Dr. Peters on being “pastoral” v. being faithful

The great Ed Peters, Canonman, has offered on his blog In the Light of the Law some observations about the discussion of c. 915 and the Governor of New York.

But first, I ask rhetorically… how many times have I railed against the false dichotomy liberals assert between being “pastoral” and … well… faithful?

My emphases and comments.

Communion, Canon Law, and Pastoral Practice

There is a line of thought emerging in regard to the Cuomo-Communion controversy that runs as follows: “Okay, maybe Peters has a point about the canon law of this case, but c’mon, questions about individual reception of holy Communion are really matters of pastoral practice.”

You know, as if canon law and pastoral practice were two entirely different things.

Let’s think about this.

Certainly, there are many canons in the Code that scarcely impact pastoral practice. It’s difficult (not impossible, just difficult) to see a pastoral application for, say, Canon 141 on priority among successive delegees, or for Canon 707 on residence options for a retired religious bishop, or for Canon 1601 on a judge’s discretion over time limits for filing briefs in tribunal cases. No one seriously argues that the faithful are bound to recall such canons in daily life or at least to think about them during the Communion rite. [Qui bene distinguit bene docet.]

But, while many canons do not have immediate pastoral relevance, many other canons do have obvious pastoral implications, and surely the canons on the reception and administration of holy Communion count among them. Indeed, the whole purpose of Canons 915 and 916 is to direct concrete pastoral practice! [It would be hard to find a pair of canons with greater pastoral significance, given then fact that the duty of a pastor is to care for the Blessed Sacrament and for the souls of those under his care.]

Canons 915 and 916 boast aged, even ancient, nay apostolic, roots, [Perhaps Scriptural?  What was it St. Paul said about Communion that was inadequately prepared?] and both norms are illuminated by copious and consistent canonical commentary reflecting many centuries’ worth of . . . . . what? . . .  [INSERT ‘JEOPARDY’  MUSIC] . . pastoral practice. In other words, one cannot discuss Canons 915 and 916 without discussing pastoral practice at the same time. The two disciplines are inextricably related. And not because I say so, but because they are. [And when you are right you can’t be wrong.]

Ours is certainly not the first generation to face the serious problem of Catholics whose lifestyle is protractedly and publicly at odds with important Church teachings, nor are we the first to face rampant ridicule and accusations of hypocrisy* for holding Catholics to higher standards for their public behavior than we hold others to. It is precisely because the Church  [The greatest expert on human beings there has ever been.] has such extensive experience in dealing with difficult issues that she has set down, for the guidance of pastors and faithful alike, certain norms for behavior in her Code of Canon Law, norms such as Canons 915 and 916.

Obviously, the time to think about what certain canons on pastoral practice might require of bishops and faithful is before controversy arises over them, [Imagine such a thing.] if only because, if fundamental and reasonable norms for conduct are not attended before controversy erupts in the Church, they will be most assuredly be invoked afterward. Like most good lawyers, I think it’s easier to head off problems than it is to solve them; but, like many Catholics of my generation, I think even worse than not solving, once it has arisen, a serious problem in pastoral practice (even problems that we only inherited, instead of ones we cooked-up for ourselves), is our simply leaving it to the next generation to face.

To be clear, I do not think that every pastoral question imaginable has a certain canonical answer. Nor, even in regard to those many pastoral questions that do have, at least in part, a canonical answer, do I think that those answers can be implemented overnight. Moreover, I recognize that bishops have the primary responsibility for governing the Churches entrusted to them (c. 381 et seq.). And I certainly recognize that canon lawyers have no more authority over the application of canon law in the Church than attorneys in a law firm or professors in a law school have authority over the enforcement of civil law. On all of these points, nothing I have ever written supposes otherwise.

But what canon lawyers do have is expertise and ready access to the detailed resources that are necessary to set out, accurately and clearly, exactly what the Church’s legal system says (if anything) about this topic or that, and canonists do that, or should do that, in service to the Catholic faithful who strive to live within the Church’s order and for Catholic leaders who are charged to uphold it.

If nothing else, canonists should correct, I think, any claim that canon law and pastoral practice are simply distant cousins on the Church’s family tree. “Brothers” would be much closer to the truth. + + +

* One of the just-plain-dumbest accusations of hypocrisy made against me is that I only “go after” Catholic Democratic politicians and not Catholic Republicans. Folks, if, among Americans who care at all about politics (and yes I recall enough Plato and Madison to care about politics), if, I say, there is one who cares less about political party affiliation than I do, please, introduce us!

As for those who specifically wonder where I was when Rudy Giuliani was in the news, I was right here (28 April 2008) and before that, I was here (15 March 2007). Where were you?

We were right here, guarding your back and pushing traffic your your blog.  Go visit.

KUDOS to Canonman!  Dr. Peters!

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  1. A shepherd who fails to take his sheep out of a thorn bush for fear of it hurting him is not being pastoral. A good shepherd yanks him out, tearing his flesh and leaving wool behind if necessary to save him from abandonment and starvation. Being faithful is a pastoral act. Ed Peters is keeping us mindful of true pastoral principles. Thank God for his work.

  2. stgemma_0411 says:

    What I always find interesting is that the Catholic Church has had 2000 years to understand and grasp the proper way for reception of communion. Adultery is not new to society, but it always seems to try and be approached with a “fresh and new” understanding from those who are trying to abuse the Sacrament. Dr. Peters is absolutely correct in the way he has understood the “problem” to be. There is no delineation for adultery, when you are the person in question. It would cease to be adultery if you refrained from doing so, or were never in that self-inflicted situation. The people, themselves, are the ones who are causing the law to come into effect. No one bound them and coerced them under torturous circumstances to sleep around on their wife or husband.

    People need to stop thinking that just because Bill Clinton was able to enact a defence that still boggles the mind to this day, that they can just talk their way out of thinking that they did something different than what they were caught doing. It is not as if there is circumstantial evidence to say that Cuomo is an adulterer. He freely (as in under no coercion) admits that he is. But I guess modern man “knows better” than those who came before.

    People need to take a clue from Sir Isaac Newton and be humble enough to admit that we all stand “on the shoulders of giants.”

  3. ejcmartin says:

    I find all this interesting in light of the fact that our bishop has recently sent a young priest for “sensitivity training” due to questioning someone’s receipt of communion. (amongst other orthodox practices)

  4. Maltese says:

    Ed Peters is awesome! Great points throughout. Being showing tough love (e.g. excommunicating) to the Pelosis of the world could actually lead to a conversion revolution, because, as it is, I’m sure many avoid entering a Church which has as some of its most prominent and vocal members, abortion supporters and promoters.

  5. LouiseA says:

    Those at Vatican II should have focused more on being faithful than being pastoral.

  6. I fear we are getting conflicting signals from Rome on this matter. Recall the papal nuncio glowing as he gave Communion to Sen. John Kerry at the D.C. papal Mass, and the recent promotion of (now) Cardinal Wuerl — who was very public about not being the one who could deny Communion to Cong. Pelosi. I hate to say it, but it reminds me too much of Gilb. and Sulliv.s ‘First Lord’s Song’…. ‘I thought so little they rewarded me by making me the ruler of the Queen’s Navy!’

  7. Random Friar says:

    “Qui bene distinguit bene docet.” — well, “qui bene distinguit, dominicanus.”

    My feeling is that Rome will not step in, letting the ordinaries have their way in the day-to-day pastoral care. This, in principle, is good, but in this case it has caused scandal and confusion.

  8. The problem is with this word pastoral, which according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, has among its meanings, “pleasingly peaceful and innocent: idyllic.” This seems to be what people have in mind when they speak in glowing tones of a bishop or priest, “He’s soooo pastoral.” In other words, he’s nice and harmless, never challenging and never– gasp– judgmental. Yet a good shepherd sometimes has to be a little aggressive with the crook if the wolf is nearby, which is what most people don’t seem to understand.

    As long as people are using this legitimate word in the wrong sense, we’ll keep having these debates about what constitutes legitimate pastoral practice. Perhaps the word should be put on hiatus for a while. I wonder if this is a problem in other languages– perhaps they have a word for “of or relating to spiritual care or guidance especially of a congregation” that doesn’t also mean “bucolic.” That is the problem when a word becomes overloaded with multiple meanings; one kind of wishes some of them could be separated and sent on their own way.

  9. Bender says:

    To be clear, I do not think that . . . BUT what canon lawyers do have is . . .

    I think that Ed Peters protests too much. For all his denials that he does “not think that every pastoral question imaginable has a certain canonical answer,” what with all his recent self-promotion, he most certainly acts as if canon law is on a level equal to doctrine and theology, consistently interjecting it in all sorts of areas and controversies. It is not. Canon law is merely a set of rules, rules that are at the service of the Church and subject to change at the convenience of His Holiness. Indeed, the code of canon law, notwithstanding its enormous usefulness, could be abolished tomorrow and the Church, including the provision of the Sacraments, would continue to go on.

  10. Prof. Basto says:

    Peters’ “same day update” is also an excellent read:

    “Same day Update: Thanks to some readers who passed along links to the recent L. A. Times interview with Cdl. Mahoney (emeritus of Los Angeles), including the prelate’s remarks on admission to holy Communion. I noted especially the observation attributed to the cardinal that Christ gave Communion to Judas, so who are we to withhold Communion from others?

    Okay, well, I have disagreed with the cardinal’s interpretation of Canon 915 before (scroll to 18 May 2004) and the most recent reiteration of his views suggests no emendation in his arguments. But, as I have addressed the chronic disregard of the differences between Canon 915 and 916 sufficiently for anyone who cares to know the differences, I won’t repeat those points here.

    But the line about Judas going to Communion caught my eye.

    I’m no Scripture scholar, so I don’t know whether Judas, in fact, took the Eucharist at the Last Supper, but let’s suppose he did. What exactly would be the lesson? Frankly, the more I think about it, and assuming there is a point for canonical practice in the episode—and if one will permit a bit of canon lawyer humor here—I suggest that Jesus, in giving Judas Communion, would have just been acting in anticipatory obedience to the 1983 Code!

    Consider: It is well established in moral and canonical literature that a minister cannot withhold holy Communion from an occult sinner, even where the minister knows of the sin and knows of the impenitence. Citations [added: Abbo-Hannan II: 854-856; Dom Augustine IV: 232; Davis III: 206-207, etc.]. That’s why Canon 915 operates only in the face of manifest grave sin, not simply personal sin.

    In fact, as important as the prevention of sacrilege is in the operation of Canon 915, it is not the only basis for the canon; rather, the prevention of scandal is also a key consideration, but scandal arises only from public behavior seriously at odds with Church teaching and order. Judas was an occult sinner, and Jesus did not expose his inexpressibly grievous, but to that point still private, sin to public view by withholding Communion from him.

    Since he was 12 years old, Jesus had been taking the Doctors of the Law to school, and he did so even at the Last Supper.”

  11. dans0622 says:


    “Protests too much”? “All his denials”? “All his recent self-promotion”? You seem to be goinf a bit overboard. Surely, you can’t be surprised that a canon lawyer would “interject” canon law into his commentary. Anyway, you seem to have a rather narrow understanding of “canon law.” Your comment reminded me of the following: “You should also learn to understand and — dare I say it — to love canon law, appreciating how necessary it is and valuing its practical applications: a society without law would be a society without rights. Law is the condition of love” (Benedict XVI to Seminarians, 18 October 2010). And, “The Code, as the principal legislative document of the Church, founded on the juridical-legislative heritage of Revelation and Tradition, is to be regarded as an indispensable instrument to ensure order both in individual and social life, and also in the Church’s activity itself” (John Paul II, Ap. Const. Sacrae disciplinae leges, n. 17).

  12. Deacon Nathan Allen says:

    I was discussing this with a priest friend, how it ever came to be seen as “pastoral” to allow someone to eat and drink judgement upon himself (see I Corinthians 11:29), and we were shocked to find that I Corinthians 11:27-29 never once comes up in the current Lectionary, or even in the Liturgy of the Hours.

  13. PostCatholic says:

    It seems there are three possible outcomes to the change in praxis for which Dr Peters agitates:

    The Governor, denied communion, is so deeply affected that he reverses himself on public policy;
    The Governor, denied communion, continues his Catholic obligation to attend but does not receive communion nor change his views on public policy;
    The Governor, denied communion, discontinues Catholic practice and finds a faith tradition which aligns with his views on public policy.

    As a matter of pragmatism, which do you folks consider most likely and what contingencies do you plan for each toward the goal of the change in public policy?

  14. benedetta says:

    Or, perhaps, another outcome would be to take a positive step towards sacramental marriage, though it might require a few changes or a little sacrifice, and thus be inspiration to many others, including young people just starting out in the world, to reconsider the secular teaching which often takes a sacramental marriage for granted yet also acknowledges the long term health benefits to stable marriage and family life that also actively practices a religious faith.

  15. PostCatholic says:

    Benedetta: yes, I omitted that possibility. Thanks for the accretion.

  16. amenamen says:

    The point of refusing to give Holy Communion to a public sinner is not simply to influence his public policies. The subsequent “possible outcomes” (what the public sinner does later on) have no bearing on canon 915. There is the more immediate goal of protecting the Blessed Sacrament, as well as clarifying the Church’s teachings, and protecting others from scandal.
    A “scandal” is something that leads other people into sin. For example, giving Holy Communion to a person who is publicly known to deny and to disobey Church teaching actually gives many people the idea that there is nothing wrong with that denial and disobedience. Why should anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic, believe that the Catholic Church “really” believes that adultery, sodomy, or abortion is sinful, when the Church publicly allows a well-known, public sinner to receive Communion? Why should they even consider repentence?
    If the public sinner later repents, that is good. But even if the person does not repent, it is still necessary to avoid false teaching and scandal. If the person’s “public policies” are incompatible with the Catholic faith, it does no good to anyone to pretend otherwise.

  17. The Cobbler says:

    “I was discussing this with a priest friend, how it ever came to be seen as “pastoral” to allow someone to eat and drink judgement upon himself (see I Corinthians 11:29), and we were shocked to find that I Corinthians 11:27-29 never once comes up in the current Lectionary, or even in the Liturgy of the Hours.”

    I could have sworn I heard it at Mass once… but Google doesn’t bring up that verse in daily readings on the USCCB website… so, either I heard it in a special set of readings, or they don’t have the entire cycle of readings online at once, or I’m suffering from a “false memory” (or what we non-psychologists call “getting mixed up”).

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