Expert canonist Ed Peters explains the sit to Matthew Boudway (Nihil habens) re: Fr. Murray

This is something that every parish priest and seminarian should read and commit to memory.

It is at the heart of many controversies (not excluding the mendacity of the Left trying to edge out the Truth with innuendo and ambiguity).

From canonist Ed Peters… who doesn’t have a combox:

Boudway vs. Murray is not even close

October 25, 2017

The nonchalance with which some non-canonists try to argue canon law with canon lawyers these days verges on the remarkable. But, folks, these aren’t fair fights; [I take fair warning, though I do my best when I do and I bend to expertise.] they are scarcely even interesting. The latest example is Matthew Boudway over at Commonweal.[See my post on the new catholic Red Guards.]

Somehow Boudway has gotten it into his head that Fr. Gerald Murray (J.C.D., Gregorian University, 1998) thinks that the Catholic Church holds that “all valid marriages are indissoluble” even though the Code of Canon Law (which apparently Boudway looked at the other day) indicates a few instances wherein valid marriages can be dissolved (i.e., the papal dissolution of non-consummated sacramental marriages and of certain non-sacramental marriages per Canon 1142 and the Pauline Privilege dissolution of marriage per Canons 1143-1147). Thinking he has fingered a truth that Murray should find inconvenient, Boudway wonders why Murray (who opposes the assault on the Church’s teaching on marriage being conducted under cover of Amoris laetitia) is not embarrassed by these supposed examples of “the Catholic Church … condoning a narrow category of adultery for much of its history.”

Yes, it’s embarrassing, alright. For Boudway.

I’ll do this quickly.

The Catholic Church does not teach that “all valid marriages are indissoluble”. She teaches, more precisely than Boudway grasps, that all valid marriages are ‘intrinsically indissoluble’ (not a happy adjective, but one that trained canonists understand in this context) meaning that the parties to a valid marriage (be it natural, merely sacramental, or sacramental and consummated) cannot dissolve it. There are no exceptions to the intrinsic indissolubility of marriage. None.

The notion of intrinsic indissolubility leaves open the possibility, however, that an ‘extrinsic’ power might, might, under certain, unusual-to-rare, circumstances be able to dissolve a valid marriage (say a pope with regard to non-sacramental marriage between a baptized and a non-baptized party); that a subsequent marriage might dissolve a non-sacramental marriage between two non-baptized persons (the Pauline Privilege); or even that a sacramental but non-consummated marriage could be dissolved by papal act (the ‘Petrine Privilege’). But these cases are not “exceptions” to some ‘rule’ whereby all valid marriages are supposedly ‘extrinsically‘ indissoluble because such a rule does not exist.

What rule does exist, as Murray knows, and as the Church has held since her inception, is the rule now set out in Canon 1141 (but incredibly not cited by Boudway!) that: “A marriage that is ratified [i.e., between two baptized parties] and consummated [i.e., the conjugal act has taken place between the spouses] can be dissolved by no human power (i.e., not a pope, not the state, and not the parties) and by no cause, except death” (my emphasis). Period. End of discussion.

In short: Valid, consummated marriage between two baptized peopleis (intrinsically and extrinsically) indissoluble (see Canon 1056) except by death; persons in such marriages attempting other marriages enter a state of “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384) and thus may not be admitted to holy Communion (Canon 915).

Fr. Murray understands this perfectly and proclaims it faithfully.

Game. Set. Match.

Read that again, and remember it.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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


    That will leave a mark.

  2. mithrandirmonk says:

    Ouch indeed. Dr. Peters – always clear and spot on.
    Also see his remarks related to this same point in “A couple of thoughts on a couple of comments,”

  3. Pingback: VVEDNESDAY CATHOLICA EXTRA | Big Pulpit

  4. roma247 says:

    Since when did liberal post-marxists worry about whether they got facts right? They know no embarrassment. Critical theory has no use for facts (unless they serve the narrative, of course). No, merely repeating it often enough, and in the right venues, makes it true. They’ve already won half the war by simply replacing reason with emotion and morals with the “religion of nice.”

    Sigh. It is a beautiful smackdown but alas! it will scarcely mean a thing to those hell-bent (literally) on dismantling the magisterium of the Church. Like termites, they will simply start chewing somewhere else.

  5. vandalia says:

    I have come to the conclusion that the decision to publish Canon Law in the vernacular has done at least as much damage to the Church as having the liturgy in the vernacular.

    The problem is seen across the spectrum from the most liberal to the most conservative. Canon Law seems so easy, so clear, and so concise especially when compared with the impenetrable US codes. The result is that people look up the Code on the web, see a few simple sentences, and think they know what it means.

    Keep this one factor in mind: Canon lawyers spend at least as much time in school as civil lawyers. Since many have the doctorate (J.C.D.), the educational requirements are in general far longer than they are for civil lawyers. The entrance requirements (S.T.B. or equivalent) are also more demanding than they are for civil lawyers. I also think it is fair to say that J.C.L. students don’t spend their time partying in Rome, this stuff is complicated.

    There are a number of reasons why interpreting Canon Law is not an easy task: It is based on Roman Law rather than English Common Law so the most fundamental assumptions are very different. There is no such thing as stare decisis. The actual code is in Latin, the English translation has no value. There is often a huge different between what you think an English term means and what it actually means in “canon-ese.” Most people don’t spend their time reading the boring but critical “General Norms.” Etc., etc.

    So if you think you know what one of the codes “obviously” means… it is almost certain you don’t have a clue. The one Canon I tell people to know is Canon 6 – the 1917 Code of Canon Law is abrogated, among other things. So if someone tells you “The 1917 Code says…”, then you can stop listening. Except, of course, [And there it is!] there are exceptions for where the 1917 Code is used to help interpret the 1983 Code, but that is the work for professionals.

  6. jflare29 says:

    “…but one that trained canonists understand in this context) meaning that the parties to a valid marriage (be it natural, merely sacramental, or sacramental and consummated) cannot dissolve it.”

    One needs to be a trained canonist to understand that?

  7. iamlucky13 says:

    This is very educational. I was loosely aware of the Pauline and Petrine privileges, but did not know the details and had a assumed they were a method of finding nullity in cases that met certain objective criteria without the need for a tribunal, rather than an authority to dissolve valid marriages under those criteria. Reading about intrinsic versus extrinsic authority also is new to me.

    Furthermore, I seem to have been mistaken about the matter of unconsummated marriage. I had a hazy notion that consummation itself was a required element for validity, and therefore these cases were also a matter of nullity rather than dissolution. I’m glad to be corrected about my mistake there.

    Fortunately, my misunderstandings were corrected before I presumed to use them to mock an actual canon lawyer!

    @ vandalia
    Certainly you are correct that we should not try to interpret Canon law based on our own after only reading one or two canons. If nothing else, that was clear to me based on how frequently one canon refers to several others that also must be understood to understand the entry of interest. I have also been long aware that many words in canon law have meanings either different or more specific than their common use that are not clear from context alone. To look at a very short entry as an example, Canon 912 does not in its own text explain who is “prohibited by law.”

    I think your suggestion that an English translation should not exist would be a counterproductive caution, however. Being able to access a uniform translation of the law in addition to, as opposed to instead of, the commentary of a qualified lawyer is helpful to understanding it, and to recalling it after educating oneself on it.

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Someone interested in finding out the truth will always poke around until he finds it.

    Someone interested in pulling biased lies out of his butt will never find truth, if he can help it.

    We worship Truth Himself. Making the Truth easily available to truthseekers is part of our job.

  9. jflare29 says:

    “There is no such thing as stare decisis.”

    vandalia, I’m curious to know what you mean by that? Doing a quick Google search reveals stare decisis as “the legal principle of determining points in litigation according to precedent”.
    Off the top, that sounds like a previous legal decision would be expected to have at least some degree of bearing on the current decision. I’m no lawyer though. I should think that distinctions would be drawn between cases to determine the degree of analogy that might be properly drawn between two cases. On the other hand, this could also mean something about which point of a case has the greatest importance, I guess. Though in all honesty, I’m not sure how such a concern would have much bearing on the final decision that might be made about a case.
    Care to enlighten me?

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