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Pope Francis’ letter to the Argentine bishops is in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. Now what?

Canon 915 and the fundamental sacramental and moral values behind it might be forgotten, ignored, or ridiculed, but unless and until that law is revoked or modified by papal legislative action or is effectively neutered by pontifically approved “authentic interpretation” (1983 CIC 16), it binds ministers of holy Communion.

Some three months ago I predicted that Pope Francis’ letter to the Argentine bishops, approving their implementation of Amoris laetitia, would make its way into the Acta Apostolicae SedisNow it has. An accompanying note from Cardinal Parolin states that the pope wishes the Argentine document to enjoy “magisterial authority” and that his endorsement thereof  has the status of an “apostolic letter”.

Fine. Let’s work through some points.

1. Canon 915. It is crucial to understand that, today, what actually prevents ministers of holy Communion from distributing the Eucharist to divorced-and-remarried Catholics is Canon 915 and the universal, unanimous interpretation which that legislative text, rooted as it is in divine law, has always received. Canon 915 and the fundamental sacramental and moral values behind it might be forgotten, ignored, or ridiculed, even by ranking officers in the Church, but unless and until that law is revoked or modified by papal legislative action or is effectively neutered by pontifically approved “authentic interpretation” (1983 CIC 16), Canon 915 stands and, so standing, binds ministers of holy Communion.

Neither the pope’s letter to the Argentines, nor the Argentine bishops’ document, nor even Amoris laetitia so much as mentions Canon 915, let alone do these documents abrogate, obrogate, or authentically interpret this norm out of the Code of Canon Law. Granted, little or nothing in these documents endorses or reiterates Canon 915, either, and the apparently studied silence that Canon 915 suffers these days is cause for deep pastoral concern. But law does not wilt under the silent treatment.

2. Apostolic letter. An “apostolic letter” is a sort of mini-encyclical and, however much attention encyclicals get for their teaching or exhortational value, they are not (with rare exceptions) legislative texts used to formulate new legal norms. Typically “apostolic letters” are written to smaller groups within the Church and deal with more limited questions—not world-wide questions such as admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion. Even where a special kind of “apostolic letter” is used to make changes to the law—such as John Paul II did in Ad tuendam fidem (1998), as Benedict did in Omnium in mentem (2009), or as Francis did in Magnum principium (2017)—the “apostolic letter” used in such cases carries the additional designation “motu proprio” (i.e., on the pope’s own initiative, and not in response to another’s action), and the changes made to the law thereby are expressly identified by canon number, not simply implied or surmised, especially not by silence.

The pope’s letter to the Argentines appears simply as an “apostolic letter”, not as an “apostolic letter motu proprio”, and it references no canons.

3. Authentic magisterium. Many people use the term “magisterium” as if it were tantamount to “Church governing authority”, but in its canonical sense “magisterium” generally refers to the Church’s authority to issue teachings on faith and morals, not to the Church’s authority to enforce discipline related to matters of faith and morals.

While Francis—albeit about as indirectly as is possible (through a memo to a dicastery official concerning a letter written by an episcopal conference)—has indicated that his letter to the Argentines and even the Argentine conference letter itself are “magisterial”, the fact remains that the content of any Church document, in order to bear most properly the label “magisterial”, must deal with assertions about faith and morals, not provisions for disciplinary issues related to faith and morals. Church documents can have both “magisterial” and “disciplinary” passages, of course, but generally only those teaching parts of such a document are canonically considered “magisterial” while normative parts of such a document are canonically considered “disciplinary”.

Francis has, in my opinion, too loosely designated others of his views as bearing “magisterial authority” (recall his comments about the liturgical movement), and he is not alone in making, from time to time, odd comments about the use of papal power (recall John Paul II invoking “the fullness of [his] Apostolic authority” to update the by-laws of a pontifical think-tank in 1999).

But that inconsistent usage only underscores that the rest of us must try to read such documents in accord with how the Church herself usually (I wish always, but I’ll content myself with “usually”) writes them, and ask, here, are there “magisterial” assertions in Amoris, the Buenos Aires document, and Francis’ endorsement letter? Yes. Plenty, running the gamut from obviously true, through true-but-oddly-or-incompletely phrased, to a few that, while capable of being understood in an orthodox sense, are formulated in ways that lend themselves to heterodox understandings (and for that reason should be clarified for the sake of the common ecclesial good).

In any case, such teaching statements, to the extent they make assertions about faith or morals and come from bishops and/or popes acting as bishops or popes, already enjoy thereby at least some (relatively little) level of ordinary magisterial value, a value not augmented by sticking the label “magisterial” on them.

And, are there “disciplinary” assertions in Amoris, the Buenos Aires document, and Francis’ endorsement letter? Yes, a few. But as I have said before, in my view, none of those rather few disciplinary assertions, even those ambiguous and capable therefore of leaving the door open to unacceptable practices, suffices to revoke, modify, or otherwise obviate Canon 915 which, as noted above, prevents the administration of holy Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics.

Conclusion. I wish that Canon 915 were not the sole bulwark against the abandonment of the Eucharist to the vagaries of individual, often malformed, consciences. I wish that a lively, pastorally-driven sense of the liberating permanence of Christian marriage, the universal need for Confession to reconcile those in grave sin, the power of the Eucharist to feed souls in the state of grace and to condemn those who receive irreverently, sufficed to make invocation of Canon 915 unnecessary in pastoral practice. But apparently, in much of the Catholic world these days, such is not the case and Canon 915 must be pointed to as if it were the only reason to bar reception of holy Communion in these situations.

But what can one say? Unless Canon 915 itself is directly revoked, gutted, or neutered, it binds ministers of holy Communion to withhold that most august sacrament from, among others, divorced-and-remarried Catholics except where such couples live as brother-sister and without scandal to the community.

Nothing I have seen to date, including the appearance of the pope’s and Argentine bishops’ letters in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, makes me think that Canon 915 has suffered such a fate.

(This post originally appeared on the “In the Light of the Law” site and appears here by kind permission of Dr. Peters.)

About Edward N. Peters 90 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.

13 Comments

  1. So much for Canon Law.
    Here in my NH town, two pastors ago, our parish had a woman Eucharistic Minister who was twice divorced and had a current boyfriend.
    This was known by our pastor first hand. He socialized with them regularly and knew all the facts.
    No problem, it seems. No problem at all. They have all subsequently departed our parish.
    Come Lord Jesus.

    • “had a woman Eucharistic Minister(sic)” Ranger01

      Correction: had a woman extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

      As Redemptionis Sacramentum clearly explains, only a validly ordained Priest maybe referred to as a Eucharistic Minister. Let’s not engage in the semantic obfuscation popular with apostates who are bent on diminishing the ministerial Priesthood of the ordained and turning it into the common priesthood of the believer.

      1. The Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion

      [154.] As has already been recalled, “the only minister who can confect the Sacrament of the Eucharist in persona Christi is a validly ordained Priest”.[254] Hence the name “minister of the Eucharist” belongs properly to the Priest alone. Moreover, also by reason of their sacred Ordination, the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are the Bishop, the Priest and the Deacon,[255] to whom it belongs therefore to administer Holy Communion to the lay members of Christ’s faithful during the celebration of Mass. In this way their ministerial office in the Church is fully and accurately brought to light, and the sign value of the Sacrament is made complete.

      [156.] This function is to be understood strictly according to the name by which it is known, that is to say, that of extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and not “special minister of Holy Communion” nor “extraordinary minister of the Eucharist” nor “special minister of the Eucharist”, by which names the meaning of this function is unnecessarily and improperly broadened.

      [158.] Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged.[259] This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.

  2. If only Francis read Edward Peters. No doubt the pontiff would throw around that word, “Pharisee.”

    I would like to know how the pope would answer for those who read it and followed it as it appears to the average Catholic and as Francis lets it appear….and then they passed away…

  3. Edward Peter’s confirms what others conclude [Dr. John Joy, co-Founder and President of the St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies and a specialist in Magisterial authority said “It means that it is an official act of the pope rather than an act of the pope as a private person. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the letter to the Argentine bishops requires religious submission of will and intellect which would only apply if the document intended to teach on matters of faith and morals”–posted by 1P5] that it is a private letter and doesn’t officially teach anything. It appears a typical ruse. This has been part of the “tactic” (Prof Pierantoni’s description) of reference to a negative commandment Thou shalt not commit Adultery in a positive context allowing for myriad exceptions. Why wouldn’t the Pontiff make official pronouncements on what he continuously indicates are his intentions but instead does so furtively, obliquely, always with a degree of ambiguity if not that he is aware that an authority above himself will not permit it and he knows that. If God permits this trial for all concerned, which He in fact does and that none of these apparent doctrines are binding then we are being given a conscientious choice centered on loyalty to the words of Christ or their repudiation. That really is our choice.

    • Wow….Father Morello!

      I had not thought of a trial or cross to bear but your last few sentences I had to read again.

      At this point it is the only explanation that brings sense to this papacy.

  4. I wouldn’t place too much hope in Canon 915. As we have seen this Pope has no scruples in upending everything, including Canon Law, to promote his tiresome modernism. Can anybody say “Magnum Principium”?

    How long will it take for it to be widely recognized by faithful Catholics that Bergoglio has for a while now been teaching he… oops … can’t write that here since it might keep my comment from getting posted…

    Fiant dies eius pauci, et ministerium eius accipiat alter. (Psalm 109:8)

  5. The teaching of the Church I have read many times is that if a Pope falls into formal heresy, he ceases to be Pope. Pope Francis in all his cunning cannot shy away from this act. The Dubia Cardinals and the filial correction have been officially answered. We are in a sede vacante situation, unless Pope Benedict XVl decides to sit on the throne of St. Peter again. Pope Benedict XVl please return to the throne of St. Peter that Jesus Christ called you for.

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