Canonist Ed Peters on Pope Francis’ “Argentinian Letter”

Distinguished canonist Ed Peters (who also comments here) has posted on his fine blog In The Light Of The Law some thoughts about Pope Francis’ latest move, the letter to the Argentinian bishop about a draft document that seems to attempt to apply Amoris laetitia chapter 8.

First, On the Buenos Aires directive:

On the Buenos Aires directive
September 13, 2016

Canon 915, the modern (yet resting on ancient roots) norm that prohibits ministers of holy Communion from giving that sacrament to Catholics who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin” does not expressly name divorced Catholics living in their second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) ‘marriages’ as examples of persons ineligible for holy Communion, but they have long been the ‘go-to’ example of those covered by the canon. Even its harshest critics generally conceded that Canon 915 applies to divorced-and-remarried Catholics—the emotional hardships associated with such cases being, in some critics’ minds, a good argument for abandoning the norm.

Now, in his unequivocal endorsement (“There are no other interpretations possible” [!]) of a leaked draft of some Argentine bishops’ plan for implementing his document Amoris laetitia, [NB] Pope Francis has neither ‘abrogated’ Canon 915 nor ‘interpreted’ it out of existence (both being the sort of technical operations the pope shows little interest in). Nevertheless, his action will likely make it harder for Catholic ministers, who remain bound by canon law even in stressful cases, to observe Canon 915 at the practical level.  [That is, isn’t it.  Priests who are faithful and obedient to the law will be between a hard spot and that other thing.  If they obey the law, they will be accused of being against the Pope.]

Basically, the Argentine draft (assuming it is still a ‘draft’) directs ministers of holy Communion (chiefly parish priests) to work through concrete cases impacting access to at least three sacraments (Matrimony, Penance, and the Eucharist), guided not by the Church’s accumulated pastoral wisdom as summed up in norms like Canon 915 (which seem not even not to be mentioned!), but instead by a line of endlessly malleable considerations phrased in verbiage redolent of the 1970s. [Rem acu!] If some pastors after the publication Amoris were already being told by irate parishioners that ‘Pope Francis says you have to give me Communion’, [Yes, that happened.] what might they expect in the wake of his sweeping approval of this Argentine interpretation of Amoris? [We’ll know soon.]

Fundamentally the Argentine draft stumbles, I suggest, in the same way as does Amoris, namely, in thinking that an individual’s subjective, albeit sincere, conclusions about his or her eligibility for Communion per Canon 916 trumps the Church’s authority, nay her obligation, to withhold the sacrament in the face of certain objective, externally verifiable conditions per Canon 915. …

[…]

Read the rest there.

Also, Dr. Peters comments on Jeff Mirus’ piece.  Mirus argues contra aliquos who say that by his letter Francis has lapsed into heresy.  Thus, Peters:

May I demur re Mirus this once?

Pretty much everything Dr. Jeff Mirus writes is worth reading, but his latest column, correctly defending Pope Francis against charges of heresy based on his endorsement of the Buenos Aires Directive, overstates the argument in one small, technical regard and, I think, misses a larger, more important point in another. I basically agree with everything Mirus wrote, except as follows.

1. Mirus writes: “It is impossible to prove that advocacy of any disciplinary approach indicates heresy in the mind of the advocate.” That is not correct. A classic example pointed to a man whose refusal to abide by disciplinary norms such as genuflecting before the tabernacle might show a wordless, but clearly heretical, denial of the Real Presence. This is a small, technical point, perhaps, but it reminds us all to be wary of universal assertions. My second concern is larger.

2. Most of Mirus’ column is spent trying to show how the objectively grave sin of remarriage after divorce (with all necessary caveats & conditions included) might in a specific case be rendered subjectively venial at least for one partner. As holy Communion may be (and perhaps even should be, assuming sorrow for sin, CCC 1393) taken by one in venial sin, Mirus argues that some divorced-and-remarried Catholics should feel free to approach for holy Communion. Now, everything Mirus says so far is at least arguably, and much of it is actually, true.

[NB] But it misses the crucial point: One’s approaching for holy Communion is a matter of personal conscience chiefly guided by Canon 916 (which Mirus does not cite, but would have cited had he adverted to it); but distribution of Communion by a minister is a matter of objective status chiefly under Canon 915, which Mirus does not cite, but should have considered.

As has been explained many times, [NB] in certain cases ministers of holy Communion are bound not by the would-be recipient’s assessment of conscience, but by the demands of canon law responding to one’s external, objective status. [external, objective] Long story made short, Catholics who have entered marriages subsequent to mere divorce are objectively disqualified from being given holy Communion (CCC 1650, 2384), whatever might be their subjectively reduced culpability for their state. This is a crucial point: two canons (and the values behind two canons) come into play every time a minister and recipient meet over the Host. Yes, Amoris seems to miss this point and the Buenos Aires Directive clearly misses it. Still.  [So, many people in irregular situations are going to be told by the less than faithful (or well-informed) dissidents that they can go to Communion regardless of their objective status.  On the other hand, faithful priests will be in an awkward situation.  When they try to apply the law (which they are obliged to do, which they promised to do) they will be accused of being [FILL IN BLANK].  Two parishes, side by side, will communicate diametrically opposed messages.  Hey… what’s new?]

To be sure, more goes into these cases than what I just outlined, but this should suffice to show that, even if Mirus’ theory of venial sin for some divorced-and-remarried Catholics is correct, it does not answer the question about their being admitted to holy Communion.

Thanks to Ed Peters.  He has no combox over there.  Comment here, but remember that he works hard on his posts at his blog.  You should check it out often.

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29 Responses to Canonist Ed Peters on Pope Francis’ “Argentinian Letter”

  1. msouth85 says:

    I do enjoy Dr. Peters’ articles. His is one of my first stops in regards to questions I have about Canon Law. I appreciate all the work he puts into his posts.

  2. Hugh says:

    I see a further problem raised by the Mirus position.

    I’m aware that one does is not required to confess venial sins in confession, and that they are absolved outside of confession by acts of contrition, Holy Communion, etc if one is sorry for them.

    But: can a priest validly absolve a penitent whom he is aware is not contrite over a specific venial sin and fully intends to commit it again? To apply this question to the type of situation raised by the A.L. debate.: when I say in confession the words (or such like): “I firmly intend to do penance, to sin no more and to avoid whatever leads me to sin”, can I make a mental reservation: “except of course, the sin of having sex with my second ‘wife’, which sin Rev. Father Amoris assures me is only venial due to the compulsion I’m under and which I fully intend to go on committing, albeit with some reluctance.” … and be validly absolved?

  3. albizzi says:

    So, if I well understand, a lay extraordinary minister of holy communion, knowing the external and objective status of a communicant as a remarried divorced person, should in conscience decline giving communion to him ?
    Another burden on the EMHCS that explains why since long I refuse to give communion even when my parish priest asks.

  4. hockeyCEO says:

    Jeff Mirus states: “It is not incompatible with the Church’s doctrinal teaching on either marriage or Communion to argue that, under some circumstances, persons involved in invalid marriages ought to be admitted to Communion…” Following the terminology used by Jesus: “Every one that putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her that is put away from her husband, committeth adultery.” Luke 16:18, Mirus re-stated with correct terminology says: It is not incompatible with the Church’s doctrinal teaching on either marriage or Communion to argue that, under some circumstances, adulterers ought to be admitted to Communion.” Does anyone agree with this re-worded statement?

  5. JabbaPapa says:

    Fundamentally the Argentine draft stumbles, I suggest, in the same way as does Amoris, namely, in thinking that an individual’s subjective, albeit sincere, conclusions about his or her eligibility for Communion per Canon 916 trumps the Church’s authority, nay her obligation, to withhold the sacrament in the face of certain objective, externally verifiable conditions per Canon 915. …

    I do not agree with this interpretation — the document of the Argentine Bishops appears to concern principally those who have been placed into situations of canonical adultery in cases of diminished responsibility, and essentially situations where a spouse may have been unjustly abandoned by partners who are hostile to the Church and the lawful annulment process.

    The document also makes NO SUGGESTION that decisions regarding whether to Commune or not belong to the Penitents, where it is quite clear that it is a casuistic document for the discernment by pastors of individual situations.

    even if Mirus’ theory of venial sin for some divorced-and-remarried Catholics is correct

    erm, if that were correct, and the situation of some divorced-remarried were one of venial, not mortal sin — then the situation of such couples would be radically altered versus the Sacraments compared to those in situations that the Argentine Bishops have condemned as being particularly scandalous.

    The opinions quoted here seem to be based on false impressions that the Argentine Bishops, and therefore the Pope, have somehow “approved” of such particularly scandalous opinions, situations, and attitudes against Canon Law.

  6. Elly says:

    Is it not true that for confession to be valid one must repent of all sins, not just the mortal ones? So even if it is true that some people who are committing adultery can receive communion because their sin is venial, these people are not eligible for confession? So priests are going to have to tell them they can receive communion for years on end but can never confess their sins?

  7. jhayes says:

    Canon 915 bunds only the priest, not the communicant. If a pastor agrees that they are sinning only venially, but feels bound by 915 not to give them communion in his parish, he can tell them to go to a parish where they are not known to receive communion.

    Canon 915 says “persons…obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” I understand “obstinately” to mean “after they have been warned by their pastor or bishop that their actions are gravely sinful and must stop if they are to continue receiving Communion”. It is difficult to picture how their pastor could tell them that he agrees that they are sinning only venially and at the same time give them the required warning that their actions constitute. “manifest grave sin” to trigger 915, but pastors may differ on that.

  8. DonL says:

    I see four Sacraments involved (at risk) in this ambiguity. The fourth hardly mentioned is Holy Orders. How are we to increase the priesthood with such “uncertain trumpet” calls as the disharmonic notes coming forth from Rome?
    One senses that the Church is playing two incompatible melodies simultaneously. The question remains; who is writing this music?

  9. rwj says:

    Thinking rationally about how to implement this new unwritten rule(non-abrogation of the rule) or whatever contortion parish priests are left to deal with– perhaps a temporary recourse would be to flood the world’s chanceries/bishop offices with the details of the particular cases of the people in persistent adulterous relationships that want to be admitted to Holy Communion, and ask them to clarify how the minister should apply Can 916. [Perhaps you mean can. 915. Can. 916 must be obeyed by the communicant: Can. 916 Anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession, unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, which includes the resolve to go to confession as soon as possible.]

    If a bishop or diocesan office does not want to reinterpret the canons all on their own, why should I? — (says the parish priest)

  10. corcagiensis says:

    Question: is it right that someone who is not subjectively in a state of sin may not receive Holy Communion on the grounds that his/her situation is, objectively speaking, sinful? Isn’t the most important question what the true state of his/her soul is?

    [Perhaps you could rephrase that.]

  11. Thomistica says:

    The last sentence in the excerpt from Ed Peters’s blog below (scroll down), is the **absolute crux** of the matter.

    A re-conceptualization or outright denial of canon law is now quite possibly being tied by the Pope and his acolytes to a revisionist theology of the Eucharist, which in turn risks now being treated as a vehicle to promoting dissident views about morality and the other sacraments. Cf. Robert Royal’s statement here from https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2016/09/14/a-bizarre-papal-move/ “Indeed, Catholics have a new teaching now, not only on divorce and remarriage. We have a new vision of the Eucharist.”

    This is precisely what makes this whole situation so perilous and toxic: the “slippage” from a relatively focused issue, Communion for the remarried, to revisionist views on a whole variety of other views. Once again, there is reason to think that this was the intent all along of Amoris Laetitia’s redactors.

    All the focus on the specifics of the Communion for the remarried issue, while extremely important, risks diverting attention from the bigger agenda.
    ==
    From Ed Peters’s blog:
    Fundamentally the Argentine draft stumbles, I suggest, in the same way as does Amoris, namely, in thinking that an individual’s subjective, albeit sincere, conclusions about his or her eligibility for Communion per Canon 916 trumps the Church’s authority, nay her obligation, to withhold the sacrament in the face of certain objective, externally verifiable conditions per Canon 915. I shall not rehash that argument here, but we should be clear: compromising the well-established interpretation of Canon 915 in the case of divorced-and-remarried Catholics necessarily calls into question the law’s applicability to cases of, say, ‘loving’ couples cohabitating outside of marriage, the ‘compassionate’ promotion of abortion or euthanasia, ‘honest’ persons entering “same-sex marriages”, and so on.

  12. sw85 says:

    Didn’t Pius VIII admit unrepentant usurers to absolution and communion in 1830? Didn’t John Paul II, in his 1997 Vademecum, permit more or less the same thing with respect to people guilty of certain conjugal sins? No one seemed to think either of them lapsed into heresy.

  13. Henry Edwards says:

    From a recent Catholic Herald article, the most concise and informative statement I’ve seen:

    “Dominican Fr Thomas Petri, who teaches theology at the Dominican House of Studies, tweeted: ‘For the record – of itself, Amoris Laetitia has no magisterial weight. Neither does his private letter on his understanding of it.’

  14. St Donatus says:

    Honestly, I hate these mental gymnastics we are seeing to allow all types of sinful behavior by Catholics receiving communion. Yet, honestly, there is one case where I can see a need for leniency. It is hard for me to believe that God would allow an abandoned wife and her children to not remarry, in the least due to the needs of the children for a father and bread winner. I know that I have no right to question God or Church, but this just doesn’t seem fair in my limited human mind.

    I really do believe that there could be an argument that when one spouse has been abandoned by the other spouse, there are grounds for an annulment. This is due to the fact that the abandoning spouse is not a Christian, having proven it by their actions. As a Catholic, they know that marriage is forever, good or bad. They know that to abandon their spouse, they have rejected the Churches teaching on marriage. Thus there could be an argument that they have rejected the Church and thus excommunicated themselves.

    In 1 Corinthians 7:15, Saint Paul says ‘Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.’ If I were a canon lawyer or the Pope and I was concerned about these special cases, this is the route I would argue, but as for tearing down the very foundation of the Church as appears to be happening, this I reject.

  15. Juris Doctor says:

    Quite conveniently, the Holy Father just yesterday I believe called Fr. Jacques Hamel a blessed and martyr. A bit distracting, no? Regarding Fr. Thomas Petri’s comment on AL, it seems to me there is much room (and need) for developing a theology of the Magisterium. But, of course, error can never have “theological weight” because God is truth.

  16. Pingback: CATHOLIC THURSDAY EXTRA | Big Pulpit

  17. Thomistica says:

    Regarding the point made by sw85, without researching the matter, I wouldn’t know the best response.

    However, perhaps this illustrates a general point. Did these Popes–or did any Pope in the past– surrounded himself with so many individuals who appear to want to dilute, perhaps even overturn, the tradition not just on one issue (in this case, Communion for the remarried), but potentially a whole range of questions that bear on moral theology, sacramental theology, and ecclesiology? Or at least, who espouse views that are radioactive for the whole structure of Catholic beliefs?

    All this talk of ‘discernment’, of ‘accompaniment’, of “the internal forum”, of decentralization–all this appears to me just code for implementing all sorts of dissenting agendas.

    A mark of Catholic beliefs is the way they all hang together, through analogy, or logical relationships. Tweak one belief, and down the line there are implications for other beliefs. (For an analogy from epistemology, think of the “coherentist” school, even if any given Catholic belief can stand on its own two feet and be argued for independently of other beliefs.)

  18. LarryW2LJ says:

    One thing is true. I do NOT envy the position that priests everywhere have been put in as a result of all this. Being a Catholic Layperson is a cakewalk compared to that.

  19. robtbrown says:

    sw85 says:

    Didn’t Pius VIII admit unrepentant usurers to absolution and communion in 1830? Didn’t John Paul II, in his 1997 Vademecum, permit more or less the same thing with respect to people guilty of certain conjugal sins? No one seemed to think either of them lapsed into heresy.

    I can find nothing in JPII’s Vademecum that endorses that. Could you please refer me to the specific text?

  20. Kathleen10 says:

    There is the level of the theologian, and the level of the ordinary Catholic in the pew. Go to the Irish Times, or whatever the main Irish paper is, for the ordinary interpretation.
    It is something like “Communion to be given to divorced and remarried”. The headline.
    Are we really going to continue parsing words at this point?
    This all reminds me of a nursery rhyme.
    Ladybug, ladybug,
    fly away home,
    Your house is on fire,
    Your children will burn.
    We have heard enough, and seen enough. We are simply waiting for our leaders to catch up. I hope they are not delayed too much longer.

  21. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    Correct.

    I.e., a priest cannot absolve a person who manifests to him that he is not contrite for some sin, and intends to commit it again.

    This is true whether the matter is grave or light, and regardless of whether the person’s subjective culpability appears to be full, partial, or zero.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying that the sly, weasely machinations embodied in AL, the Argentine document, and the Pope’s letter, are all a dead end. The Pope’s determination to distribute Communion to adulterers rests on the same intellectually and morally putrescent foundations as Cardinal Wuerl’s (and most other bishops’) determination to distribute Communion to pro-abortion politicians.

  22. Ave Crux says:

    Excerpt From: CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH

    LETTER TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
    CONCERNING THE RECEPTION OF HOLY COMMUNION
    BY THE DIVORCED AND REMARRIED MEMBERS OF THE FAITHFUL

    5. The doctrine and discipline of the Church in this matter, are amply presented in the post-conciliar period in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. The Exhortation, among other things, reminds pastors that out of love for the truth they are obliged to discern carefully the different situations and exhorts them to encourage the participation of the divorced and remarried in the various events in the life of the Church. At the same time it confirms and indicates the reasons for the constant and universal practice, “founded on Sacred Scripture, of not admitting the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion”(9). The structure of the Exhortation and the tenor of its words give clearly to understand that this practice, which is presented as binding, cannot be modified because of different situations.

    [NB: “founded on Sacred Scripture….”]

    Joseph Card. Ratzinger, Prefect
    + Alberto Bovone, Titular Archbishop of Caesarea in Numidia, Secretary

    During an audience granted to the Cardinal Prefect, the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II gave his approval to this letter, drawn up in the ordinary session of this Congregation, and ordered its publication.

    Given at Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
    14 September 1994, Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

    (The date is quite a coincidence with this discussion)

  23. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    I was not referring to penitents who are mentally handicapped.

  24. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    The instant a person says, “My action is grave matter, but I am not fully culpable because…”–he is.

  25. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    One of the purposes of Canon 915 is to prevent scandal. Scandal is caused without regard to the communicant’s subjective guilt.

  26. robtbrown says:

    Kathleen,

    The pope is a Jesuit, and Jesuits always understand the various methods of communication outside of the channels of the hierarchy. He well understood that all it would take for news outlets is the slightest suggestion of a change, and they would run with it. It’s much like the commercials in the US for meds that need a prescription–pressure from the bottom

    It reminds me of the altar girl affair of 20 years ago. After many pastors went to the wall defending only using altar boys, JPII pulled the plug on them. Since then pastors who would never had begun to use altary girls found themselves transferred into parishes that had them. And they didn’t want to spend the pastoral capital to get the toothpaste back in the tube.

  27. JPK says:

    It seems to me that as an institution, the Catholic Church has become a society of lawyers. We are concocting extraordinary circumstances in order to arrive at an extraordinary exception with the intentions of applying that solution to every case.

    As the old saying goes, “Hard cases make bad law.”

  28. Semper Gumby says:

    Thank you Dr. Peters.

  29. robtbrown says:

    After many pastors went to the wall defending only using altar boys, JPII pulled the plug on them.

    Apologies for the mixed metaphor–shaken not stirred.

    JPK says,

    It seems to me that as an institution, the Catholic Church has become a society of lawyers.

    That happened at least 300 years ago.

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