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 letter, the 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].