Church teaching on “same sex marriage” is clear—unless you’re a journalist.

Back on March 27th, Dr. Ed Peters posted “A primer on Church teaching regarding ‘same-sex marriage’”, which said nothing that should have come as a surprise to knowledgeable Catholics or anyone with a decent familiarity with Catholic teaching. It stated, in part:

3. Catholics who promote “same-sex marriage” act contrary to Canon 209 § 1 and should not approach for holy Communion per Canon 916. Depending on the facts of the case, they also risk having holy Communion withheld from them under Canon 915, being rebuked under Canon 1339 § 2, and/or being sanctioned under Canon 1369 for gravely injuring good morals.


5. Catholics who attempt a “same-sex marriage” act contrary to Canon 209 § 1 and should not approach for holy Communion per Canon 916. Depending on the facts of the case, they also risk having holy Communion withheld from them under Canon 915, being rebuked under Canon 1339 § 2, and/or being sanctioned under Canon 1379 for simulation of a sacrament. Moreover, Catholics who assist others toward attempting a “same-sex marriage” cooperate in the bad act of those others, which cooperation is liable to moral assessment in accord with the usual principles applicable to cooperation with evil and, under certain facts, according to the canonical principles applying to cooperation in crime per Canon 1329 and/or scandal per Canon 1339 § 2, etc.

Canon 209, by the way, is quite straightforward (no pun intended):

Can. 209 §1. The Christian faithful, even in their own manner of acting, are always obliged to maintain communion with the Church.

§2. With great diligence they are to fulfill the duties which they owe to the universal Church and the particular church to which they belong according to the prescripts of the law.

This Monday, the Detroit Free Press referenced Dr. Peters’ post in an article which included some direct remarks by Abp. Allen Vigneron of Detroit, who told the newspaper “that Catholics who receive Communion while advocating gay marriage would ‘logically bring shame for a double-dealing that is not unlike perjury.'” And:

Peters didn’t specify a Catholic politician or public figure in his post. But he told the Free Press that a person’s “public efforts to change society’s definition of marriage … amount to committing objectively wrong actions.”

Peters, an attorney who holds the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart, was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 to be a referendary of the Apostolic Sinatura, which means he helps advise the top judicial authority in the Catholic Church. Peters’ blog, “In Light of the Law,” is popular among Catholic experts, but not everyone agrees with his traditional views.

His traditional views? While Dr. Peters was my canon law professor and is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, I’m fairly certain he didn’t write the Code of Canon Law, nor did he create the Church’s teachings about homosexuality, marriage, and related matters. It may seem like a small thing, but this little journalistic/editorial tactic is both common and, apparently, effective, making it sounds as if there are variious, equally valid positions on X, Y, and Z, even when such is not the case. Note that Dr. Peters did not, in the quotes above, say that bishops should or must refuse Communion to persons who have attempted a “same sex marriage”, but that they should not present themselves for Communion (just as any Catholic who is in a state of moral sin should not present himself for Communion) and that they risk having Communion withheld if they do present themselves. But, of course, the important distinctions are steamrolled by Fr. Thomas Reese’s pieces of parsed misdirection:

“Most American bishops do not favor denying either politicians or voters Communion because of their positions on controversial issues,” said Thomas Reese, a Catholic priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Reese said that Peters’ views are “in a minority among American canon lawyers.”

But, Reese added, “about 30 or so bishops have said that pro-choice or pro-gay-marriage Catholics should not present themselves for Communion.”

Well, who are thirty bishops to stand against the magisterial opinions of Fr. Reese? This is why Fr. Reese has, in recent years, taken the place of Fr. Richard McBrien as the “must have” quote for journalists who want to foster confusion, controversy, or conflict. He is adept at both accomodating interviews and accomodations, period. However, Dr. Peters responded, writing:

Re Reese’s first comment—and setting aside his transparent attempt to steer the Canon 915 discussion into the voting booth, wherein no one thinks it applies—Reese is commenting on how bishops actwhereas I am commenting on how canon law expects bishops and others to act. Reese’s claim about bishops’ (in)action, even if true, would not make my views (actually, the 1983 Code’s views, resting onsettled Church teaching) wrong, it would simply mark them as ignored. To be sure, the implications for me if my views are wrong, and for others if my views are right, are pretty obvious, but my hunch is, Reese knows that.

Re his second comment, Reese cites no canon lawyers who regard my position as “minority” (as if being in agreement with John Paul II, Cdl. Burke, then-Cdl. Ratzinger, and the PCLT could leave one worrying about one’s ‘minority status’) though a few canonists have expressed alternative interpretations of the law. That’s fine, of course, it’s what lawyers do, but that only pushes the real question—namely, whose interpretation of the law is the more sound—back a bit. Eventually that fundamental question pops back up and needs to be addressed.

Both the fundamental question of proper authority and the need for careful precision—as opposed to appealing to a crude democratization as the ultimate measure of Catholic doctrine and practice—are key issues here, but both suffer from the usual media treatment. It gets worse, however, because CNN jumped into the fray, apparently hoping to add some clownish clumsiness to the cloudy confusion put forth by the Detroit Free Press. CNN asks, “Are Catholics who support same-sex marriage and take Communion like people who commit perjury?” and then begins by remarking, “That was the stance taken by Detroit’s archbishop on Sunday, after an academic with ties to the church wrote that Catholics in favor of gay marriage should skip Communion.” 

An “academic with ties to the church”? That is simply, well, weird. Not “a respected canon lawyer”? Not “a professor of canon law who was appointed a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura by Pope Benedict XVI”? Pathetic. Even worse, however, is CNN’s attempt to have a spokesman of the Archdiocese of Detroit state the opposite of what he actually stated: “On Monday, though, the Archdiocese of Detroit tried to reframe Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s comments.” How so? 

“The archbishop’s focal point here is not ‘gay marriage’; it is a Catholic’s reception of Holy Communion,” Joe Kohn, the archdiocese spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to CNN. “If a Catholic publicly opposes the church on a serious matter of the church’s teaching, any serious matter – for example, whether it be a rejection of the divinity of Christ, racist beliefs, support for abortion or support for redefining marriage – that would contradict the public affirmation they would make of the church’s beliefs by receiving Communion.”

Kohn continued: “As the archbishop states, the pastors of the church are ready to assist Catholics to help them understand and avoid this conflict.”

Providing context is not the “reframing”, certainly not in the way CNN intends it to be understood. (It’s important to note that “reframe” is a change from the article’s original language of “dialing back”; I think the same thing is being implied, but in a less obvious manner.) The statement provides context—notably, opposition to Church teaching on several different matters is a contradition of one’s affirmation of Catholic belief, an affirmation that is explicit in the reception of Communion. As Dr. Peters notes, the statement from the Archdiocese was meant “to show the consistency of the Catholic rules for Communion across a range of situations…”

All of this should be quite obvious, I think, but apparently nothing is obvious or simple or logical when it comes to the coverage of Catholic teaching by some journalists and media outlets. But since Catholic teaching has been out there for, oh, decades, even centuries, one doesn’t have to wonder where the blame falls. To be fair, the rate of “evolution” when it comes to “same sex marriage” and “gay rights” is of such velocity and intensity, it might be that some journalists cannot keep their heads screwed on correctly. The Anchoress, Elizabeth Scalia, has a great piece on the First Things site about this mysterious process of evolution, which is now propelling history forward (always forward! upward! always!) in ways that Hegel could only dream about:

Given how much ink has been spilled on the subject by an obsessed and advocating press, and the strong moral certitude with which Democratic (and occasional Republican) members of the House and Senate are making their evolutionary pronouncements, it is difficult to remember that at this time last year, the issue of gay marriage had much less energy surrounding it.

That is a remarkable forward propulsion for evolution. Until last May (for some) or last week (for others) many of our best and brightest had missed what they now say is an important and morally obvious point: Of course the freedom to form civil unions will never be enough; only “marriage equality” will do. 

The deeper issue, however, is not “marriage equality” or “same sex marriage” but rather the morality (or lack thereof) of certain sexual acts. Homosexual acts are morally wrong, just as adultery and fornication are wrong. It doesn’t take much thought to recognize that if homosexual acts are considered “normal”, then it eventually leads to “homosexual marriage” being “normal”. The real question is simply this: are the Church’s teachings about sexuality and marriage true, correct, and right? If so, then “same sex marriage” is a farce. If not, then Church teaching is indeed bigoted, illogical, and wrongheaded. There isn’t another option. It brings to mind Chesterton’s point, in Orthodoxy, about the timeless, unalterable nature of truth:

An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or century. If a man believes in unalterable natural law, he cannot believe in any miracle in any age. If a man believes in a will behind law, he can believe in any miracle in any age.

People such as Biden, Obama, the Clintons, and other benevolent intellectuals did not support “same sex marriage” a couple of years ago. Now they do, and they do with a swaggering, even smirking, confidence. As do the overwhelming majority of pundits, principle-challenged politicians, insta-celebrities, and mimicking members of the chattering classes. Why? What happened in, say, 2010? What mysterious event changed human nature and the nature of reality itself? That is not obvious in the least. In sum, what is clear and obvious is rendered confused and obtuse, while what is unclear and not explained is accepted as clear and obvious, but without any explanation. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.