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Taking it apart, one canon at a time

March 14, 2018

Ecclesiastical discipline has been slowly built up over many, many centuries, at times, in ways that could even be described as ‘canon-by-canon’. Lately that approach, ‘canon-by-canon’, seems to be a good way to dismantle Church order.

Divorced-and-remarried Catholics are not prohibited from attending Mass; indeed, they are required to attend Mass on Sundays and days of precept (c. 1247) just like everybody else. But divorced-and-remarried Catholics are not to approach for holy Communion and, if they do approach, ministers of holy Communion are required by Canon 915 and the unanimous tradition behind that norm to withhold the sacrament from them. The discomfort that they and the faith community feel at that exclusion is meant to spur those excluded to examine their conduct and to bring it into line with Christ’s fundamental expectations of his followers and to protect the community from the appearance of officially condoning the publicly contrarian conduct of some of its members.

Likewise, divorced-and-remarried Catholics are not prohibited from joining in many parish activities: prayer groups, service organizations, and fellowship activities come to mind. But as above, some roles, especially institutional and liturgical leadership roles, are, I suggest, prohibited to certain members of the faithful based on their public actions.

It is nonsense  to hold, as it seems an influential diocesan bishop just a few clicks from the shadows of St. Peter’s holds, that divorced-and-remarried Catholics, though ineligible for holy Communion, might nevertheless be “outstanding in … the witness of Christian life” (c. 804) such that they could be “ideal for the teaching of the Catholic religion”. The inescapable contradiction between the canonical expectations in such cases and the public status of some persons might explain, albeit ironically, why many are so feverishly working to undermine the plain meaning of Canon 915 and now, I guess, Canon 804.

But to the objection that Canon 804 raises against admitting as teachers of the Catholic faith persons living in public contradiction to several important Church teachings, I would note one more problem.

Canon 149 states that, in order to be named to an “ecclesiastical office”, one “must be in communion with the Church” (debet esse in Ecclesiae communione). I have long argued that persons performing many ecclesiastical services, such as teaching religion or serving on a parish council, should be recognized as holding an “ecclesiastical office” per Canon 145 § 1. Several interesting implications would follow from such recognition but these can be discussed in another context. My point here is simply that, if, say, teaching religion under the auspices of a Catholic parish or diocese is  a form of ecclesiastical office (as I think it is), then, the problems raised by a bishop promoting to such service those who are plainly not  in communion with the Church despite what Canon 149 says is even more obvious. Or at least it should be. And that’s how the list of canons (I can recite a dozen more without even thinking about it) that must be distorted, ignored, or simply broken in order to accommodate holy Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics gets ever longer and longer.

In short, Canon 915 might be in the front lines of this controversy but it, and the ecclesiastical values behind it, are not the only ones being assailed these days. + + +

1983 CIC 145. § 1. An ecclesiastical office is any function constituted in a stable manner by divine or ecclesiastical ordinance to be exercised for a spiritual purpose.

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