Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Friday, March 11, 2011

Communion, Canon Law, and Pastoral Practice

There is a line of thought emerging in regard to the Cuomo-Communion controversy that runs as follows: “Okay, maybe Peters has a point about the canon law of this case, but c’mon, questions about individual reception of holy Communion are really matters of pastoral practice.”

You know, as if canon law and pastoral practice were two entirely different things.

Let’s think about this.

Certainly, there are many canons in the Code that scarcely impact pastoral practice. It’s difficult (not impossible, just difficult) to see a pastoral application for, say, Canon 141 on priority among successive delegees, or for Canon 707 on residence options for a retired religious bishop, or for Canon 1601 on a judge’s discretion over time limits for filing briefs in tribunal cases. No one seriously argues that the faithful are bound to recall such canons in daily life or at least to think about them during the Communion rite.

But, while many canons do not have immediate pastoral relevance, many other canons do have obvious pastoral implications, and surely the canons on the reception and administration of holy Communion count among them. Indeed, the whole purpose of
Canons 915 and 916 is to direct concrete pastoral practice!

Canons 915 and 916 boast aged, even ancient, nay apostolic, roots, and both norms are illuminated by copious and consistent canonical commentary reflecting many centuries’ worth of . . . . . what? . . . . . pastoral practice. In other words, one cannot discuss Canons 915 and 916 without discussing pastoral practice at the same time. The two disciplines are inextricably related. And not because I say so, but because they are.

Ours is certainly not the first generation to face the serious problem of Catholics whose lifestyle is protractedly and publicly at odds with important Church teachings, nor are we the first to face rampant ridicule and accusations of hypocrisy* for holding Catholics to higher standards for their public behavior than we hold others to. It is precisely because the Church has such extensive experience in dealing with difficult issues that she has set down, for the guidance of pastors and faithful alike, certain norms for behavior in her Code of Canon Law, norms such as Canons 915 and 916.

Obviously, the time to think about what certain canons on pastoral practice might require of bishops and faithful is before controversy arises over them, if only because, if fundamental and reasonable norms for conduct are not attended to before controversy over them erupts in the Church, they will most assuredly be invoked afterward. Like most good lawyers, I think it’s easier to head off problems than it is to solve them; but, like many Catholics of my generation, I think even worse than not solving, once it has arisen, a serious problem in pastoral practice (even problems that we only inherited, instead of ones we cooked-up for ourselves), is our simply leaving it to the next generation to face.

To be clear, I do not think that every pastoral question imaginable has a certain canonical answer. Nor, even in regard to those many pastoral questions that do have, at least in part, a canonical answer, do I think that those answers can be implemented overnight. Moreover, I recognize that bishops have the primary responsibility for governing the Churches entrusted to them (c. 381 et seq.). And I certainly recognize that canon lawyers have no more authority over the application of canon law in the Church than attorneys in a law firm or professors in a law school have authority over the enforcement of civil law. On all of these points, nothing I have ever written supposes otherwise.

But what canon lawyers do have is expertise and ready access to the detailed resources that are necessary to set out, accurately and clearly, exactly what the Church’s legal system says (if anything) about this topic or that, and canonists do that, or should do that, in service to the Catholic faithful who strive to live within the Church's order and for Catholic leaders who are charged to uphold it.

If nothing else, canonists should correct, I think, any claim that canon law and pastoral practice are simply distant cousins in the Church. “Brothers” would be much closer to the truth.
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* One of the just-plain-dumbest accusations of hypocrisy made against me is that I only “go after” Catholic Democratic politicians and not Catholic Republicans. Folks, if, among Americans who care at all about politics (and yes I recall enough Plato and Madison to care about politics), if, I say, there is someone who cares less about political party affiliation than I do, please, introduce us! I'd luv to meet someone who has less than zero interest in political parties.

As for those who specifically wondered where I was when Rudy Giuliani was in the news, I was right here (28 April 2008) and before that, I was here (15 March 2007). Where were you?

Same day Update: Thanks to some readers who passed along links to the recent L. A. Times interview with Cdl. Mahoney (emeritus of Los Angeles), including the prelate’s remarks on admission to holy Communion. I noted especially the observation attributed to the cardinal that Christ gave Communion to Judas, so who are we to withhold Communion from others?

Okay, well, I have disagreed with the cardinal’s interpretation of Canon 915 before (
scroll to 18 May 2004) and the most recent reiteration of his views suggests no emendation in his arguments. But, as I have addressed the chronic disregard of the differences between Canon 915 and 916 sufficiently for anyone who cares to know the differences, I won’t repeat those points here.

But the line about Judas going to Communion caught my eye.

I'm no Scripture scholar, so I don't know whether Judas, in fact, took the Eucharist at the Last Supper, but let’s suppose he did. What exactly would be the lesson? Frankly, the more I think about it, and assuming there is a point for canonical practice in the episode—and if one will permit a bit of canon lawyer humor here—I suggest that Jesus, in giving Judas Communion, would have just been acting in anticipatory obedience to the 1983 Code!

Consider: It is well established in moral and canonical literature that a minister cannot withhold holy Communion from an occult sinner*, even where the minister knows of the sin and knows of the impenitence. Citations [added: Abbo-Hannan II: 854-856; Dom Augustine IV: 232; Davis III: 206-207, etc.]. That’s why Canon 915 operates only in the face of manifest grave sin, not simply personal sin.

In fact, as important as the prevention of sacrilege is in the operation of Canon 915, it is not the only basis for the canon; rather, the prevention of scandal is also a key consideration, but scandal arises only from public behavior seriously at odds with Church teaching and order. Judas was an occult sinner, and Jesus did not expose his inexpressibly grievous, but to that point still private, sin to public view by withholding Communion from him.

Since he was 12 years old, Jesus had been taking the Doctors of the Law to school, and he did so even at the Last Supper.

*Update, 15 March 2011. An alert reader asks me to specify that, if an occult sinner seeks holy Communion privately, he IS to be turned away by the minister. I am happy to make that point. While occult sinners cannot be turned away when they seek holy Communion publicly, they can be turned away when they seek privately, and the sources I cited above make that very point. While the point is not relevant to my argument re Cuomo (whose conduct and request for the august Sacrament are both considered public under canon law), and while the “private reception” of holy Communion is seldom done today, it is worth noting that the rules for public reception and private do differ in some respects.