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Maybe ‘adjusting’ Canon 915 is not such a good idea after all

The chief problem with electronic publishing is that writers and editors, no longer limited by the physical capacity of pages to contain words, now crank out copy with abandon. Stephan Walford’s +5,000 word editorial on Amoris laetitia contains, I suggest, numerous incomplete and misleading comments on a wide variety of complex and controversial topics, but responding to them in anything like completeness is simply impossible. So, I’ll do what I can here on the chance it helps someone out there and go on to my next project.

I begin, however, by wasting a few words of my own and ask: why do Walford and/or Vatican Insider think it important to note that Walford is “a pianist and teacher”? How does Walford’s being “a pianist” make his thoughts on Amoris presumably more worth reading? I’m a clarinetist. Are my thoughts on Amoris more (or less?) valuable for that? And why point out that Walford is “a teacher” without mentioning what he teaches or to whom? Does simply being “a teacher” qualify one to opine at great length on whatever topic one chooses to discuss? But enough musing.

To provide responses to even some of Walford’s incomplete and misleading comments on the numerous canonical, moral, and sacramental issues he purports to address is not possible without my first providing a mini-tutorial in each of these areas—and I decline to do that if only out of respect for the depth study that is actually required to appreciate the Church’s deep wisdom in these matters. Still, those bringing such backgrounds to this debate will, I trust, recognize, for example, that (1) Seper, unusually for his generation, might have mis-presented what the “internal forum solution” required, but Hamer’s ‘clarification’ of Seper’s comment clearly reasserted the traditional understanding, an understanding that obtained in ecclesiastical governing circles until just a couple years ago; (2) anything an ecclesiastic speaking carefully says about “conjugal chastity” has virtually no bearing on the analysis of the non-conjugal sex engaged in by non-married persons; (3) conscience cases over the use of contraception deal with canonically “occult” sin while Communion cases among divorced-and-remarried Catholics deal with canonically “manifest” sin, different situations requiring different responses; (4) a “homosexual orientation” might be a personal state but being divorced and remarried is a public status, which distinction would trigger different kinds of analysis; (5) while Pope Francis “has not changed in the slightest the teaching on mortal sin” he has arguably misapplied that teaching, or has allowed it to be misapplied by others, to a situation wherein it simply does not apply (Canon 915); and so on and so on.

Walford makes a few startling assertions of his own (such as claiming that “a priest who discerns and guides a penitent can discern the situation and amount of subjective guilt, thus they are aware if mortal sin is present or not” !), but the above should suffice to show that Walford’s comments are liable to more than quibbling rebuttals. I recognize, of course, that Walford (unlike most other non-canonists writing on Amoris) has made some efforts to look at how today’s questions were framed in the past but I suggest that he does not bring sufficient awareness of what those terms and phrases meant to professionals in their day so as to convey sufficiently how they need to be understood by pastors in ours.

That said, Walford makes one comment in passing that is illustrative, I think, of the dangers to which amateurs’ suggestions about law are prone. Walford says, “I accept that canon 915 may need adjusting if the Holy Father sees fit …”

Oh, really? Canon 915 “may need adjusting”, may need changes in its wording, I take this to mean. Alright, let’s think about that.

Canon 915, as has been explained many times, restricts the basic right of the Christian faithful to receive holy Communion. Like all restrictions on the exercise of fundamental rights, the terms of Canon 915 must be read ‘strictly’ so as not to curtail illegally the rights of the faithful. Every one of the five qualifiers in Canon 915—obstinacy, perseverance, manifest-ness, gravity, and sinfulness, as those precisely refined terms have been used by the canonico-moral tradition (and not necessarily as non-specialists might understand them)—must be satisfied before holy Communion can and must be withheld from a member of the faithful. Remove any, let alone several, of the qualifiers from the criteria set out in Canon 915 and, as a matter of law, the restrictions on access to holy Communion expand, not contract.

So which word or words, one wonders, might Walford like to see changed in Canon 915?

If we drop, say, the word “sin” from Canon 915, we would authorize ministers to withhold holy Communion from would-be communicants whose, say, mannerisms or attitudes irritate us.

If we drop the word “grave” from the law, then those in light or common sin need also to be rejected.

If we drop the word “manifest”, then even occult sinners (a concept Walford blurred above) would have to be publically banned from holy Communion.

If we drop the notion of “perseverance”, then those in one-time or occasional sin must be prevented by ministers from taking holy Communion.

And if we do not care whether public sinners have actual or construed knowledge of the wrongness of their conduct, we could eliminate the word “obstinate” from the law.

Which of those adjustments to Canon 915 might Walford support? I hope, none.

But perhaps Wolford has in mind not changing Canon 915 (so much for his call to “adjust” the law) but rather, effectively supports repealing CCC 2384 and the tradition behind it such that post-divorce civil remarriage is no longer understood as “permanent and public adultery” (and thus is not a sin, and thus Canon 915 does not apply). I trust it is obvious, though, that this approach strikes not at sacramental discipline as reflected in Canon 915 but at the sacramental doctrine being protected by the canon. Such a proposal, in any case, would need to go to someone higher in the Church than a blogging canon lawyer.

In sum, Canon 915 summarizes many centuries of ministerial reflection on doctrine and pastoral practice. That accumulated wisdom is not available to ministers and faithful, though, if its terms, singly and in combination, are subject to tweaking by people who seem inadequately to understand them and who seem to appreciate only in part what lies behind them.

All this, in one-fifth of Walford’s word count. :)

Three ways to not deal with Canon 915

Any canonist citing canon law in defense of doctrine or discipline these days should expect to be compared to a Pharisee and tritely accused of ‘throwing the law at pastoral problems’. Antinomianism, you see, which has taken hold in many places, routinely regards the invocation of inconvenient laws as an act of moral violence and usually views lawyers as hypocrites suffering from psychological disorders. Oh well, let’s talk about a canonical issue with profound implications for the Church in our day, shall we?

Specifically in regard to the debate over admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion, a steady ‘dissing’ of canon law is crucial because canon law—and the centuries of accumulated pastoral wisdom and doctrinal clarity that it represents—lies directly athwart the campaign to admit Catholics to Eucharistic communion on their own terms instead of on Christ’s terms and the Church’s. Whatever damage to Catholic doctrine and discipline some might spy down the road—say, abandoning the indissolubility of Christian marriage, eliminating repentance as a condition for forgiveness of sin, absolutizing private conscience against public order, usurping the Church’s authority over the sacraments, and so on—it all begins by admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to Eucharistic communion upon, in the final analysis, their own assessment of their own conscience, chiefly by using Amoris laetitia as cover.

Canon 915, however, as has been explained many times, forbids the distribution of holy Communion to those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin” and, because ecclesiastical tradition is unanimous that divorced-and-remarried Catholics figure among those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin” (CCC 2384), this law poses a major problem for the ‘pro-Amoris’ wing. To deal with that problem, three approaches to Canon 915 have, I think, emerged.

# 1. Ignore Canon 915. This is the approach followed in Amoris laetitia itself and by, say, the Buenos Aires plan. Passing over Canon 915 in silence offers two advantages: first, the Communion-admission debate can be steered almost exclusively toward prolix discussions of personal conscience (about which there is always one more thing to say); second, bishops and pastors who, faithful to the Catholic sacramental order, affirm that holy Communion must be withheld in these cases, can do so without directly running afoul of any clear assertion in Amoris. But see # 3 below.

# 2. Belittle Canon 915. This approach marks most essays by amateurs and appears variously as a patronizing tsk-tsking of any benighted enough to think that law has something to do with life, or nigh-on clueless comments about the canon, and occasionally old-fashioned ridicule of canon law. Belittling Canon 915 taps into the antinomianism now running through the Church and it appeals both to writers unequipped to discuss competently the complex matters at hand and to readers unequipped to recognize that emotion is being substituted for reason.

# 3. Violate Canon 915. This is the approach recently approved by the bishops of Malta in stating that holy Communion cannot be withheld in these cases but, as noted here, their action does not run directly afoul of Amoris for the simple reason that Amoris said nothing about Canon 915. Precisely in that both # 1 and # 3 can be sustained by appeals to Amoris leads me to agree with the Four Cardinals that, on this point anyway, the ambiguity in Amoris is irresolvable and thus the document urgently requires official clarification.

That all three approaches to Canon 915 are unacceptable seems self-evident to me but I cannot reinvent my arguments for so holding every time a new name wades into this fray. I trust my writings thus far can be located by those who wish to be better informed. Still I thought it useful to pause for a few minutes and to suggest that the ‘pro-Amoris’ wing really does know that Canon 915 summarizes what stands between them and their goals and that they have developed, therefore, three (albeit unacceptable) ways to not deal with that ancient rule.

Fixing things the wrong way

[Post-scriptum: I see now an editorial note from CRUX admitting the misquotation and subsequent correction. My objections to Ivereigh’s essay as being irrelevant to the Amoris debate in light of his omission stand, but the journalistic mistake (correcting an important error without noting it is a correction) I accept as remedied.]

On January 15 CRUX contributing editor Austen Ivereigh penned a mellifluous essay on the role of conscience in regard to holy Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics under Amoris laetitia in which essay he mentioned, but fatally misquoted, the central canonical norm in this debate, Canon 915, by leaving out the crucial qualifier in Canon 915, the word “manifest”, which word moves the question of Communion distribution out of the realm of conscience (where Ivereigh wants to leave it) and into the realm of public conduct where ecclesiastical tradition has always located it.

On January 16 I called Ivereigh on his misrepresentation of the law, pointing out that no discussion of the ecclesial values behind Canon 915 is possible if the word “manifest” is omitted from its text. I did not speculate as to why Ivereigh left out the crucial word, but at least two possibilities presented themselves: (1) Ivereigh was unaware that the word “manifest” was in the norm, in which case he could plausibly, if still incorrectly, opine away about the role of conscience as if that were the only criterion at issue here; or (2) Ivereigh knew the word “manifest” was there but, not realizing its importance, he forgot about it on his to way to plausibly, if still incorrectly, opining away about the role of conscience as if that were the only criterion at issue here. Either explanation, in my view, disqualifies Ivereigh’s CRUX essay from being taken as a serious contribution to this debate, but neither theory calls into question his motives for writing as he did.

On January 17, however, I see that Ivereigh (or CRUX?) has quietly slipped the word “manifest” back into the Canon 915 quote but, as far as I can tell, the rest of Ivereigh’s essay remains untouched—as if to say, Okay, fine, the word “manifest” is in the law, and yes, it’s apparently important enough to repair the quote, but no, I (or CRUX) don’t care that it renders essentially pointless the original essay for its failure to grapple with the now obviously crucial implications of the word “manifest” in Canon 915 regarding Communion distribution questions. I ask, is this how one rights journalistic wrongs?

My objection to Ivereigh (or CRUX) adding the word “manifest” to the essay, is not, I need hardly say, an objection to repairing a false quote per se. Electronic media lends itself to fixing typos and besides, accuracy before the reading public is to be valued over avoiding authorial embarrassment. But, quietly adding an omitted, yet absolutely crucial, word to a key quotation, without admitting that it was originally misrepresented (besides making CRUX readers unfairly question their own correct recollections of the essay) implies that such misstatements, in the midst of a tempestuous debate no less, are on a par with spelling mistakes or awkward auxiliary verb tenses. Sorry, but Ivereigh’s misrepresentation of Canon 915 went far beyond the typo stage.

In short, Option One for accounting for Ivereigh’s original phrasing is gone. He clearly knows the word “manifest” is in the law. That leaves, I suppose, Option Two, Ivereigh still does not realize the importance of the word (in which case he needs to do some serious study of this matter) or, I fear, it suggests an Option Three, Ivereigh doesn’t care about the implications of the law’s focus on public acts (instead of on personal conscience assessment) in Communion distribution questions (in which case other things Ivereigh might wish to say about the role of law in the Church should be questioned).

Discussing law with people who don’t know what it actually says

Austen Ivereigh, in a Crux essay that adds little of substance to what has been said over and over again in regard to Amoris laetitia, fatally misquotes the central canon at issue in the Amoris debate. His misrepresentation of the law illustrates better than anything I could say here about why the Amoris debate is becoming, to use Ivereigh’s term, so infuriating for defenders of ecclesiastical tradition. The ‘pro-Amoris’ wing simply does not know, or care, what the law in question actually says.

Ivereigh writes:

“Amoris never questions either Canon 915, which demands that Communion be withheld from those who “obstinately persevere in grave sin,” nor the following canon, that people conscious of grave sin should not present themselves to receive Communion… But while Amoris is very clear about not wanting to create new norms or laws, it is also very clear about fostering a new attitude.”

First Amoris never “questions” Canon 915 because it never mentions Canon 915!, but much more importantly—and crucially for his essay—Ivereigh misquotes the text of Canon 915 in regard to the central issue here. Canon 915 does NOT say that holy Communion must be withheld from those who “obstinately persevere in grave sin”, it says that holy Communion must be withheld from those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin”.

The difference, as has been explained copiously, is night and day.

Canon 915, controlling a minister’s decision to give holy Communion to a would-be communicant, is not, not, not, about reading communicants’ personal consciences (as if ministers could do that anyway), it is about assessing a would-be communicants’ public behavior (such as their having entered civil marriage subsequent to divorce). Thus, virtually all of the Amoris discussions about individual assessments of conscience or, as the Maltese bishops put it, about “being at peace with God” (points that might figure in the application of Canon 916), is irrelevant to the operation of Canon 915, the modern canon resting on ancient roots that prevents ministers from giving holy Communion to Catholics in these circumstances. But it’s impossible to discuss the implications of the legal qualifier “manifest” in Canon 915 if public figures such as Ivereigh don’t even admit the word is there.

Misrepresenting the plain text of canon law on the central point at issue in the Amoris debate is not, I suggest, how should one go “about fostering a new attitude” toward law.


Fixing things the wrong way (17 Jan 2017), here.

The Maltese directive makes answering the ‘dubia’ urgent, Catholic World Report Dispatch (15 Jan 2017)  here.

The Maltese disaster, Catholic World Report Dispatch (13 Jan 2017) here; EWTN Great Britain (14 Jan 2017) here.


The Maltese directive makes answering the ‘dubia’ urgent

When highly placed Italian prelates declare that “only a blind man cannot see” that confusion is the ecclesiastical order of the day, and that such confusion has as its fundamental source Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia, matters have reached crisis level. Catholics who have not followed the intense three-year debate over (among other things) admitting to holy Communion divorced-and-remarried Catholics who are living as married persons should stop reading this post and go get caught up on current events. But for those sufficiently aware of the doctrinal and disciplinary issues at stake I offer some observations in the wake of this weekend’s developments.

The bishops of Malta, by declaring that divorced-and-remarried Catholics who are living as if they were married “cannot be precluded from participating in … the Eucharist” have done grave violence to the unbroken and unanimous ecclesiastical tradition barring such Catholics from reception of holy Communion without—and let me stress this, without—doing violence to the actual text of Francis’ Amoris laetitia. That, folks, is the central problem.

Amoris does not—again, let me repeat, does not—declare ministers of holy Communion bound to give the sacrament to divorced-and-remarried Catholics living as if married. Francis’ phrasing in several key passages of Amoris is (I have argued) malleable enough to allow bishops such as Chaput and Sample to reiterate the traditional Eucharistic discipline or, as the Buenos Aires bishops did, simply to pass ambiguous criteria down to local pastors to sort as best they can. But precisely because key passages of Amoris are also flexible enough to allow bishops to do as the Maltese have done and require Church ministers to distribute the Eucharist to Catholics who engage in “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384)—not to mention conferring absolution on penitents who express no purpose of amendment in regard to such conduct—all this, without doing violence to the actual text of Amoris, one cannot but agree with Cdl. Caffarra and others that this hitherto unimaginable sacramental disunity is rooted directly in Amoris laetitia.

This ability of Amoris simultaneously to sustain orthodox, non-committal, and heterodox interpretations in matters of the gravest ecclesiastical import is exactly why the Four Cardinal’s dubia so urgently need answering—if not by Francis himself (and no one can force Francis’ hand) then at least by Francis’ right-hand man in matters of faith and morals, Cdl Muller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to whom the dubia was also (few seem to have noticed) addressed.

Of course, the stakes involved in the dubia jumped dramatically over the weekend, not simply by the Maltese bishops making plain what sort of sacramental abuses Amoris could tolerate within its terms, but by the decision, taken at who-knows-what level, to publish the Maltese document in L’Ossevatore Romano, that “instrument for spreading the teachings of the successor of Peter.” Obviously the pope is not the editor of L’OR and it is possible that the decision to publish the Maltese document took Francis unawares. But insofar as L’OR is unquestionably the pope’s newspaper people will be watching to see whether, directly or indirectly, there appears some ‘distancing’ between Francis and the Maltese approach to sacraments for divorced-and-remarried Catholics.

I pray there does appear such papal distancing; I pray that the Maltese bishops repent of their failure to “exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline especially regarding …the celebration of the sacraments” (Canon 392 § 2); and I pray that the teachings of Christ and his Church penetrate our minds and hearts more deeply.


This post now available in Spanish, here.

Fixing things the wrong way (17 Jan 2017), here.

Discussing law with people who don’t know what it actually says

The Maltese disaster

The Maltese disaster

The bishops of Malta, in a document that can only be called disastrous, repeatedly invoking Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia, have directly approved divorced and remarried Catholics taking holy Communion provided they feel “at peace with God”. Unlike, say, the Argentine document on Amoris which, one could argue, left just enough room for an orthodox reading, however widely it also left the doors open for abuse by others, the Maltese bishops in their document come straight out and say it: holy Communion is for any Catholic who feels “at peace with God” and the Church’s ministers may not say No to such requests. In my view the Maltese bishops have effectively invited the Catholics entrusted to them (lay faithful and clergy alike!) to commit a number of objectively gravely evil acts. That their document was, moreover, published in L’Osservatore Romano, exacerbates matters for it deprives Vatican representatives of the ‘plausible deniability’ that they could have claimed (and might soon enough wish they could claim), as it becomes known that the Maltese bishops went beyond what even Amoris, if interpreted narrowly, seemed to permit.

For now, I make just a few points.

1. The Maltese bishops have fallen completely for the canonically and ecclesiologically false view that an individual’s assessment of his or her own readiness to receive holy Communion (see c. 916) controls a minister’s decision to administer the sacrament (see c. 915). In Malta now, anyone who approaches for the sacraments should be recognized as being “at peace with God”. Objective evidence to the contrary is simply no longer relevant. Canon 916 is thus eviscerated, Canon 915 is effectively repudiated.

2. The Maltese bishops do not seem to know what the word “conjugal” means. They think that non-married people can practice “conjugal” virtues and that they can decide about whether to engage in “conjugal” acts. Nonsense and, coming from bishops, inexcusable nonsense at that. Non-married people can have sex, of course, but Catholic pastoral integrity does not hold such sexual acts on par with the physically identical, but truly conjugal, acts as performed by married persons.

3. The Maltese bishops, by extending their document to the sacrament of Reconciliation, have basically instructed their priests not to withhold absolution from divorced-and-remarried Catholics who refuse to repent of their “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384) even to the point of abstaining from sexual (nb: sexual not “conjugal”) relations. Incredibly, such a directive raises the specter of green-lighting sacrilegious confessions and the commission of solicitation in confession. No priest should want either on his conscience, let alone both.

4. The Maltese bishops even managed to take swipes at Baptism and Confirmation by opening the door to divorced-and-remarried Catholics serving as godparents contrary to the expectations of Canon 874 § 1, 3º. See CLSA New Comm (2001) 1062-1063.

There are other serious problems with the Maltese document but the above should suffice to show why it is, quite simply, a disaster.


This post available in Spanish, here.

See also

Fixing things the wrong way (17 Jan 2017), here.

Discussing law with people who don’t know what it actually says

As to why the Maltese disaster makes responding to the Four Cardinals’ Dubia all the more important, go here.


Reminder: Canon 277, at some point, needs to be authoritatively addressed

Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written, as usual, an informative essay, this time on some of the practical problems associated with a married Roman Catholic clergy. I recommend his essay for those following this important question. With one caveat.

Longenecker writes: “Finally, what about children? Many people seem to forget that a [married] priest and his wife will be faithful to the church’s teaching. That means they will not be using artificial contraception. If they are young and fertile, is the parish ready to accept the responsibility of feeding and housing a dozen clergy kids?”

That phrasing, implying the continued exercise of conjugal relations between married clergy and their wives, touches upon a serious issue that has yet to be authoritatively addressed by ecclesiastical leadership, namely, whether Canon 277 § 1, which restates the Western Church’s ancient expectation of “perfect and perpetual continence” for all of her clergy, even (by unanimous scholarly agreement over the centuries) those clerics (including deacons, but even more importantly, priests) who are married.

As Longenecker correctly notes, the question of having married clergy is one of discipline, meaning that Church practices binding at one time may nevertheless change in response to another; but the clerical continence question, while perhaps “disciplinary” to the extent that many people (mistakenly, in my view) think that the Western practice of complete clerical continence changed after Vatican II, might also be rooted in more fundamental doctrinal questions about the nature of the priesthood and the nuptial signification of the Eucharist. Canons and canonical interpretations that are rooted in doctrinal realities (which canons need not recite those doctrinal roots in order to claim them, as can be seen in, say, Canon 1024 which simply restricts ordination to baptized males, without explaining why) are much less susceptible to change, especially to inadvertent change, than are legal norms rooted in merely disciplinary considerations.

The arguments defending the plain meaning of Canon 277 offered by several others besides me are complex and I shall not reproduce them here. Rebuttals of our thesis are, in contrast, light and themselves rather easily refuted. Even two letters from the pontifical text commission purporting to dispose of this matter fail, in my opinion, to resolve the issue of Western clerical continence at all, let alone, to resolve it correctly. And, while other norms protect, to be sure, the consciences of men ordained (and of their wives) without knowledge of Canon 277 and the tradition behind it, such expediencies do not get at the substance of the law itself and the values it upholds. But all of these discussions and several others besides are available here. I invite interested persons to consult them as they wish.

Of course I do not expect, given various other matters occupying Rome at present, to see much movement on the question of continence among married clergy, but I write as occasion permits to preserve the question for when circumstances might favor its consideration. Longenecker’s good essay provided such an occasion, and I took it.