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

A response to Stephan Walford’s LaStampa editorial "Amoris Laetitia: Where Truth and Mercy Embrace"

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. 🙂

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Edward N. Peters 120 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.