Canonist Ed Peters’ stern words about the dangers of anti-law mentality

Distinguished canonist Ed Peters has something to say about canon law and the disasters that follow when a spirit of antinomianism ticks up.  HERE  My emphases and comments.

Canon law has never been ‘the frame of reference’ for the Church

When prelates of the erudition and experience of a Donald Cdl. Wuerl (Washington DC) can say things like this, the rest of us can be in no doubt as to just how deeply and widely a fundamental misunderstanding of law in the Catholic Church has taken hold. Speaking about the future of the Church, Wuerl, who is recognized as one of Pope Francis’ most esteemed advisors, said that, in the wake of the 2015 Synod and the Francis’ papacy, “The frame of reference now is no longer the Code of Canon Law. The frame of reference is now going to be, ‘What does the Gospel really say here?’”

I hardly know where to start, but here goes. [Here goes indeed!]

The “frame of reference” for the mission of the Catholic Church has never, ever been the Code of Canon Law, and no canon lawyer I know of has ever, ever claimed otherwise. The “frame of reference” for the Catholic Church has always been, and has only been, Christ the Lord. [Iustus Iudex] For the cardinal archbishop of a major Western capital to talk as if the Code of Canon Law, for so much as one second, ever fancied itself as the “frame of reference” for the Catholic Church—well, it confirms the stranglehold that antinomian attitudes have secured over ecclesiastical thought in the space of one lifetime, to the point that today, many in the highest circles of ecclesiastical leadership can scarcely even talk about canon law without caricaturing it. [Amen.] But if Wuerl avoids offering some of the more insulting depictions of canon law and canon lawyers being tossed around recently, he nevertheless sees canon law largely as an obstacle to the saving truths proclaimed by Jesus and he gives urbane cover to others who find certain Gospel truths, as enunciated in concise legal terminology, too inconvenient.

Twice, maybe three times, in her history, the Catholic Church has suffered though waves of antinomianism. Each time, of course, law—as natural to human society as a skeleton is to the human body—eventually regained its place in ecclesial life, but only after much needless waste. Our current wave of disdain for canon law started in the early 1960s, it grew enormously throughout that decade and into the 1970s (fed in part by the disastrously long period that the Church went effectively without canon law and aggravated by similar anti-order shocks to civil society), it seemed to recede a bit in the 1980s and 1990s, only to erupt again in the wake of the clergy sex abuse disasters ten or fifteen years ago. Today, whether because Francis actually dislikes canon law or because he is simply uninterested in it, the aging antinomians of the 1960s and 1970s see an opening to resume their attacks on law and lawyers in the Church, and they are seizing that opportunity. [Nowadays, if you want to uphold the Truth – which means also upholding laws that reflect the Truth – you will be labelled (libeled) as being against “mercy”.]

I am not going to use a blog post to try to educate antinomians (whether they are “hard core” canon law haters, or, as I rather think Wuerl to be, gentler “Amator Si, Legislator No” types) as to the many and vital connections between Catholic doctrine and canon law, though I have raised such issues several times, say, here and here. Rather, I’ll just say this: canon law has always seen itself in service to the Church, huge tracts of canon law rest directly on biblical foundations and doctrinal assertions made by the Magisterium over the centuries, canon law is always in need of reform (just ask any canon lawyer), and finally, that some people railing against canon law need to ask themselves whether it is law they don’t like, or the truths such laws defend. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

Fr. Z kudos for the sober description of the problem.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. RAve says:

    I don’t know any priests who don’t accompany people and are instead legalistic* (the priests who so disappoint Pope Francis). [*Exception: the priest who our of rigidity to his own policy wouldn’t give me communion because I was kneeling (with my infant in my arms).] Just like I don’t know anyone who approaches communion and is turned away (have you ever been asked if you are remarried, fornicating, or an active homosexual while standing in the Communion line? In what parishes is this happening?). Just who is the holy father railing against, because he makes it seem like all the parishes are filled with priests who are legalistic, yet I have never met a priest like that? Why does he keep railing against a phantom? What am I missing?

  2. A.D. says:

    I second that AMEN! Or is the third? Very clear and charitable article. Would that all who are in need read this.

  3. pannw says:


    I remember when I first read 2 Peter 2. Seeing the words, ‘despise government’, and being a political junkie, and definitely on the Conservative side of the spectrum, I viewed most things in terms of American politics and was taken aback, briefly. Was this an attack on me, because I despise a big, centralized government? Yikes…but clearly, that is not what St. Peter was warning against. It is this that he was warning against, those who despise and reject the governing laws of God, and His Church. Without governing laws, all society devolves into chaos, even the society of the Church.

    The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly from temptation, but to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be tormented. And especially them who walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government, audacious, self willed, they fear not to bring in sects, blaspheming.

    Nope, he isn’t talking to ‘our side’.

    I am glad Dr. Peters is on our side. He is so clear. Thank you, Dr. Peters.

  4. Augustine says:

    It took a lifetime for an antinomialist to rise up to the top of the Church hierarchy, the papacy, but, thanks be to our merciful God, the ones to inherit the Church are not his inexistent descendants, much less his decrepit peers, but those of his two brilliant and fruitful immediate predecessors.

  5. THREEHEARTS says:

    Never thought much about canon law. First it was made by man, secondly bishops and the Hierarchy only used it when they felt like it and never ever used it to mean anything for them or never considered it was for them either. Thirdly what constitutes canon law? Does it include Councils especially the Council of Trent and the sacraments. Obviously it does not. Also we can draw no other conviction when if we consider the this last synod is very arian in character and will more than likely to be more so when whatever is published later. This synod has certainly separated the Word of God from Jesus the Shepherd and if that is not arianism in action. Once again, where in the whole synod can we see Christ’s words considered to be spiritually legal and is conquered by the episcopal power of the keys. Many of the Bishops in reality have also separated The Holy Spirit from the Divinity of Christ over divorce, setting Moses up as the prime mover on Marriage, divorce and annulments. All we now need is the view of the Father who is Justice. When will we have a telegram, as the Pope deems Blessed Mary to be at Medjugorie. Soon I hope

  6. robtbrown says:

    Psalm 114 from yesterday’s Vespers: Misericors Deus et iustus. But legal justice is only one species of justice. Further, justice in general includes acts of religion such as reception of the Eucharist.

    Cardinal Wuerl implying that the Code of Canon Law is a basis for the moral life (including receiving Holy Communion) is little else than a caricature of Catholic morality.

    I’m completely opposed to those in sexual relationships outside the Sacrament of Matrimony and politicians who favor pro abortion policies receiving Communion. I do think, however, that invoking Canon Law as a reason does little to propagate Catholic doctrine and–perhaps more importantly–falls into the liberal trap.

    It needs to made clear that a bishop or priest who encourages carte blanche reception of Communion is not being helpful spiritually. Rather, they are doing harm to the souls of those in the aforementioned situations by encouraging profanation of the Sacrament.

    Everyone, especially bishops and priests, need to be reminded constantly of 1 Cor 11:27-29:

    27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.

  7. Midwest St. Michael says:


    While agree with you on this excellent point – we all need to consider that the Novus Ordo Lectionary *does not* have verses 27 or 29 from this Pauline text. Ever.

    As Robert Plant said, “And it makes me wonder.”


  8. robtbrown says:

    Midwest St Michael,

    This is not the only case in which Scripture has been omitted in the new liturgy. In Psalm 136 (Super flumina) the English New Breviary “forgets” to include the vengeful last four verses.

  9. Scott W. says:

    that some people railing against canon law need to ask themselves whether it is law they don’t like, or the truths such laws defend

    Exactly. It is similar when people get up in arms when bishops make teachers sign statements of Faith. Listening to them it quickly becomes clear that what they are offended by is not a bishop throwing his weight around, but that the truths of traditional sexuality exist at all.

    I recall someone defending nuns practicing Reiki. I said I’d make a deal with her: Affirm that the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord, that abortion, contraception, same-sex “marriage” are evil, and that only males can receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and I’ll shut up about Reiki.

    I didn’t get a response.

    It’s never just one thing, is it?

  10. Midwest St. Michael says:


    So, what is our response to these… omissions? I ask this with no intention of being some kind of Fox Mulder “conspiratorial” Catholic X-Files guy. I’ve had one frequent commenter here (whom I admire dearly and she has a fantastic blog) tell me that the Church’s “direction” since the close of Vatican II, and with the implementation of the Novus Ordo rite, the focus seems to be more on mercy.

    Yet why, one may wonder, isn’t there never a mention of having to *repent* before one can receive mercy? (Isn’t that what St. John the Baptist and our Blessed Lord said?) It seems to me those are glaring omissions from Sacred Scripture one *never* hears during the N.O. Liturgy. Is it a bad thing to ask why? I just don’t understand.


  11. Supertradmum says:

    Excellent commentary. Sent it around to several people. Thank you, Fr. Z.

  12. Nicolas Bellord says:

    It was the failure to enforce Canon Law that gave us the abuse scandal in Ireland and elsewhere.

  13. majuscule says:

    Midwest St. Michael said Yet why, one may wonder, isn’t there never a mention of having to *repent* before one can receive … It seems to me those are glaring omissions from Sacred Scripture one *never* hears during the N.O. Liturgy. Is it a bad thing to ask why? I just don’t understand.

    We had a fill-in priest two Sundays in a row (Novus Ordo Mass). On neither Sunday did we recite the Confeitior. (We always do so with our regular two priests, though occasionally there have been other priests who have skipped it.) How is not even acknowledging our sins merciful?

    We also usually sing the Kyrie. The second Sunday he must have requested that our singers not do so because we didn’t. He did lead us in saying “Lord have mercy.” But we usually say that plus sing the Kyrie!

    I did not confront him. I’m still learning how to do these things. I think my veil may have been a warning of my thoughts anyway.

  14. pannw says:

    “Never thought much about canon law. First it was made by man, …”

    I’ve seen this argument made about things like the Church’s ‘law’ on contraception and acceptance of the Immaculate Conception, etc… (Not saying that’s what is happening here, but…) I’ve always thought it a bit of a weak argument, since it doesn’t matter that they were ‘made by man’ when they were made by the men Christ Himself gave the authority to make them. “What you hold bound on earth…” It’s an odd argument.

  15. acardnal says:

    majuscule wrote, “On neither Sunday did we recite the Confeitior (sic).”

    In the Novus Ordo missal, the Confiteor is not required to be recited at each Mass as long as another approved Penitential Act in the missal is used. There are three options (A, B or C) for the Penitential Act of which the Confiteor is one option. The Kyrie eleison is always recited either after the Confiteor, if it’s said, or in some approved form.

  16. robtbrown says:

    Midwest St Michael,

    Answering your question, I think’s two basic ideas should be kept in mind:

    1. The Counter Reformation period was marked by a very negative anthropology–the goodness of man’s nature being overwhelmed by his sinfulness. Unfortunately, instead of restoring balance between the two, the reverse happened–sin and repentance were all but forgotten, and an unrealistic optimism appeared.

    2. As the Counter Reformation Church wound down, it was changed into the Ecumenical Church. The Ecumaniacs took over, and the Church became flabby

  17. Andrew says:


    These passages were not “forgotten”. The reason for their omission is explained in the Apostolic Constitution “Laudis Canticum” No. 4:

    (“… few of the Psalms and verses that are somewhat harsh in tone have been omitted, especially because of the difficulties anticipated from their use in vernacular celebration.)

    Which is later elaborated under No. 131: (… psalms … in which an imprecatory character prevails are omitted … [] whose omission is due to a certain psychological difficulty …)

    An example of the omission is Psalm 58 (57) which reads in vers. 11 –

    “Then the just shall rejoice to see the vengeance / and bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.”

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