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On the Buenos Aires directive

September 13, 2016

Canon 915, the modern (yet resting on ancient roots) norm that prohibits ministers of holy Communion from giving that sacrament to Catholics who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin” does not expressly name divorced Catholics living in their second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) ‘marriages’ as examples of persons ineligible for holy Communion, but they have long been the ‘go-to’ example of those covered by the canon. Even its harshest critics generally conceded that Canon 915 applies to divorced-and-remarried Catholics—the emotional hardships associated with such cases being, in some critics’ minds, a good argument for abandoning the norm.

Now, in his unequivocal endorsement (“There are no other interpretations possible” [!]) of a leaked draft of some Argentine bishops’ plan for implementing his document Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis has neither ‘abrogated’ Canon 915 nor ‘interpreted’ it out of existence (both being the sort of technical operations the pope shows little interest in). Nevertheless, his action will likely make it harder for Catholic ministers, who remain bound by canon law even in stressful cases, to observe Canon 915 at the practical level.

Basically, the Argentine draft (assuming it is still a ‘draft’) directs ministers of holy Communion (chiefly parish priests) to work through concrete cases impacting access to at least three sacraments (Matrimony, Penance, and the Eucharist), guided not by the Church’s accumulated pastoral wisdom as summed up in norms like Canon 915 (which seem not even not to be mentioned!), but instead by a line of endlessly malleable considerations phrased in verbiage redolent of the 1970s. If some pastors after the publication Amoris were already being told by irate parishioners that ‘Pope Francis says you have to give me Communion’, what might they expect in the wake of his sweeping approval of this Argentine interpretation of Amoris?

Fundamentally the Argentine draft stumbles, I suggest, in the same way as does Amoris, namely, in thinking that an individual’s subjective, albeit sincere, conclusions about his or her eligibility for Communion per Canon 916 trumps the Church’s authority, nay her obligation, to withhold the sacrament in the face of certain objective, externally verifiable conditions per Canon 915. I shall not rehash that argument here, but we should be clear: compromising the well-established interpretation of Canon 915 in the case of divorced-and-remarried Catholics necessarily calls into question the law’s applicability to cases of, say, ‘loving’ couples cohabitating outside of marriage, the ‘compassionate’ promotion of abortion or euthanasia, ‘honest’ persons entering “same-sex marriages”, and so on.

Where from here?

1. It is hard to see how the Argentine bishops can tone-down a document that Francis has already warmly endorsed, but, who knows?, maybe they might “clarify” it in some way that lets Rome in turn “clarify” its endorsement.

2. The Argentine document itself has some supposedly restricting language which might be invoked, but frankly, I don’t think that will be much help to pastors. Consider, for example, the requirement that one must, among other things, be “unable” to obtain a declaration of nullity before being allowed holy Communion. But think about this—what if one is “unable” to obtain an annulment precisely because there is no proof of nullity? Does losing one’s bid for a declaration of nullity suddenly make one eligible for holy Communion despite remarriage? Most of the rest of the allegedly cautionary language, such as that to “avoid understanding this possibility as an unrestricted access to the sacraments”, is platitudinous—no one seriously thinks that the Church approves “unrestricted access to the sacraments” so an admonition against such access is pointless.

3. As hard as it might be to follow, my basic advice to ministers of holy Communion in the context of divorced-and-remarried Catholics is to ignore the coming furor over the pope’s endorsement of an ambiguously worded document from some local bishops, and just follow the law of the Church, which is quite clear, unless and until that law is formally changed, at which point (if it comes to that) we will sit down and figure out what the new law directs.

Updates: (1) Robert Royal raises many of these same concerns, here. (2) My comments on Jeff Mirus and the confusion between Canon 915 and 916 may be useful to others.

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