Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Monday, February 28, 2011

Again re Winters and Canon 915

Michael Sean Winters first commented on my general discussion of Cuomo and Communion here (25 Feb); I replied to him here (25 Feb); MSW acknowledged my comments here (25 Feb), and posted a lengthy reply (28 Feb) here. I read his latest remarks carefully, and have some thoughts to offer.

The main problem with internet “debates” of course, is the lack of moderators, people who can objectively determine when a given point has been proven or defeated, or when this claim is irrelevant or that one is inflammatory. As long as two people are willing to type, it seems, the impression is given that the debate is still open, that the resolution is unknown.

Despite knowing that one cannot “win” an internet “debate”, I’m willing to engage in them anyway, mostly for three reasons: first, to convince my adversary; second, to edify observers; third (perhaps a bit philosophically here) because, in rather the same way that truth is worth pursuing for its own sake, so error can be worth correcting for its own sake. (Come to think of it, those are my only three reasons for blogging; it’s not part of my job).

So, where do things stand in these three respects vis-à-vis my exchanges with Winters?

One. I am not going to convince Winters of the persuasiveness of my position over his, because he believes that (take your pick): my interpretation of canon law represents horrible theology, I engage in sneering, I don’t quote Scripture in my canonical writing, I am given to plunging canonical daggers into straw men, I feel mighty self-satisfied with the 99 sheep instead of looking for the lost one (indeed I pose a threat to the returning sheep), I must see law as a purely penal instrument, I am more prone to condemning instead of using the medicine of mercy, and so on and so on and so on. Well, okay. I am none of these things. But so what?

Mostly, though, I sense the futility of debating Winters further because he still defends a fundamentally skewered understanding of the role of canon law in the Church. Despite my express citations to Pope John Paul II and (gasp) the plain text of Canon 392 (both of which points Winters ignores), he reiterates “yes, the canons exist for the bishop to use as he sees fit in achieving the salvation of souls” (my emphasis). Folks, that’s antinomianism; not the bomb-throwing anarchist kind, I grant, but just as dismissive of canon law as the primary expression of the Legislator's governance directives. As Winters rightly warned us, however, antinomianism can’t be answered by lawyers citing more nomoi. Its roots go much deeper; too deep, I fear, for my little trowel.

Two. I think I’ve edified observers who perhaps wondered, at least initially, whether there were coherent replies to those who, with some rhetorical skill, eviscerate the plain meaning of important canons. My readers know now, if they didn’t before, that there are coherent replies to such assertions. They don’t need me to repeat that, while canon law does not exhaust the requirements of Christian living, it does establish minimum standards of conduct in the Church. And they know, as I do, that if those minimum standards are ignored, there is little point in pretending to reach for the stars.

If I may be permitted a personal illustration, I remember in college when my Jesuit spiritual director told me in our first session, “Well, Ed, you start by observing the Ten Commandments.” St. Paul spoke from a mystical appreciation of just Who stood behind the Ten Commandments when he warned the Corinthians—and us—against taking the Lord's Body and Blood outwardly to our condemnation inwardly. Canons 915 and 916, I suggest, simply express these same points canonically--you know, f/b/o Catholics who don’t read the Bible but who keep a copy of the Code on their nightstand.

Three. Pursuing truth is always a positive; but correcting errors gets old pretty quickly, especially when there’s little evidence that it’s working. Perhaps I fail in patience. In any case, while it is my honor to explain and (especially when asked) my duty to defend the meaning of canon law, it is not my responsibility to enforce it.

In sum, I am unpersuaded that anything Winters wrote refutes my interpretation of Canon 915, including my assertion that Canon 915 directs the proper ecclesiastical response to the Cuomo/Communion situation.

Update, 1 Mar 2011. MSW's acknowledgement of the above post is here.