The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Disregarding the divinely-rooted Canon 915 portends serious consequences

In short, personal conscience is being urged as a substitute for public conduct as a key criterion controlling certain questions of ecclesiastical governance.

For several years I and others have argued that the question of admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion turns primarily on Canon 915 (which norm, against a backdrop of canons protecting the right of the faithful to access the sacraments, sets out a minister’s duty to refuse holy Communion under certain conditions). Asserting the importance of Canon 915 in this Communion discussion, however, has been an uphill battle as virtually none of the official documents central to this debate—including Amoris laetitia,the Buenos Aires letterthe Maltese directives, the German episcopal conference document, and several others—so much as mentions Canon 915, let alone do they recognize that this canon directly regulates the sacramental disciplinary question at hand.

Till now I have but briefly noted the obligatory force of Canon 915 in terms of its being part of a Code of canons which “by their very nature must be observed” especially in that they are “based on a solid juridical, canonical, and theological foundation.” John Paul II, Sacrae disciplinae leges (1983) [¶ 19]. Faithful Catholics should need little incentive to follow a canon beyond the fact that the Legislator has made it a part of his universal law. Discussions as to the properinterpretation of a law are to be expected, of course, but such discussions would always center on a canon that all sides recognized existed and was relevant.

In the wake of Amoris, however, something different is happening: Canon 915 is slowly becoming an Orwellian “uncanon”, its existence not mentioned in key official documents impacting the Communion debate, its relevance to the precise sacramental issue at hand not being acknowledged. This notable official silence concerning Canon 915 portends, I suggest, serious consequences for the debate over the admission of divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion, to be sure, but, unless checked, it will also negatively impact other looming issues wherein Catholic doctrine directly interfaces with canonical discipline.

In light of the foregoing, then, I want to develop a point about Canon 915 that, while implicit in my earlier discussions of the Communion admission issue, seems now must be more explicitly made, namely, that the obligation to observe the sacramental provisions set out in Canon 915 when considering the administration of holy Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics rests not only on that norm’s inclusion in a set of positive ecclesiastical laws but on its reflecting universally binding divine law itself.

Part One. The divine law roots of Canon 915.

The canonist in me would be content to note that the character of Canon 915, as a modern articulation of a divine law precept that dates back to St. Paul and/or that aims at preventing divinely-forbidden scandal, is expressly and resoundingly upheld in a declaration on Canon 915 issued by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts in 2000 and, further, is acknowledged by numerous canonical commentaries including the Exegetical Commentary (2004) III/1: 614-615; Code of Canon Law Annotated (2004) 709; and Codice di Diritto Canonico Commentato (2009) 767, to name just three. There being zero question among canon lawyers that Canon 915 deals directly with the question of admitting, here, divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion, I would turn promptly to Canon 915 for directions.

But additional, more theological, foundations for demonstrating the divine law basis of Canon 915 are available.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2284-2287, for example, outlining the respect owed to the immortal souls of others, identifies scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil”, teaches that scandal “takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it”, notes that scandal can be given by policies “leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice”, and warns community leaders that using their power “in such a way that it leads others to do wrong” makes them “guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged.”

Per the Catechism, then, individuals giving personal scandal to others violate divine law; Church officials giving institutional scandal to the community (say, by countenancing the personal scandal given by certain individuals) violate divine law more gravely still.

Furthermore, by prohibiting ministers of holy Communion from giving that “most august Sacrament” (1983 CIC 897) to any Catholic who “obstinately perseveres in manifest grave sin” (understanding those terms as they have long been understood in canon law), Canon 915 serves the common ecclesial good in, I suggest, at least three ways:

▪ first, it supports to some extent the faithful’s personal obligation under Canon 916 to examine their consciences (perhaps with the guidance of a confessor) prior to approaching for holy Communion;

▪ second, it reduces, though it does not eliminate, the chances that sacrilegious Communions will be made by the faithful;

▪ third—and most importantly, I suggest—it directly prevents ministers of the Church from giving institutional scandal to the faith community (and indeed to the wider watching world) such as would inevitably arise if the Church’s greatest sacrament were administered to Catholics whose observable conduct or status (such as, say, living together with another as if a spouse although at least one person in the relationship already was already married) contradicts core values of the faith (here, Christ’s repeated proclamations against divorce and remarriage).

In short, Canon 915 blunts the individual scandal given by the faithful who live lives openly contrary to fundamental Christian values and it prevents Church officials from giving institutional scandal by engaging in ministerial actions that would appear to treat such contrarian behavior as compatible with Church teaching.

But the problem of disregarding Canon 915 goes deeper still, I fear.

Into the void created by ignoring Canon 915, a canon fashioned over many centuries as a community defense against scandal and specifically against scandal given by ecclesiastical leaders, there has rushed in the contrary idea that the private judgement of individuals (perhaps reached with priestly advice) concerning their taking of the Sacrament, whenever they consider themselves fit for it and regardless of how inconsistent their public conduct or status might be with the teachings of Christ and his Church, is to be preferred to the common ecclesial good of protecting the faith community from the harm of public bad example. In other words, personal conscience is being urged as a substitute for public conduct as a key criterion controlling certain questions of ecclesiastical governance.

Moreover, this abandonment of the faith community to the dangers of scandal contrary to the divine law protections reflected in Canon 915 is presently being pushed in regard to Catholics living in “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384) but the logic of substituting personal conscience for public conduct in regard to ecclesial governance issues does not and will not stop at marriage questions.

Part Two. How the problem took hold and is spreading.

That the question of admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion should henceforth turn largely on an individual’sperception of (diminished or even absent) personal culpability for sin as that might be discerned in personal conscience, and need not honor primarily the divine law prohibition against giving personal and institutional scandal to others, is a proposal so startling in its novelty and so shocking in its implications that it seems to have taken over, almost invisibly, the very framing of the question of admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion. It is as if the world of sacramental discipline groaned and awoke to find itself subjectivized.

Now, this erosion of the canonical protection of the faith community against scandal is not being achieved by a frontal attack on Church teaching (indeed Church teaching is often verbally honored) nor so much by turning a blind eye toward disciplinary abuses (as has always been with us), but rather, first, by the simple expedient of pervasively ignoring Canon 915 and its scandal-prevention orientation, and second, by treating the norm (if it must be mentioned at all, and which must, one supposes, deal with something) as if it dealt with the Church’s (in itself, quite legitimate) pastoral concern for sin, as follows:

First, as noted above, mention of Canon 915 itself has been almost completely absent from the most important documents dealing with the question of admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion. But, realizing that admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion is somehow “not okay” canonically, some mechanism for addressing that “not okay-ness” needed to be developed.

That mechanism is, I suggest, the constant repetition of certain tropes or themes according to which Canon 915 (or at least some unnamed law dealing with the faithful going to Communion), deals largely with questions of personal sin, not scandal. Once the conversation about Canon 915 (or some unnamed restrictive norm) has, by the steady repetition of nearly invariable refrains, been shifted away from this norm’s primary task of protecting the community against scandal and toward its allegedly being a response to personal sin, the rest proceeds easily:

Upon correctly pointing out, say, that divorced-and-remarried Catholics are often in situations of reduced moral culpability and after rightly stressing the pastoral importance of weighing case-by-case factors in pastoral accompaniment—and being careful to avoid acknowledging that such considerations have basically nothing to dowith the operation of Canon 915, a norm concerned with the prevention of objective scandal, not internal assessments ofconscience—the conclusion comes gradually to be accepted that, as no law or human being can judge another’s culpability for sin, so no law or human being may prohibit another from taking Communion based on that other’s “culpability” for conduct. Ministers of holy Communion thus become sacramental ATMs. To the minister’s prompt “Body of Christ” a Catholic responds with the password “Amen”, and the Eucharist is disbursed. Scandal is ignored; Canon 915 is diverted; and the community is left to deal with the effects of the bad example of others and of their ministers as best it can.

In short, once people think that Canon 915 (the few times it is mentioned) is mostly about assessing the sacramental consequences of the personal sins of the faithful and is not concerned with preventing institutional scandal by ministers, then anything that mitigates one’s culpability for personal sin (and many things do mitigate such culpability) necessarily mitigates the force of Canon 915. The subversion of the Communion debate concerns over scandal is complete and its resolution in favor of a highly subjective determination of eligibility for holy Communion is achieved.

A final note.

There is, alas, another consequence of wrongly framing the question regarding the admission of divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion as if it were a question of culpability for sin instead of it turning on the community’s right to be protected from personal and institutional scandal.

It is this: in consequence of the urgent need to reorient the debate over Canon 915 back toward protecting the faith community against scandal as required by divine law, the discussion of many other pressing pastoral questions on marriage (such as the terrible ill-preparedness of so many people to enter marriage, the inadequacies of certain canonical formulations of various points of marriage doctrine, the correct operation of the ‘internal forum solution’, the worsening anomalies of requiring canonical form for valid marriage, the procedural problems of the older canon law on annulments and of Francis’ newer norms, and a dozen points besides) is repeatedly delayed. Because of the need to respond to the deeper threat to ecclesial order that ignoring and misrepresenting Canon 915 poses to the Church, people calling attention to Canon 915 are dismissed as legalists for their harping on esoteric laws while there are real people with real marriage problems to be tended.

As if we didn’t know that, and as if we didn’t prefer to make positive contributions to the pastoral advancement of canon law instead of having, nearly constantly these days, to take time out to defend norms such as Canon 915, and the very important values they represent, against destruction by those unaware of, or not concerned with, what such canons mean “in the life both of the ecclesial society and of the individual persons who belong to it.” John Paul II, Sacrae disciplinae leges (1983) [¶ 16].

About Edward N. Peters 89 Articles

Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the “In the Light of the Law” site.

19 Comments

  1. Thank you, Dr. Peters; you have been a lone voice. God bless you for your persistence on this point and for your patience and perseverance. May you not lose your reward.

    Dr. Peters post points to the very serious consequences for the Church & her faithful and, mine [https://goo.gl/wWrfau], which was published just a couple of days before his, to how Pope Francis and the innovators with him intend to bring about these very serious consequences that Dr. Peters highlights, though I believe he has left out two more that I will return to.

    I commented the other day on LMS Chairman [http://www.lmschairman.org/2017/10/the-correctio-and-dissent-against.html?showComment=1507493070461#c3321292666119242419] that if this was a game of chess, yet very deadly because souls are at stake, at the moment, we are not playing to win. We are waiting for the enemy’s side to make all the moves and then we hope to counteract them. This is playing only from a defensive position. Why, we ignored Dr. Peter’s prophetic alarm calls. He has been a true watchman over the LORD’s house that Scripture speaks of.

    So, what are the goods which this law protects if Canon 915 of 1983 CIC; Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, Canon 712 was contravened?

    The Church call and duty is to work for the glory of God and for the good of his people, the Church, whom he loves [for the latter cf. salvation of souls [salus animarum] = supreme law of the Church. The goods then this canon protects are:

    1) The dignity of the Blessed Sacrament by preventing its profanation.

    2) The good of the faithful by preventing scandal and confusion as regards Church teaching.

    3) The good of the souls of those administering the sacraments and those publicly unworthy to be admitted to Holy Communion. As regards the latter, if they obstinately persist in their sinful situation till death, the Church would have spared them a worse place in hell.

    In Ps 11:9 Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA) [https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+11:9&version=DRA] it is said The wicked walk round about. We have exposed what was a stumbling block for them as regards their intent to profane the Holy Sacrament by giving it to those obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin. Let’s give great thanks to God for bringing to light this, but let’s stay vigilant because they will relentlessly come back to this to find an opening within the time short time allotted them.
    We each have a part to play as we have seen Dr. Peters and CWR, who gave him platform [thank you] do theirs. God bless you all and yours and his work at your hands. Now let’s go do it

  2. It sounds as if Canon 915 needs to be revised, given AL. The problem is that no one can tell what AL says, so no revision is possible. In addition, it appears that AL now negates canon law, depending on where you live, and what your bishop says.

    Which points to a further problem with AL. it makes canon law impossible, and each diocese must have their own version of canon law. Protestantism, here we come.

  3. This is a most comprehensive accurate repudiation of the implementation of the premises based on conscience and presumed mitigating conditions contained in Amoris Laetitia that permit communion for D&R. The repudiation centers on the significance of canon 915. Even if vicarious in not naming that Exhortation. The author’s exposition centers on the spreading sin of scandal perpetrated mainly by the clergy, not particularly the D&R by their dispensing communion to the D&R. “The conclusion comes gradually to be accepted that, as no law or human being can judge another’s culpability for sin, so no law or human being may prohibit another from taking Communion based on that other’s ‘culpability’ for conduct. Ministers of holy Communion thus become sacramental ATMs”. Additionally some hold that the priest can discern whether the D&R are culpable of grave sin as implied in AL, presuming judgment of another’s conscience that belongs exclusively to God.

    • Is it possible we lost this battle over the past forty years – – (As the Church allowed politicians who openly supported abortion and some who lived openly disordered lives to receive communion, receive high honors within the Church, and have Bishops and Cardinals attend their funerals and speak of how great they were)? In my view, the problem is wider, deeper, and much more serious than stated.

  4. Another troubling quote from the Pope today. Addressing a meeting on canon law, he said “In particular, Francis said, it should promote “collegiality; synodality in the governance of the church; valuing particular churches; the responsibility of all the Christian faithful in the mission of the church; ecumenism; mercy and closeness as the primary pastoral principle; individual, collective and institutional religious freedom; a healthy and positive secularism; (and) healthy collaboration between the church and civil society in its various expressions.”

    No, no, no and no. Canon law should not pursue several principles that the Pope seems to have picked out of thin air. It should promulgate the whole of the Bible, not some baloney picked out and distilled by the Pope as short hand slogans. Once again, the Pope is trying to ignore the Bible and Cathollic teaching over the centuries, and resolve it all down into various simplistic concepts. This is an attempt to avoid the bible and tradition, period.

  5. What a good, reasoned response. “Ladies and gentlemen, please make sure you are buckled into your rosary while we pass through some turbulence.” Saint Joseph, defend us. Saint Michael, defend us.

  6. I have been studying a post from Sandro Magister entitled, “The Four Hooks On Which [Pope Francis] Hands His Thought. This post provided an evaluation of “The Four postulates of Pope Francis”, one written by Dr. Giovanni Scalese, a Barnabite Father, who, among many responsible positions, “has been a professor of philosophy and rector at the Collegio alla Querce in Florence”.

    The “four postulates” are first listed: Time is greater than space; Unity prevails over conflict; Realities are more important than ideas; the Whole is greater than the part. These four are deemed “principles” by Pope Francis. Father maintains they are “postulates”: “propositions devoid of evidence and not demonstrated but all the same admitted as true in that they are necessary for founding a procedure or demonstration.”

    Pope Francis has written, in “Evanglii Gaudium” 221 that the four principles “derive from the pillars of the Church’s social doctrine”. Fr. Scalese disputes this derivation and comments that: “But in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, … the “permanent princples” and “the very heart of Catholic social teaching” are instead the “dignity of the human person,” the “common good,” “subsidiarity” “solidarity”; these being connected to the universal good of all. Fr. Scalese lists also [from the Compendium] the “fundamental values of social life”, such as truth, freedom, justice, love

    Fr. Scalese observes “it is hard to grasp the derivation of the four postulates of [Pope Francis] from the aforementioned “permanent principles” of the social doctrine of the Church. “… at the least such a derivation is not very evident; it would have to be brought to light and not taken for granted.” (continued in next post)

    • [please correct the article title to (The Four Hooks On Which Pope Francis Hangs His Thought”)

      “It would seem that the essence of the first postulate [Time is greater than space] lies in the fact that one must not presume to homogenize everything and everyone but to allow everyone to make his own way toward a ‘horizon’ that remains rather undefined”. The words “a horizon that remains rather undefined” do not inspire confidence in the clarity of the Pope’s teaching.

      Fr Scalese provides a warning: “We must sincerely recognize that the derivation of such a conclusion from the principle under examination is not so immediate and evident as the text would seem to suppose.” This note of caution and more is, throughout the article, applies to the other “postulates” or “principles” which provide the foundation for Pope Francis teachings.

      Fr. Scalese notes the presence, in Pope Francis thought, of “a dialectical vision of reality very similar to that of Hegel”. The Pope’s proposal of “a way of making history in a life setting where confllicts, tensions and oppositions can acchieve a diversified and life-giving unity” recalls very much the Hegelian ‘Aufhebung’.

      The article goes on to provide discussion of the four postulates. It states the principle; then provides scholarly analysis, some of which is definitely alarming. For example, “There is a risk that, by repeating the fourth postulate [the Whole is greater than the Part ] without further clarification, it could be understood in a Marxist sense and thus justify the obliteration of the individual in society”.

      The conclusion of Fr. Scalese’s article states: “Another observation that could be made at the end of this reflection is that the presentation of thses four postulates demonstrates that, in human action, it is inevitable to allow oneself to be led by some principles that are abstract by their nature. it is there fore useless to polemicize about the abstractness of ‘doctrine’, opposing it to a ‘reality’ to which one should simply adapt. Reality, if it is not illuminated, buided, ordered by some principles, risks turning into chaos”. The problem is: which principles? Fr. Scalese writes that it is not genuinely clear why the four postulates [of Pope Francis] should be able to legitimately orient the development of social coexistence and the construction of a people”. (continued in next post)

      • And, to me most important: “That Christian doctrine runs the risk of becoming ideology cannot be denied. But the same risk is run by any other principle, including the four postulates of “Evangelii Gaudium” with the difference that these are the result of human reflection, WHILE CATHOLIC DOCTRINE IS FOUNDED ON DIVINE REVELATION [emphasis added].

        Scholarly theological analysis of Fr. Scalese’s article by various qualified persons would, I believe, be of great value; to some even eternal value. What are we to make of these teachings?

        • It appears my earlier reply has not made it. Substituting that reply with a quote from Prof. Claudio Pierantoni:

          Do you think Pope Francis knows full well the rule that he is supposed to teach orthodox doctrine, but has great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent value’?

          [Prof. Claudio Pierantoni:] I have taught for a decade in a theological faculty here in Latin America, where I have gotten to know many Jesuits, both as colleagues and as students. In light of this experience, I have come to the conclusion that, unfortunately, Pope Francis has deeply absorbed, both within the Company of Jesus, as well as from certain German universities (which in turn have profoundly influenced theology here in Latin America), more than one idea that has little to do with Catholic orthodoxy.  One of these ideas is the sovereign contempt for everything that is “doctrine” (and for those who dedicate themselves to defend it). Such contempt is summed up in his famous maxim: “Reality is superior to ideas” (which we already discussed in our previous interview).

          Providentially, however, this same disdain for “doctrine” prevents him from presenting as genuine magisterium (which precisely would be “doctrine”) the opinions that he holds as a private teacher. – Amoris Laetitia uses orthodoxy as ‘mask’ to conceal moral errors: Catholic philosopher by Diane Montagna , Tue Oct 10, 2017 | Lifesitenews

          • Thank you for this post. I would very much like to read the earlier reply to which you refer, if it can be re-posted.

            Best wishes.

  7. In light of this situation we are currently living through, I would like to ask you learned folks a serious question. Do you believe Pope Francis has the keys of the Kingdom Of Heaven in his possession? I am not a well educated Catholic but do try. This is testing me.

  8. Thanks, but I am afraid it’s over for Canon 915 if Pope Francis remains much longer, and barring a miracle in the next conclave. It should be clear to everyone by now that one of his main objectives as pontiff is to eliminate all barriers to reception of the Eucharist other than the individual’s conscience. He re-write it, and he will do so with a surprise motu proprio that makes it a fait accompli. That is his modus operandi.

  9. Didn’t the Canon 915 problem get its start with lax enforcement against Catholic politicians on the abortion issue? Mercy is a great cover up for shepherds who refuse to actually shepherd their congregations. These shepherds would appear to be the primary beneficiaries of all of this newfound unconditional mercy.

  10. As a faithful Catholic who attended Catholic grade school, high school and college during the 40’s and 50’s, I always believed the Pope was guided by the Holy Spirit. For the first time in my life, I am no longer sure of that. I find the problems regarding AL and Canon 915 to be very troubling. I never believed I could decide, subjectively, whether or not something was a sin. Am I wrong about this?

    • Elizabeth,
      God bless you with health in your advanced years. You had both the Church and romantic doo wop in those years and if your boyfriend drove an MGTD….then you had it all just like Bogey and Bacall. Getting back to earth however and the present rust age, there are prudential mistakes we all make in good conscience…like not fraternally correcting person A…and later we think…” I should have corrected person A that day”. But you were sincerely mistaken at the time and received Communion without confessing it because sincere conscience is the litmus test IN PRUDENTIAL DECISIONS. Where many are going off the railroad tracks now is: there are allowing sincere conscience not just in prudential decisions but in objectively wrongful acts decisions. The scriptures both old and new say that gay acts are reprehensible but several dioceses in the US…Newark included…are allowing sexually active gay persons to receive Communion based on whether they agree that gay acts are sinful. The New York Times reported that on June 13….
      “But Cardinal Tobin’s welcome to Mass on May 21 has been the most significant of such recent gestures, because of the symbolism of a cardinal welcoming a group of gay Catholics, some of whom were married to same-sex spouses, to participate in the Sacrament of Holy Communion at the center of a cathedral, no questions asked.”
      Tobin was raised to Cardinal by Pope Francis and placed in one of the largest dioceses.
      Pope Francis chose a murkier, fog enshrouded issue…second marriage…foggier because he thinks most first marrieds are not really married. Tobin chose an issue that is clearly condemned by the Holy Spirit in Romans chapter one…so Tobin is giving Communion to people who heretically disagree with Romans one. Francis has a bit more cover but not much.
      Nothing new under the sun. There was so much Arian heresy in the 4th century in the Catholic hierarchy that Cardinal Newman said …” there was a suspension of the Ecclesia Docens”…( “the Teaching Church”). Newman went on to say that the laity during that century was actually the most orthodox sector of the Church.

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