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Canon 844 is not a snag on which Canon 915 might unravel

November 29, 2017

My friend and colleague Robert Fastiggi writes again at Vatican Insider (28 nov 2017) to defend Amoris laetita against assertions that it contains serious ambiguities. To that debate I have little to add. Along the way, however, Robert makes a claim about canon law: “As is well-known, the separated Eastern Churches allow divorce and remarriage. What would happen if a divorced and remarried Eastern Orthodox man or woman sought to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church?” Interesting question. Robert answers it: “According to canon 844 § 3, Holy Communion could be licitly given to them.”

Hmmm. I question my friend’s interpretation of Canon 844.

In pertinent part Canon 844 § 3 simply says: “Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed.” This is obviously a broad assertion of law which, like other broad assertions of law, could be tempered by specific exceptions gleaned from other provisions.

While Robert invokes no experts in support of his conclusion that Canon 844 authorizes reception of holy Communion by divorced-and-remarried Orthodox (I know of none whom he could invoke), he seems to argue that insofar as “divorced and remarried Eastern Orthodox Christians believe they are properly disposed because they have been remarried in their Church and with Church approval”, this good faith error on their part authorizes their being given holy Communion by Catholic ministers.

Ahhh. I think I see the problem.

Most discussants in this matter routinely but incorrectly assume that one’s “proper disposition” for a sacrament is determined by the conclusions of one’s personal conscience. But, as I have pointed out before, qualified commentators distinguish between “internal disposition” (which are indeed largely matters of personal faith, conscience, and so on) and “external dispositions” (such as one’s demeanor and public status) and hold that one’s “proper disposition” for a sacrament depends on both sets of factors being verified, not just one. See, e.g., Halligan, Administration of the Sacraments (1962) 110-113; Regatillo, Ius Sacramentarium (1964) 205-211. Thus, Orthodox faithful might be in good faith about the gravity of the disorder that is divorce-and-remarriage (as might many Catholics after decades of thin or bad catechesis), but such an arguably sufficient internal disposition does not exempt ministers of holy Communion from assessing, as best they can, the question of external disposition as well and, where it is found wanting, to withhold holy Communion on those grounds.

Support for withholding holy Communion from divorced and remarried Orthodox who would otherwise be eligible for the sacrament per Canon 844 § 3 seems present in, for example, the British-Irish commentary, Letter & Spirit (1985) 465, which states: “The requirement regarding disposition would be the same as for a catholic with whom the [Orthodox] is presumed to share a common faith in the sacraments.” Or again, the Code of Canon Law Annotated (2004) 668 states that “whoever requests the sacraments should be duly prepared, which implies that their faith must conform to that of the Catholic Church regarding the sacraments they are to receive.” Similar is the Exegetical Commentary (2004) III/1 at 414. This focus on sacramental (as opposed to broader dogmatic) beliefs is important.

Consider: Roman Catholics believe not simply that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, but also that reception of that most august sacrament demands suitable internal and external dispositions in accord with a tradition that dates back to St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. See 1983 CIC 915 and 916. So, Canon 844 might tolerate discrepancies in an Orthodox Christian’s doctrinal beliefs about, say, papal primacy, but about sacramental issues such as reception of the Eucharist in the face of, here, “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384)? That seems a much harder claim to defend. At the least, such observations should prompt pause before simply asserting that “according to canon 844 § 3, Holy Communion could be licitly given” even to divorced-and-remarried Orthodox.

Now truth to tell, Robert himself is ambiguous about the certainty of his claim. He introduces his theory as but a “possible exception” to the general prohibition of holy Communion for divorced-and-remarried persons and concludes his remarks by saying “I only mention this as a possible exception to the general rule.” I am tempted to say that if even scholars with Robert’s sterling reputation for accuracy can slip into ambiguities here, I am not sure why others find so unpalatable the suggestion that prelates lacking such credentials could also have written ambiguously, but, as I said above, that is not my concern now. I write simply to challenge the overly-confident assertion that “according to canon 844 § 3, Holy Communion could be licitly given” to any divorced-and-remarried persons, Orthodox or otherwise, outside the very narrow norms discussed amply elsewhere. + + +

PS: In support of his claim, Robert invokes the 1996 USCCB “Guidelines for the Reception of Communion” that advises separated Christians “to respect the discipline of their own churches”. I take this occasion to say that that line, in an otherwise sound conference document, is problematic. It is one thing, I grant, to decline seizing every opportunity to urge those in schism to disregard “the discipline of their own Churches” and to return to full communion with the Catholic Church forthwith; but it is quite another for Roman prelates officially to advise those outside of full communion “to respect the discipline of their own churches.” That advice should, in my view, be dropped from the Guidelines, leaving in place the simple and correct assertion that “According to Roman Catholic discipline, the Code of Canon Law does not object to the reception of Communion by Christians of these Churches (canon 844 § 3).”

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