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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But academe’s favors (I include secular schools, noting that predator Bill Cosby probably holds the record for the most rescinded honorary degrees) savor of a marked ‘what-have-you-done-for-us-lately’ quality and, if what you have done lately stinks, it’s hasta la vista time, baby.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.


Should one take Cdl. Schönborn’s comments on female ordination seriously?

Symptomatic of a society experiencing a breakdown of its order are, among other things, casual assertions by prestigious figures within that society that, if taken according to the plain meaning of their words, are deeply opposed to fundamental values within that society, but which, though uttered, raise nary an eyebrow among those charged with care for that society.

Recent comments from Viennese prelate Christoph Cdl. Schönborn, apparently supportive of ordaining women, are opposed, I suggest, to at least three fundamental ecclesiological values but they have occasioned, as far I have seen, no correction whatsoever from Church leadership, and thus seem to be a chilling illustration of the erosion of order in the Church.

Consider, please.

Apparently Schönborn holds that “The question of ordination [of women] is a question which clearly can only be clarified by a council. That cannot be decided upon by a pope alone. That is a question too big that it could be decided from the desk of a pope.” There are least three serious errors in these remarks, all them ecclesiological, and all of them (assuming we are to take cardinals giving formal interviews at their word), quite disturbing.

First, the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood (and episcopate) was definitively ruled out on ecclesiological grounds by Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994) n. 4 when he declared that “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”. Whatever additional sacramental, Scriptural, or historical arguments against female ordination John Paul II could have relied on, he framed his conclusive ruling against female sacerdotal ordination in terms of the Church’s in-ability confer such orders on such persons. Schönborn’s claim, therefore, that female “deaconesses, female priests, and female bishops” could someday happen is to contradict a central ecclesiological assertion set out in Ordinatio. 

Second, for Schönborn to say that a pope cannot, on his own, rule on (specifically, against) the possibility of female ordination is directly to challenge a pope’s authority in the Church as set out in Canon 331, specifically, that the pope “possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”* Given that John Paul II ruled (yes, from his desk,  gasp!) that the Church had no power ordain women to priesthood and that his ruling was “to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”, Schönborn’s statement, I suggest, directly denies the authority of the pope to issue such an ecclesiological teaching and/or such a directive to the faithful.

Third, in the same breath wherein he denies the authority of a pope to rule as John Paul II ruled, Schönborn claims that the female ordination question (humoring him that there even is such a question in regard to the sacerdotal state) can only be decided by an ecumenical council, committing thereby, I suggest, the ecclesiological error of holding ecumenical councils to be superior to popes and coming thereby perilously close to crossing a line that few modern canonists thought ever could be crossed, that one marked out in Canon 1372, which states “A person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure.”

Now the modern Canon 1372 had, as it happens, a Pio-Benedictine predecessor norm, 1917 CIC 2332, which read as follows: Each and every one of whatever status, grade, or condition, even if they are regal, episcopal, or cardinatial, appealing from the laws, decrees, or mandates of the Roman Pontiff existing at that time to a Universal Council, are suspected of heresy and by that fact incur excommunication specially reserved to the Apostolic See … .

The great Swiss/American canonist Dom Augustine, commenting on Canon 2332 (in his Commentary VIII: 327-328), granted that appealing to a general council rested on a theory that was “absurd” and “ridiculous”, adding that such an attempt would be “neither excusable nor intelligible”. He observed, in any case, that even cardinals could be charged under its terms and that “it makes no difference whether the general council appealed to is in session or to be held in the future”. Finally, said the scholar, the papal act being contested could be any papal “decree, either dogmatical or disciplinary.” Ordinatio, clearly, is a papal act both dogmatic and disciplinary.

In sum, that such comments, coming from one of the most prestigious figures in the Church today, comments that, if understood according to their plain sense, expressly impugn the sufficiency of a prominent papal act, deny the capacity of a pope to issue such rulings on his own, and imply that an ecumenical council is the only authority that could decide certain ecclesiological matters, that such comments, I say, have not elicited, as far I can tell, a single fraternal correction, is, I think, a sign of how urgently a restoration of order in the Church is needed.

Unless, of course, Cdl. Schönborn is not to be regarded as one who says what he means and means what he says. + + +

* Canon 331 draws heavily here from Lumen genitum 22 and Christus Dominus 2, both of which conciliar documents Schönborn himself cited in crafting the accurate description of papal authority that he provided for the Catechism of the Catholic Church nn. 882 and 937. 


Why Dr. Luckett’s abortion essay is not the same old same-old

Over the last few decades a genre of Catholic literature has emerged, namely virtue-signaling, autobiographical essays about ‘Why I, though born and raised Catholic, am leaving the Church, or dissent from her teachings, or participate in, say, women’s ordination events, or (as Catholic obstetrician and gynecologist Rebecca Luckett recently wrote in USA Today) had an abortion’. But this genre is exhausted. These essays are routinely formulaic, tedious, and boring.

To be sure, when I read a professional woman’s explanation about why she killed her pre-born child, I experience something akin to the visceral repugnance that reading, say, a father’s account about why he kidnapped the neighbor’s children and sold them into sexual slavery would engender. When the author of an abortion-defending essay is a physician, no less, the same anger that reading, I dunno, an essay by a high-school drug counselor about why she decided to sell drugs to students arises. But for the most part these ‘Yes-I’m-Catholic-but’ attempts at public conscience massaging warrant little consideration and usually no follow-up.

But Luckett’s essay could be an exception.

Setting aside what emotions might be stirred by Luckett’s ‘confession outside of the confessional’, her essay on feticide, read in the light of the law of the Catholic Church, suggests that Luckett has committed a grave ecclesiastical crime, abortion (c. 1398), despite her having a remarkably high degree of understanding of the horror of the act, and that therefore her Ordinary (usually, a bishop) should ‘carefully inquire personally or through another suitable person about the facts, circumstances, and imputability of the matter’ (c. 1717 § 1). Unprecedented in this case is just how much hard information about these very issues has already been freely provided by Luckett herself.

Now, if one can imagine SVU detectives reading a column by a man who enslaves kidnapped children but not investigating the claim, or a police chief reading a guidance counselor’s defense of her drug-dealing but not making an arrest, then one could, I suppose, imagine a bishop reading Luckett’s essay about killing her pre-born child and not calling her to account. But make no mistake, that would be the depth of official negligence needed to support a failure to act on the facts that Luckett herself has published.

So, I guess we’ll see what happens, won’t we?

Meanwhile, let me briefly address a point guaranteed to distract from the discussion of Luckett’s deed: abortion is a canonical crime punished not simply with excommunication (a suitable penalty for a heinous offense) but with an automatic (technically, a latae sententiae) excommunication—a procedural device that, without fail, complicates the visitation of sanctions on offenders and shifts the discussion away from, here, a baby who was killed by a mother who killed him, and toward the intricacies of ecclesiastical law treading the complex boundaries between public conduct and personal conscience.

You see, penal canon law—which needed considerable reform by the 1960s—was, unfortunately, so badly reformulated in those heady days just after the Second Vatican Council, that today, even I, who think that an unrepentant Luckett should be canonically prosecuted for killing her pre-born baby (and for ‘using published writings and the instruments of social communications to gravely injure good morals’ contrary to c. 1369), even I  would be confident in defending her against excommunication for the deed (see, for starters, c. 1324 § 1 n. 5 and the articles cited below) and certainly against any suggestion that she is currently bound by a latae sententiae excommunication for it (see c. 1324 § 3). In short, automatic penalties not only fail canonically to reach most offenders for whom they are intended but they actually interfere with later attempts to enforce the Church’s more serious penal provisions. Poenae latae sententiae delendae sunt!

But granting all of that, based on her public admissions, as read under penal law as it stands today, I think a promoter of justice (the canonical equivalent of a prosecuting attorney in criminal cases, per c. 1721, etc.) should be able to secure the penalty of interdict (see c. 1332) against someone like Luckett and, for a lay person, an interdict is practically indistinguishable from an excommunication. Moreover if, Deus vetet, Luckett refused to abide by the conditions imposed by such a penalty as could be imposed for abortion and for one’s public defense of the act, the penalty could always be increased later (c. 1393).

But, as I said above, we’ll have to wait to see what happens.

Finally, while these canonical points will, I hope, be considered by those who need to consider them, let me close with some words for any one who has done what Luckett did or who has helped push a woman into such acts: there is no sin, not even forgetting the child of one’s own womb (Isaiah 49:15), or helping a wife, daughter, girlfriend, or acquaintance to forget her child, that Jesus cannot, and does not dearly want to, forgive. The first step to recovery is simple: tell Jesus you are sorry in your heart and, if you are blessed to be Catholic, go to sacramental confession. Millions of people have, themselves or through others, fallen for the massive lie that is abortion; may they not fall for the deeper lie yet that Jesus won’t forgive them.

The whole point of canonical censures such as excommunication and interdict is to move offenders to personal repentance. If that repentance can be accomplished without resort to a formal penal process, wonderful! But if not the law needs to be allowed to take its course. + + +

* See, e.g., my “Exemption from a penalty” and “Excommunication for procured abortion” in 2010 CLSA Advisory Opinions at pp. 169-174 and 178-182.

Taking it apart, one canon at a time

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.

A demur on the AOW document implementing Amoris laetitia

A single sentence threatens to undercut the good presented in “Sharing in the Joy of Love”, the graphically-attractive, 55-page pastoral plan published by the Archdiocese of Washington (DC) to implement Pope Francis’ document Amoris laetitia

The problem sentence reads as follows: “Priests are called to respect the decisions made in conscience by individuals who act in good faith since no one can enter the soul of another and make that judgment for them.” SJL, p. 52.

This admonition can, of course, be appropriately applied in innumerable situations. But, if  the sentence means that priests must “respect the decision” of divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics, living as though married to each other, to approach for holy Communion, and administer the Sacrament to them, then the admonition fails for violating Canon 915 and the Eucharistic discipline which that canon has always represented.

I say “if”, however, because whether that is  what SJL calls for is not clear. The words “canon”, “law”, and “discipline”, for example, do not appear in SJL. Canon 915 is never mentioned—not attacked, mind, just never mentioned.

What makes one fear, however, that the sentence might be intended to sway ministers of holy Communion toward administration of the Eucharist under gravely illicit conditions—besides the fact that ministers so inclined could easily invoke SJL’s phrasing here in support of precisely such administration—is that the rationale offered for such a stance, namely, that “no one can enter the soul of another and make [a conscience] judgment for them”, is repeatedly put forth these days as if a would-be communicant’s conscience preempted a minister’s application of Canon 915.

But the claim that Canon 915 yields to the conclusions of personal conscience as reached by a Catholic approaching for holy Communion is, as I have pointed out many, many times, completely wrong. Canon 915, and the tradition upon which it stands, operate in the face of observable behavior and not personal conscience. Civil marriage after divorce is observable behavior, behavior that is gravely contrary to Christ’s teaching on the permanence of marriage, to the Christian’s duty to avoid giving scandal, and to the Church’s law on reception of the sacraments.

In short, if encouraging ministers to give holy Communion to divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics is indeed what SJL intends by its wording here, then SJL is wrong; even if such is the use that some ministers intend to make of this passage in SJL, they are using the ambiguous wording of this sentence to avoid the clear directives of canon law and sacramental discipline.