined by an Ecumenical Council and requires the assent of faith. It is my duty as your Archbishop to remind you that Catholics who do not accept the teaching of the Church on marriage and family (especially those who teach or act in private or public life contrary to the Church’s received tradition on marriage and family) by their own choice seriously harm their communion with Christ and His Church. I urge those not in communion with the Church regarding her teaching on marriage and family (or any other grave matter of faith) sincerely to re-examine their consciences, asking God for the grace of the Holy Spirit which “guides [us] to all truth” (John 16:13). If they continue to be unable to assent to or live the Church’s teaching in these matters, they must in all honesty and humility refrain from receiving Holy Communion until they can do so with integrity; to continue to receive Holy Communion while so dissenting would be objectively dishonest.

If anyone wants canonical trappings to be appended to these lines, they would be easy enough to supply: Catholics are required in all things to maintain communion with the Church (c. 209); denial or obstinate doubt regarding teachings requiring the assent of faith is heresy (cc. 750-751); rejection of doctrines embraced by Canon 750-752 is an ecclesiastical crime (cc. 1364, 1371); and so on. But Myers did not recite these kinds of technical considerations in a letter aimed more at conversion than at compliance.

Instead Myers has issued, in effect, a pastoral admonishment to observe Canon 916 of the Code of Canon Law. Canon 916 directs would-be recipients of holy Communion who are not in interior communion with the Church to refrain from receiving holy Communion. Indeed, not only is Myers not invoking penal canon law here, he is not even invoking Canon 915, a sacramental disciplinary norm that—among other differences between it and Canon 916—applies to ministers, not recipients. Basically, Myers is reminding Catholics that responsibility for worthy participation in the holy Communion begins with individual Catholics. Hopefully, people will read Myers’ letter with the same degree of care with which he wrote it and will recognize the spiritual seriousness of dissenting from Church teaching on the nature of marriage, leading them in turn to avoid actions that would make them ineligible for holy Communion.

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