Skip to content

The death penalty debate and the Church’s magisterium

I follow the death penalty debate, of course, but I am more concerned about how that debate impacts some ecclesiologically important aspects of the Church’s teaching function.

As for the death penalty itself I find the arguments organized by Feser and Bessette in their treatise, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed (Ignatius, 2017), upholding the liceity of the justly administered death penalty, convincing. Specifically I regard the liceity of the death penalty as having been established with infallible certitude by the Church’s ordinary magisterium and am undecided only as to whether that infallible certainty proclaims a “primary object” of infallibility (i.e., an assertion to be believed) or establishes a “secondary object” of infallibility (i.e., an assertion to be definitively held). I lean toward the latter.

Given my conclusions about the certitude of Church teaching in this area (with which conclusions some scholars I esteem disagree) I naturally share the grave concerns enunciated here about Pope Francis’ alteration of Catechism 2267 to reflect his view that the death penalty itself is “inadmissible” (whatever that means, although everyone knows what it means). For the record I also found John Paul II’s characterizations of the foundations for the death penalty to be historically and logically inadequate but, as he accepted the application of the death penalty in some cases, his unbalanced formulations of the issue did not occasion the serious magisterial issues that I think Francis’ novel formulation has engendered.

Which brings me to the canonical points I wish to outline.

Canon 752, especially its passage “a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act”, will be invoked by some as a canonical basis for demanding that the Christian faithful accept Francis’ alteration of the Catechism. How to think about this?

Granted that “by their very nature canonical laws are meant to be observed” (John Paul II, here) they are also to be assessed and applied in accord with canonical tradition (see esp. Canons 17-19). Before anyone concludes that Francis’ recent assertion demands “religious submission” under Canon 752 he or she should consider the following.

First, Canon 752 is very new in the canonical tradition. It was not present in the 1917 Code and the Legislator himself offers no foundations for it before the 1950s. In light of the intense debates over some other ‘first-time’ canonical provisions appearing in the 1983 Code—say, Canon 1095 n. 2 on due discretion for marriage or Canon 129 § 2 on lay cooperation in Church governance—debates suggesting that first attempts at legislation are often wanting, it would be temerarious to assume that a new legal formulation of personal, universal obligations in a theologically complex area, a formulation untested by time, as offered by Canon 752, represents exactly what the Church wants to say about a matter and precisely how she wants to say it. The public eruption over Francis’ novel death penalty text could itself illustrate the deficiencies of phrasing Canon 752 the way it is phrased.

Second—and this point takes longer to outline—although no one I know is arguing that Francis’ death penalty assertion itself was an “extraordinary” (i.e., an infallible) exercise of papal magisterium, many seem nevertheless to think that this single (or second, if we count Francis’ quoting of himself as qualifying as two assertions) papal assertion effectively demands the faithful’s immediate acceptance insofar as it appears to be a deliberate exercise of the papal “ordinary” magisterium.

But that’s where confusion sets in: while popes can, in a single extraordinary act, assert something with infallible certitude sufficient to bind the faithful in belief or morals (Canon 749 § 1), no pope can, by a single ordinary act, assert something with anything like the equivalent force for Christian consciences.

The Church’s “extraordinary” magisterium, capable of binding the faithful in faith and doctrine, can proceed solely-papally or papally-episcopally; but her “ordinary” magisterium, also capable of binding the faithful in faith and doctrine, can proceed only papally-episcopally. As Francis’ move on the Catechism hardly qualifies as papal-episcopal, and there being no such thing as an ‘purely papal, ordinary, magisterium’ (the term itself seems an oxymoron, implying that some significant points of Church teaching have been taught only by popes!), then Francis’ views on the death penalty might (I stress, might, given the infallibility concerns above) contribute to the Church’s ordinary magisterium but they do not, and cannot, control it.

The ordinary magisterium, one must see, takes a long, long time, to develop; it requires repetition and consistency over many generations, this, not simply on the part of popes but also by the bishops around the world, and even incorporates, to some extent, the lived acceptance of teachings by Catholic pastors, academics, and rank-and-file faithful through time. Its power as a source of certitude in Church teaching has sadly been overshadowed in the last 150 years as a result of the lopsided pronouncements of Vatican I and (despite the better balance struck between popes and bishops in this regard found in Lumen gentium 25) the post-conciliar confusion created by so many doctrinally wayward or ineffective bishops. But the Church’s ordinary magisterium is not the domain of an individual pope’s preferences for a certain position; rather, its province is the protection and promotion of the deposit of Faith entrusted to the Church by Christ.

How to sum up the traditional understanding of this matter so far? Maybe thus: If it’s not extraordinary, it’s at most ordinary, but if it’s ordinary, it requires popes and bishops around the world and over a long, long time, and not just a pope in a claim or two.

In light of the foregoing, then, it is easier to see why the present formulation of Canon 752 seems wanting: its language appears (I say appears, because scholars are divided over the meaning and implications of Canon 752) to regard as possible the obligation of “religious assent” being owed to a single, undoubtedly non-infallible, purely papal, no-matter-how-unprecedented, assertion regarding faith and morals. I, for one, frankly doubt that is what the Church meant to say although I grant that seems to be how her new law presently reads.

All of which is why the questions surrounding the death penalty impact not only that very important social and civil issue but also the Church’s understanding and operation of her own magisterium.


About withholding donations to the Church

I worked directly for arch/dioceses for some 15 years and indirectly (teaching in a seminary) for a dozen more. Readers can use that fact to discount what I say below as biased or to credit it as informed. Readers’ call.

Various voices are calling for the faithful to withhold donations from the Church in response to the McCarrick scandal, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and so on. Other voices are urging Catholics to resist such calls. As the calls pro and con seem, so far, to fall within the bounds of Canon 212 § 3, I say, have at it folks. May the better arguments win. But we should note a few relevant canonical and practical points.

First, no canon requires Catholics to drop a donation in the Sunday collection. None. What the 1983 Code does say, however, in this regard, includes:

  • The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for the works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the decent support of ministers. 1983 CIC 222 § 1.
  • The Church has an innate right to require from the Christian faithful those things which are necessary for the purposes proper to it. 1983 CIC 1260.
  • The Christian faithful are free to give temporal goods for the benefit of the Church. 1983 CIC 1261 § 1.
  • The faithful are to give support to the Church by responding to appeals and according to the norms issued by the conference of bishops. 1983 CIC 1262.

The roots of some of these canons, moreover, go back many centuries in Church history suggesting that more than ecclesiastical convenience is behind them.

Second, in nearly all arch/dioceses I am familiar with, Sunday plate collection (and other routine donations) go to the benefit of parishes (largely by implication  of Canon 1256). Thus, in most cases, withholding one’s regular donations directly hurts parish operations and not arch/diocesan.

Third, many arch/diocesan annual fund-raising campaigns are, technically speaking, designed to help parishes meet assessments (canonically, taxes) imposed by bishops (in my view, usually reasonably) on parishes per Canon 1263. Withholding one’s donations to annual arch/diocesan appeals therefore, again, hurts parishes first, though parish problems in meeting their annual assessments would be noticed at the arch/diocesan level.

Fourth, arch/dioceses facing financial shortfalls generally do what any large organization does in such situations, cut expenses, liquidate investments, and/or borrow money. Thus, the actual impact of withholding one’s donations to the arch/diocese, an impact often already diluted by the time it reaches the arch/diocesan level, is likely to be muted again by the usual financial expedients undertaken by other financially stressed organizations. By the way, intimations that arch/diocesan budgets get balanced at the expense of the poor, while such suggestions smack of emotional hostage-taking, do reflect the reality that many demands are made on arch/diocesan assets (see, e.g., Canon 1254 § 1) and that no undertaking would be immune from cuts.

What all this boils down to, I suggest, is that by the time one determines the exact financial footing of any given arch/diocese and predicts, rightly or wrongly, how that arch/diocese might respond to a drop in income, one should be able to see that across-the-board calls for Catholics to withhold donations “from the Church” are subject to so many qualifications and exceptions and ramifications (intended or not) that, well, it seems difficult to defend such calls as being based on convincing reasons.

Still, as stated above, no canon requires Catholics to make a donation on any Sunday to any parish and, given how little voice Catholics have in the selection of their leadership and their conduct, I understand why calls to strike back in some, in any, measurable way against massive, massive episcopal failures resonate with so many.

I’m just saying, be careful about punishing the Spouse of Christ and her dependent children because some priests and even bishops, men presumably wedded to her as Jesus was wedded to her, abandoned her so shamelessly.

Brief comments on Msgr. Guarino’s response to me

Msgr. Thomas Guarino has replied to my response to his original remarks. He does so graciously but, I fear, inadequately.

Readers will recall what prompted my first response to Guarino: his claim that “consensual adult relationships”—including homosexual acts by and between seminarians and/or clergy, acts at the root of the clergy sexual misconduct crisis—were not “crimes” and that they had not been treated as crimes “for centuries”.

As Guarino, an ecclesiastic, was writing in support of ecclesiastical remedies for an ecclesiastical crisis, and as he contrasted the response to such (allegedly non-)crimes with ecclesiastical remedies for sin such as “confession, penance and spiritual direction”, I assumed he meant that these homosexual acts were not ecclesiastical “crimes” and that they had not been treated as ecclesiastical crimes “for centuries”. In those claims, as I showed, Guarino was quite mistaken. All such acts were in fact crimes in canon law until at least 1983 and had been so regarded for centuries.

Now, however, Guarino claims that he actually meant that such acts were not civil “crimes” (although the qualifier “civil” appears nowhere in his original essay) and, one supposes, that such acts had not been civil “crimes … for centuries”. But, if so, such a claim would be even more wrong in the civil area than it is in the canonical.

In the United States “anti-sodomy laws” were common until the 1960s and, as recently as just fifteen years ago, homosexual acts, even consensual ones between adults, were crimes in at least a dozen states. Only in 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, did the US Supreme Court strike down all homosexual-act criminal laws. If, therefore, Guarino really did mean that consensual adult homosexual acts had not been civil “crimes … for centuries”, he is even more wrong than he was when (as I thought) he had asserted that they had not been canonical “crimes … for centuries”, about 15 years more wrong.

And, while we are at it, if anyone, including Guarino, is concerned that pedophilia (“civil, non-consensual, crimes of child abuse and sexual harassment”—Guarino’s admittedly confusing phrasing in that, e.g., child-abuse is always legally “non-consensual”, but I digress) is not criminalized in canon law, I can assure folks that it is criminalized directly in the Canon 1395 of the 1983 Code (originally protecting those under 16) and in ¶ Delictum contra mores of the 2001 supplemental penal norms issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (extending to the whole Church special US provisions already in force since 1994 and effecting the criminalization of clergy sexual abuse perpetrated against those under 18).

I have, of course, no doubt that Guarino wants to put an end to the sexual abuse of children by clergy and to the more recently manifested sexual exploitation of seminarians and priests by prelates. His contributions to such efforts would be welcome. If I left the bulk of his proposals on these matters unaddressed it was only because I saw much too much ambiguity in them to ferret out sufficiently in a single essay and, given Guarino’s other errors on important points of canon law (or civil law, if that’s what he wishes to claim now), I was unwilling to give it a try at present.

In the meantime I will continue to insist that those who make representations to the public about what is, or is not, canon law (or for that matter what is or is not civil law) in regard to these crucial matters need to know what they are talking about lest valuable time and resources be spent correcting mistakes that should never have been floated in the first place.

Advice for the future should come from people with knowledge of the present — and the past

Homosexual acts committed by or between clerics—even among those presumably able to consent—are at the root, the very root, of the sexual misconduct and cover-up crisis exposed by the McCarrick scandal. Who on earth does not yet know that yet?

So my jaw dropped—which takes some doing these days—my jaw dropped when Msgr. Thomas Guarino, in an interesting-ish essay over at Catholic World Report, while calling for better responses against clergy sexual misconduct, wrote: “I speak here of crimes, not consensual adult relationships which, while sinful infractions against the commandments and the promise of celibacy, can be—and for centuries have been—salutarily treated with confession, penance and spiritual direction.”

My.  Jaw.  Dropped.

Where to begin?

First, Guarnino’s claim that “consensual adult relationships” (a tired euphemism for gravely sinful conduct, but one sufficient to include homosexual acts by clergy) have not been regarded as canonical crimes for centuries, is flatly wrong. In fact, it has only been in the last 35 years, since the advent of the 1983 Code, that such “consensual adult relationships” among clergy have not been treated as crimes under canon law!

1917 CIC 2359 § 2 stated:

“If [clerics] engage in a delict against the sixth precept of the Decalogue with a minor below the age of sixteen, or engage in adultery, debauchery, bestiality, sodomy, pandering, [or] incest with blood-relatives or affines in the first degree, they are suspended, declared infamous, and are deprived of any office, benefice, dignity, responsibility, if they have such, whatsoever, and in more serious cases, they are to be deposed.”

Now exactly what part of “debauchery” or “sodomy”, consensual or otherwise, was not a canonical crime per the Canon 2359? And given an hour, moreover, any competent researcher could prove centuries-old roots for Canon 2359 simply by checking Gasparri’s fontes for the canon.

Contrary to Guarino’s claim, then, it was only with the dilution that Canon 2359 suffered when it re-appeared as Canon 1395 of the 1983 Code that the express and long-standing criminalization of homosexual acts by clergy was blurred or lost.

Want another example? Fine.

The Congregation of the Holy Office (now, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), in its instruction Crimen sollicitationis (16 mar 1962), available here, stated:

“(71). The term crimen pessimum [“the foulest crime”] is here understood to mean any external obscene act, gravely sinful, perpetrated or attempted by a cleric in any way whatsoever with a person of his own sex. (72). Everything laid down up to this point concerning the crime of solicitation is also valid, with the change only of those things which the nature of the matter necessarily requires, for the crimen pessimum, should some cleric (God forbid) happen to be accused of it before the local Ordinary …. In determining penalties against delinquents of this type, in addition to what has been stated above, Canon 2359  § 2 is also to be taken into consideration.”

Again, canon law could not be clearer that homosexual activity by clerics was an ecclesiastical crime. Moreover, as I explained elsewhere—see Edward Peters, “Retrospectives on Benedict XIV’s const. Sacramentum poeniteniae (1741)”, Apollinaris 84 (2011) 581-605—the 1922 and 1962 versions of Crimen rested on penal law foundations laid down by Pope Benedict XIV in the mid 18th century and which in turn drew on canon laws older still!

So, can we please put to rest the utter canard that Church did not, for centuries no less!, regard homosexual acts among clerics, whatever other moral or spiritual offenses they constituted, as crimes against Church order?—a point that the McCarrick disaster proves beyond any doubt.

Oh, and third, I guess we have to say it yet again, clerical homosexual activity is not, repeat not, as Guarino seems to think, a violation of “celibacy” (as if celibacy has anything to do this mess), but is instead a violation of the chastity to which all the faithful are called (CCC 2337-2359) and of the continence to which all clergy are specially called (Canon 277 § 1). 

No good lawyer thinks that criminalizing a bad activity makes that bad activity go away. But decriminalizing bad activity hardly makes it either less bad or less common. There are arguments for and against re-criminalizing homosexual acts among clerics, but in either case, consideration of the idea should be carried on by officials aware that they would be debating the re-institution of a centuries-old provision of Church law, not, as Guarino seem to think, the invention of a new one.

Revoking honorary degrees: a semi-canonical thought on a non-canonical issue

Are honorary degrees conferred in recognition of one’s past accomplishments or as incentives toward one’s future behavior?

I ask because, having long assumed the former (however thinly deserving some recipients of such honors were), Fordham University and Catholic University of America have each revoked the honorary degrees that they had conferred on the predator prelate ‘Uncle Ted’ McCarrick, but without saying that they had been misinformed about whatever great services to mankind Uncle Ted was supposed to have rendered and in recognition of which these honors were bestowed. Hence, my question.

Consider: After an Oscar for Best Actor or a Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded, is the award revoked if later the actor turns in a lousy performance or if the war hero gets arrested for reckless driving? But academe’s favors (I include secular schools, noting that predator Bill Cosby probably holds the record for the most rescinded honorary degrees) savor of a marked ‘what-have-you-done-for-us-lately’ quality and, if what you have done lately stinks, it’s hasta la vista time, baby. Such revocations makes the schools, I suppose, feel better about themselves.

What they also do, however, is to make it obvious that many, perhaps most, of these honorary degrees—especially degrees to celebrity prelates such as McCarrick, degrees that reflect not a whiff of intellectual, albeit not academic, achievement—are transparent public relations ploys intended to make those conferring such honors look good in the public’s (read: donors’) eyes. Thus, if having a McCarrick or a Cosby on a school’s honor roll is good for public relations, it’s grip-and-grin pix time; but if association with the person becomes bad for public relations, those names are stricken with almost as much deliberation as apparently went into inscribing them in the first place.

So, do honorary degrees from Catholic academe recognize a recipient’s past accomplishments, or, like a Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a man of zero international achievement, express hopes that the recipient might someday do something useful, at least for the school if not for the world? And, if the latter, do we need to add a new layer to academe’s infamously bloated bureaucracy, say, the Office for Honorary Awardees’ Social Comportment Compliance and Anti-Criminal Behavior Monitoring? 

Okay, I promised a semi-canonical angle on this obviously non-canonical issue of the academic public relations schemes known as honorary degrees, and here it is: Canon 1338 § 2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that, in punishment for crime, “privation of academic degrees is not possible.” Of course, the Code is talking here about real degrees, not honorary ones, and the law binds agents acting on behalf of the Church, not officers acting within private organizations thereof.

Still, the idea behind the canon is that, no matter how badly a credentialed individual behaves after graduation, the fact of the conferral of the degree cannot be erased or rescinded. So, a Catholic theologian might lose his or her teaching post for heresy, and might even be excommunicated for crime, but he or she could not be “de-doctored” for offenses of any sort.

Schools have been being embarrassed by some of their graduates since shortly after schools began conferring degrees, but they don’t generally pretend that they had not determined, at some point, to recognize the achievement represented by the degree just because that degree is later misused or the holder thereof turns out to be an offender. If anything, such incidents should cause schools to look much more closely at their criteria for conferring honors and awards in the first place.

That said, if the differences between real degrees and honorary ones are so significant as to render nugatory the analogies I have suggested here, fine. There are certainly more important issues at hand here. But, if the differences between real and honorary degrees really are so significant, can academe at least stop calling these awards “degrees” of any sort?

Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago punts on one problem, fixes a second, but greatly worsens a third

With papal approval the Roman dicastery in charge of consecrated life has just published an important document on consecrated virginity, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago. Now, according to the plain terms of ESI, the Blessed Virgin Mary, archetype of virginity consecrated to God, would not be eligible for admission to the order of virgins, but Mary Magdalene, model for women who, Deo gratias, set aside a promiscuous life, would be eligible.

Something, I suggest, is seriously wrong with such norms.

Within the confines of a blog post—so this is not a comprehensive analysis of the document nor of the issues it was trying to address*—I will critique three key points about ESI, namely, that it: fails to correct a mistaken admission criterion currently found in the 1970 Rite of Consecration of Virgins; improves a badly-framed admission criterion that till now has prevented some otherwise eligible women from entering this order; and, most unfortunately, formalizes a serious eligibility error hitherto only implicit in the current rite.

Preliminarily, note that ESI is an “instruction” and, while Roman dicasteries and arch/diocesan leadership are not consistent in respecting the requirements of this genre, Canon 34 generally limits the impact of instructions to those matters in which they are consistent with prior Church law (usually canon and liturgical). In other words, no binding changes to fundamental Church teaching can be achieved by an instruction. Further, I leave aside some of the practical and administrative questions that are raised by ESI and look forward to others’ evaluations of ESI’s narration of the history, anthropology, and ecclesial meaning of consecrated virginity.

To my three points.

1. Both the 1970 Rite and now ESI 84 expressly prohibit women who were ever married from being consecrated virgins. Thus, Our Lady, Queen of Virgins, would not be admitted to the order of virgins because she had been married. This is not a “gotcha” criticism; rather, it illustrates the problems caused by Rome’s predilection for using circumlocutions and euphemisms in documents that call for definitions and clarity. Let’s back up.

Long story made short, a woman who has not freely engaged in penile-vaginal sexual intercourse is a “virgin” while one who has engaged in that act is not. That most women never married are virgins and most married women are not virgins, is true, of course, but it is plainly wrong to treat marital status itself as dispositive of whether a woman is a virgin and so marital status should not have been cast as such in the 1970 Rite nor repeated in ESI.

That Our Lady is a ‘special case’, of course (though there are other married virgins in Church history), does not excuse a dicastery’s framing or retaining a requirement for admission to the order of virgins that actually excludes the Blessed Virgin from the order. Consider: the marriage of Mary and Joseph was also a ‘special case’, but the Church spent centuries developing and articulating a definition of marriage that embraced—not excluded, embraced!—the marriage of Mary and Joseph. The care spent making clear that Mary and Joseph were genuine spouses (not ‘pretend’ or ‘partial’ spouses) not only preserved the truth about their marriage but it helped the Church identify and defend the truth about all marriage. Similarly, Mary’s first place in the order of feminine virginity demands no less precision from those responsible for shaping Church thinking about virginity than her role as the wife in the Holy Family, shedding light on the order of marriage, received from them. Using a woman’s marital status as a circumlocution for whether she is a virgin obscures what is being consecrated.

2. The 1970 Rite and ESI 84 preclude from consecration as virgins women who have, in some notable way, violated chastity. This and similar phrasing seems to be a euphemism for “had sexual intercourse”, but in speaking so broadly, it confuses the virtue of chastity with the fact of virginity. Simply put, women can violate chastity in many ways, but in only one way do they lose their virginity. An unchaste life might well be an obstacle to living as a consecrated virgin, but, may not the same be said of unchastity prior to holy orders, religious life, or even marriage itself? If so, why is “unchastity” a bar to one way of life but not to these others? Moreover, the great differences in the types and degrees of unchastity militate against using that broad moral notion as a juridic criterion for admission to a way of life.

Fortunately, ESI 93 clarifies how the 1970 Rite and ESI 84 should henceforth be understood in regard to that unchastity which contra-indicates a woman’s suitability for admission to the order of virgins by requiring bishops “to ascertain that she has never lived in public or open violation of chastity, that is, in a stable situation of cohabitation or in similar situations that would have been publicly known” (emphasis added). This language, while still not perfect, suffices, I think, to cover the majority of cases wherein women who acknowledge one or more unchaste acts, yet acts not destructive of their virginity, may still be considered for admission to the order of virgins.

3. Nemo dat quod non habet. / One cannot give what one does not have. A woman who has lost her virginity, as summarized above, has no virginity to consecrate to the Lord. Through the centuries until, I suggest, the appearance of the 1970 Rite, a polite but firm inquiry into the fact of virginity was part of the discernment process undertaken for woman seeking admission to the order of virgins. Only in the last few decades—largely as a result of conscience situations arising in certain religious communities—did circumlocutions begin to appear that seemed to undermine the necessity of virginity for consecration as a virgin. In the 1970 Rite the inquiry about virginity quietly disappeared but the requirement itself was not repudiated.

With the publication of ESI, however, virginity is, formally, no longer required for consecration as a virgin: “In this context it should be kept in mind that the call to give witness to the Church’s virginal, spousal and fruitful love for Christ is not reducible to the symbol of physical integrity. Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practised the virtue of chastity in an exemplary way, while of great importance with regard to the discernment, are not essential prerequisites in the absence of which admittance to consecration is not possible.” ESI 88.

This is a stunning assertion. Simply stunning. Under it, Mary Magdalene, extreme in her sins but outstanding in her repentance, seems eligible for consecration as a virgin. More practically, many, many women, less obvious in sexual sin and likely less perfect in repentance, are now eligible for consecration precisely as virgins.

Let’s see how ESI 88 brings this about.

First, the straw man of “physical integrity” (basically, an intact hymen) is cited as if that were proof of a woman’s virginity (which it obviously is not, though many might not think of that). But then, having rightly warned the reader not to focus on “physical integrity” as if that were virginity, ESI immediately substitutes “perfect continence”—another unfamiliar term but one describing a situation that, if verified, would satisfy as proof of virginity!—and rejects it as being necessary for admission to the order of virgins.

I know of no ecclesiastical document in history, until Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, that directly and effectively denies that virginity is required for one’s consecration as a virgin. Even in the last few decades, where inquiries into the fact of virginity were dangerously diluted, no responsible ecclesiastical official or document that I know of ever denied that what is required in a woman here is virginity—not a wish for virginity, not a hence-forth perpetual resolve for perfect continence, not sorrow over the loss of one’s virginity in a single one-night stand, however laudable all of those sentiments are, but virginity itself.

If a single act of sexual intercourse suffices juridically for consummation of marriage (and it does, see Canon 1061 § 1), then why should not a single act of sexual intercourse suffice juridically for the loss of virginity that prevents consecration as a virgin? St. Jerome, that Father who, perhaps more than any other, laid the foundations for the ecclesiastical recognition of consecrated virginity (but who, curiously, is never mentioned in ESI) declared: “Let me flatly say that not even God, who can do all things, can restore virginity once it is destroyed” (Ep. 22 ad Eustochium, 5, my trans.).

One is left wondering, then, If virginity is not being consecrated in a consecrated virgin, what is?

My suggestions:

First, with regard to possible petitions from formerly-married women to the order of virgins, and recognizing that it is not marriage per se but sexual intercourse that deprives one of virginity (and suggesting, if appropriate, exploration of an Order of Widows at the local level), should, on rare occasion, an inquiry about whether a marriage was actually consummated seems useful, a process for such an inquiry seems available per 1983 CIC 1681 / Mitis 1678.

Second, women who acknowledge one or more acts, even serious ones, against chastity may nevertheless be considered for admission into the order of virgins provided those acts did not result in the loss of virginity, and, for the very rare close cases still imaginable under ESI 84, Rome may be consulted.

Third, recalling the limited authority of documents issued as “instructions”, the ‘optional virginity’ claim in ESI seems to me so far outside of the canonical and liturgical tradition that I suggest, first, it be immediately derogated from ESI itself, and, in the hopeful meantime, that it not be relied upon by a bishop assessing a woman’s basic eligibility for the order of virgins if he learns that she has freely engaged in even one act of sexual intercourse, conjugal or otherwise.

A last thought: most of these problematic points would be avoided, of course, if virginity, as a quality of the human person that some women choose to preserve and some do not, were, in a Church document carrying juridic directions on consecrated virginity, directly defined and consistently treated without resort to circumlocutions and euphemisms. + + +

* For more background on issues related to the rite of consecration of virgins, see, e.g., Edward Peters, “Toward reform of the first criterion for admission to the order of virgins”, Studia Canonica 48 (2014) 467-491. Canon 604 of the 1983 Code recognizes consecrated virginity as an approved way of life for eligible women. The rite of consecration of virgins itself is available in, e.g., The Rites II (Pueblo, 1980) 132-164.

Married priests and Synod of the Amazon

Although this post was not occasioned by Cdl Sarah’s reported remarks that ordaining ‘viri probati’ would be a definitive breach with apostolic tradition, his (in my view) serious overstatement of that claim underscores how important it is that, in this matter, we all strive to speak precisely, not to mention correctly, about what is and is not at issue in regard to ordaining married men. Now, on to this post as originally prepared.

There is no canonical or doctrinal objection to ordaining married men for priestly ministry.

Whether it makes practical sense, however, to ordain married men is quite another matter, and whether such ordinations would detract from the appreciation of celibacy itself as “a special gift of God” that has finally, Deo gratias, made its way into codified law (Canon 277), is also quite a different matter. Both of these concerns require searching consideration, this, especially in times not given to doing searching consideration of complex issues.

Here, though, I make two different points.

1. Simplex priests.

Unusual under Pio-Benedictine Law and virtually unheard of under the Johanno-Pauline Code so-called “simplex priests” are men ordained to priesthood but, notwithstanding their canonical good-standing, lack “faculties” for hearing sacramental confession (as required by Canon 966) and/or for preaching (generally presumed, but liable to restriction, under Canon 764). Simplex priests can celebrate the Eucharist, solemnly baptize, anoint the sick, catechize the faithful, and hold a variety of ecclesiastical offices including associate pastor (or, for that matter, pastor or chaplain though the practicality of such appointments would be highly questionable).

In brief, simplex priests are ‘fully priests’ and are bound by all clerical obligations, they simply lack some of the canonical authorizations that priests need for certain areas of ministry. But having this kind of restricted ministry, a ministry focused on offering Mass and, say, providing spiritual care to children and the elderly (i.e., those most impacted by the difficulties of life in remote regions) means that bishops could, I think, see their way to reducing the otherwise extensive education program demanded (see Canons 232 and foll.) of men destined for full-time, all-embracing priestly ministry. In short, simplex priests would require less training and less diocesan support. I just published a short article on simplex priests — see Edward Peters, “The ‘simplex priest’: ministry with a past, ministry with a future?”, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 41 (2018) 109-114 — and will link to it when it is available on-line.

Now, about those clerical obligations…

2. Clerical celibacy and continence.

Canon 277 demands perfect and perpetual continence, and therefore celibacy, of all Western clergy. While some mitigation of the obligation of celibacy has been introduced in our lifetime (but only some, see, e.g., Canon 1087), no mitigation in the obligation of continence, an ancient, nay apostolic, expectation in the West, has been introduced in modern canon law. The clerical continence issue and its implications have been extensively discussed by me (and others) and I won’t repeat that discussion now.

Suffice to say, though, that nothing I have seen in the wake of these discussions, including a 2011 letter from Cdl. Coccopalmerio (whose interpretation of Amoris laetitia as authorizing holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics I have also disputed) dissuades me from reading the law now as it has always and unanimously been read in the West, i.e., as demanding perfect and perpetual continence of all western clerics, married or single.

But precisely because the claim here is about what the law now is, as opposed to what (in the view of some) the law ought to be, the Synod of the Amazon must, I think, come to grips with the demonstrable obligation of clerical continence (again, an obligation distinguishable from celibacy) that has always marked Western ordained ministry and, as part of its wider consideration of married priests, simplex or otherwise, decide whether that ancient obligation is to be (1) repudiated (as is effectively the situation now); (2) refined (as is possible, though at some cost); or (3) recovered (as has been done at other crucial points in Church history).

That, or the bishops to be assembled could just kick the can down the road.