Canonist Ed Peters performs an autopsy.

When it was found that the Pope’s Letter to Bishops of Buenos Aires was included in the AAS with a note from Card. Parolin, libs lined up for their customary conga line.   They blew up the importance of that moment way beyond reality.  However… how to get their false narrative back into the ACME crate it came in?

Canonist Ed Peters help us out.  He has a piece today about the use (misuse) of canon law by theologians.  It is longish, and you can read the whole thing there.  But here are some highlights:

I agree, most Catholic theologians need more training in canon law (at least before they propound on it)

I applaud Massimo [“Beans”] Faggioli’s recognition that “canon law is clearly an important part of the Catholic tradition” and join him in urging that “the curricula of Catholic theologians should include more” canon lawHis own Commonweal essay on what he thinks are the canonical implications of the appearance of Pope Francis’ letter to the Argentine bishops in the Acta Apostolicae Sedisillustrates several of the ways that non-canonists can stumble over canonical issues while setting those faulty views before the public. Let me just comment on some of Faggioli’s assertions.

1. Faggioli: “Changes in canon law don’t come quickly, as the ongoing reception of Amoris Laetitia since its promulgation in April 2016 is currently reminding us.” Well, sure, especially when papal documents do not change, or even mention, the canonical norms at issue. It is not easy to change a canon by not talking about it[I’m tempted to make some popcorn.]

2. Faggioli: “The news this week that Pope Francis has officially recognized the interpretation of Chapter VIII of the exhortation put forth by Argentine bishops indicates that change does nevertheless occur.” But this is old news; Francis “recognized” the Argentine document when he signed his name to a letter endorsing their document last year. The appearance of Francis’ letter in the Acta Apostolicae Sedisadds nothing to his act of last year[But they’ve already formed up in their conga line, Ed.]


4. Notwithstanding Faggioli’s exaggerated read of its significance, Francis’ placing the label “magisterial” on his letter to the Argentines (rather as he dubbed his recent remarks on the liturgical renewal movement as “magisterial”) is indeed unusual. I can think of several unquestionably magisterial statements being made by, say, Benedict XVI or St. John Paul II, but off hand, I do not recall either of them ever labeling their statements as “magisterial”. Papal statements, assessed in the light of criteria that Church law and tradition apply in such cases, either qualify as magisterial (a term whose import, by the way, is routinely exaggerated in common parlance) or they don’t so qualify. [NB]Labels attached do not, in my opinion, modify the nature of the assertion, but they do contribute to the mistaken view that papal “magisterium” is something that can be lightly turned on and off.  [Of course libs use “magisterial” only when they want to liberal view to trump reality, such as when they want you to admit that 2+2=5.  “It’s MAGISTERIAL!”, say shout as they reach for the little door to the rat cage.]

5. Of course, much of Faggioli’s (and others’) excited thinking about Amoris, the Argentine’s document, and the pope’s endorsement of it, assumes that Francis et al. have repudiated—to make a long story short—Canon 915 and the unbroken, divinely rooted, tradition behind it. To be sure, one could read Amoris and its progeny as doing exactly that, for the words in Amoris support that interpretation. But they also support exactly the opposite interpretation, namely, they can be read so that divorced-and-remarried Catholics are, as they have unquestionably always been, included among those regarded by Canon 915 as obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin (as each of those terms has been understood over the centuries, understandings that might not coincide exactly with how non-canonists might understand them) and thus are (outside of one well-defined situation) ineligible to present themselves for holy Communion thereby occasioning in ministers of that most august Sacrament the duty to withhold the Eucharist if such persons do present themselves. The plausibility of diametrically opposed interpretations of the text of Amoris is precisely why, in my view, theDubia posed by four cardinals warrant a direct, clear, and authoritative response. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

6. Faggioli’s invocation of the famous 1875 letter of Bl Pius IX to the German bishops endorsing their view of papal primacy against extra-ecclesial attacks, as if it were remotely comparable to Francis’ endorsement of the Argentine document, beggars belief. [I so admire Dr. Peters’ restraint.]

I invite interested persons to examine an English translation of the German bishops’ statement, Pius’ response letter, and his later consistorial remarks on it, as found in Donald Logan, “The 1875 statement of the German bishops on episcopal powers”, The Jurist 21 (1961) 285-295, and ask themselves whether the detail, clarity, and precision used by the German bishops in describing the matters before them are in any way comparable to the “endlessly malleable considerations phrased in verbiage redolent of the 1970s” employed, as I have said, by the Argentines in addressing their topic. I note that Pius’ endorsement of the German document, undoubtedly sufficient to make their language his, was not, to my knowledge, ever labeled “magisterial” by that pope. It didn’t need to be so labeled, for magisterial statements speak magisterially according to their own nature.

[…  Hereafter I’m omitting really good stuff… ]

And so end as I began, by recommending with Faggioli that theologians receive more education in canon law, at least before venturing too many opinions on it.

How ’bout them apples?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. JabbaPapa says:

    The Argentine Bishops stated : 5) Cuando las circunstancias concretas de una pareja lo hagan factible, especialmente cuando ambos sean cristianos con un camino de fe, se puede proponer el empeño de vivir en continencia.

  2. Ave Crux says:

    I am still at a loss to understand why this question is bring treated at such length as though it were merely a matter and question of Canon Law?

    I fear it is misleading to the faithful to do so, and constitutes an unhealthy legal positivism to the point of obscuring the far more compelling and universally binding nature of Divine Law in this matter, which seems to be scarcely touched upon; and then only in a vastly disproportionate manner as compared to the attention being given in this discussion to canon law.

    It’s a matter of Divine Revelation regarding the indissolubility of marriage and the condemnation of adultery; along with the unbroken magisterial teaching and praxis of the Church for 2,000 years reflecting that.

    Nothing in Canon law could permit a violation of either, and neither is Canon law necessary to prohibit (though it may state explicitly what is already prohibited and provide clarifications thereof) what has always been prohibited in light of divine revelation concerning the indissolubility of marriage and the Church’s practice since its founding with regard to the moral status of those who may be admitted to Holy Communion and be validly absolved in Confession.

    So why exactly is canon law being discussed at such length…? If that’s all we have to prevent a change in practice, then what of the Divine Law which binds us otherwise? Are we to subordinate it to canon law…?

    If not, then why this inversion of the two in the considerations being offered on AL and Pope Francis’s recent declaration that heterodox interpretations are henceforth to be considered authentic magisterium?

    This tangent seems to be one which can confuse many on what/who really governs in this question: God or the Pope and canon lawyers….?

    If it’s the latter, then we’re in trouble. The entire edifice of the Church’s moral theology and sacramental practice could easily crumble based on this question alone.

  3. David says:

    On another site someone pointed out, correctly I think, that obsession with this term ‘magisterial’ is as recent as the 19th century, particularly the distinction between the ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ magisterium. My suspicion is that it started after Vatican I and the definition of papal infallibility, when modernist theologians thought, ‘Fine, if it isn’t claimed to be infallible I can disagree with it’. And then the Popes of the 20th century began to stress more and more adherence even to the ‘ordinary’ magisterium of the Pope. This is yet another instance (and there are many) of strongly worded pronouncements on papal authority meant to protect orthodoxy being used to prop up current Vatican positions that in their wildest dreams the original composers of these texts stressing the scope of the Pope’s governance of the Church could never have imagined.

  4. JabbaPapa says:

    David, you’re quite right that far too many people are confused by infallibility, and especially by the dubious notion of “fallible doctrines”, as if certain teachings of the Church could be “justifiably” ignored and/or disobeyed with no consequence.

    I do wish that most of the people who seem to be obsessed with this misleading distinction would simply make the effort to learn what “authoritative” means in this context …

    But I’m sorry, it’s not just “modernist theologians” who thought that ‘Fine, if it isn’t claimed to be infallible I can disagree with it’, but it is also a common error of the more extremist traditionalists, who seem to think that it somehow “justifies” rejecting Vatican II.


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