Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Debating complex points of law is hard enough; having to repudiate false quotations is too much

There are, I need hardly say, far too many responses to my article on clerical continence for me to respond to them all, or even to respond just to those deserving of some reply. John Martens, writing over at America, actually read my original article (which separates him from the vast majority of critics). But his treatment of this matter is wholly unbecoming of its importance, or of America magazine's website.

Marten's chief criticism of my work is that I did not write an article I never claimed to have written, namely, a Scriptural commentary on married life and conjugal relations. Says Martens: “
There is no discussion anywhere in [Peters'] article on biblical teachings regarding sex and marriage. Although Jesus’ teachings on sex and marriage might be alluded to in this article, they are not cited once in the body of the paper or in the footnotes. I could not locate allusions to Paul’s writings at all in the body of the paper or in the footnotes. . .” Major flaws, per Martens.

If that is his criticism, though, surely I may reply that Martens did not write much of a canonical response to my canonical article. If Martens wants to argue that canon law is an insufficient rubric by which to assess Christian marriage, I might agree and engage the topic, but we all would recognize that we were then talking about what Martens wants to talk about, not about what I brought up for discussion.

I don’t consider myself a theologian, and I certainly don’t boast Scriptural credentials, but I am a pretty good canon lawyer, and the case I have made against the exercise of conjugal rights by clerics in the Western Church is plainly canonical. Naturally, I think the Code’s provisions in this area (chiefly in Canon 277) rest on solid theological foundations (foundations that invoke the theology of Orders as well as of Matrimony, which point Martens never seems to recognize; but he is in large company there); but I do not offer, or pretend to offer, a theological, let alone a Scriptural, case for clerical continence, I offer a canonical one. If my canonical arguments are flawed, by all means, show me how. But if Marten’s complaint is my lack of theological argumentation, then I can only invite him to consult Stickler, Chochini, Cholij, and so on. They can offer him fitter fare.

This general point aside, however, there are some serious, specific problems that need to be addressed. Let me start with the most grave.

1. Martens writes: “[T]he sort of continence one is called to is dependent upon whether one is married or not. Indeed, that is the case in the 1917 CIC Code, which Peters cites: ‘Continence is different from chastity; to be chaste is to forego sexual relations; to be continent is to have sexual relations in their properly ordered sphere of conduct’ (159). That strikes me as precisely what is taking place in the practice of the permanent diaconate, though in his first footnote Peters states that ‘throughout this article continence is understood in a canonical (as distinguished from a philosophical) sense to be the complete refraining from sexual intercourse’ (147). Yet ‘complete refraining from sexual intercourse’ is not the same as ‘to have sexual relations in their properly ordered sphere of conduct’ (159). Either Peters forgot what he wrote on page 159 or he chooses to ignore it.”

Martens’ assertion is a grave violation against academic honesty.

The quote that Martens attributes to me, “Indeed, that is the case in the 1917 CIC Code, which Peters cites: ‘Continence is different from chastity; to be chaste is to forego sexual relations; to be continent is to have sexual relations in their properly ordered sphere of conduct’ (159).’”, and which Martens later claims I conveniently forgot or chose to ignore, is a complete fabrication. I wrote no such thing, on page 159 or anywhere else. I think, moreover, that the ersatz quote is wrong in its substance, and I would never have written so sloppily on a central issue in my thesis. So, I did not forget or ignore what I allegedly wrote on page 159. I simply never wrote it, but thanks to Martens, I now have to spend my time disowning a goofy assertion that I never made. I do not hesitate to say that I am angry at this shabby stunt. And while I do not know Martens from Adam, I expect America magazine to take action in response to this kind of authorial misconduct.

2. I find Martens’ armchair attempts to psychoanalyze my motives in writing the study improper and ad hominem. Martens asks “What then bothers Ed Peters about the current practice of the married permanent diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church?” Later: “The overarching question for me, especially in light of the actual practice of the Church with respect to permanent deacons and the biblical teaching of Paul, is what is at stake in this argument for Ed Peters? What’s the point? What is so troubling about married permanent deacons having sexual relations with their wives? What Ed Peters argues conjures up the ghosts, past, present and future, of a Church that has trouble with sex, even in its properly ordered place.” And still later, “[I]t is not the Church that has a problem with married permanent deacons having sex with their wives, it is Ed Peters.”

Why does Martens assume that I must be bothered? Or that I am troubled? Or that I am bent on conjuring up ghosts? Who is Martens to say that I have a problem with this or that? Why can’t a canon lawyer, who finds what appears to be a major discrepancy between the text of the law and the practice of a large and important group of faithful on an important point, simply find that situation a worthy topic for his attention? Why must one’s scholarship be driven by the need to quell hidden neuroses? Let me say, mine isn’t. I don’t presume to speak for Martens.

3. Finally, after belittling my one attempt at a Biblical allusion (see why non-Scripture scholars are so afraid to use the Bible?), Martens states: “I believe that Ed Peters sees himself either as the High Priest Hilkiah who found the lost book of God’s law and delivered it to King Josiah or as King Josiah calling the people back to the Law, in which the King destroyed the idolatrous shrines, killed some of the pagan priests and returned the people back to the true law of God. Either way it indicates that he feels the Church has followed an idolatrous or pagan path in allowing married permanent deacons to have sex with their wives.”

To make such an accusation is, in fact, to accuse one of denying the indefectibility of the Church. I hold no such belief, and pray God I would never succumb to such. As for whom I see myself as, Martens’ impertinent speculation here shows how little he knows of me. I see myself as Ed Peters. But, if forced to see myself in the story, I suppose I would see myself as those lowly laborers whom I imagine finding the text of the law in the basment and who said to themselves, “Hey, this looks pretty important; we’d better pass it along to folks who know what they are doing.”

Which I have done.