The Failure of Canon 915

Before I discuss Canon 915, I want to dispel you of the notion that any discipline is so long-standing and so thoroughly established in Church practice that it is irreformable. The Old Testament disciplines were established by Divine Revelation, and they stood for about 1500 years, until the Divine Teaching Ministry of Christ. Then, when Jesus was confronted with the woman caught in adultery, He dispensed the Mosaic death penalty (John 8), changing discipline very substantially, and yet He did not thereby approve of adultery. Discipline is not doctrine.

Moreover, Jesus and the early Church after Him together did away with all of the Old Testament disciplines. None remain in force at all. However, this did not dispense or change any Old Testament teaching on faith or morals. The New Testament gives us a better understanding of faith and morals, but nothing truly taught by the Old Testament has been changed or negated by the New Testament.

And what do you think will happen after the general Resurrection? All the New Testament disciplines will pass away, just as the Old Testament disciplines passed away. There will be no Mass, no liturgical form, no Canon Law, no days of fasting, no holy days of obligation, no discipline at all. But of course the truths of faith, morals, and salvation will remain true forever.

So it is absurd for a Catholic today to claim that any discipline is irreformable or indispensable. All disciplines will eventually cease. And, more importantly for the current context, all disciplines can change. The length of time that a discipline has been in force does not deprive the Church of Her authority over that discipline. Or do you think that the authority of the Church diminishes as time passes? As each discipline gains more years of application, does the Church progressively lose its authority over each discipline? The Church has the full authority given to Her by Christ, and that authority cannot diminish.

Peter holds the keys. When he opens, no one can close. When he closes, no one can open.

Canon 915

Can. 915 “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

Can. 916 “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.”

Canon 916 is of the internal forum (conscience). The individual who has a grave sin on his conscience is not to celebrate Mass (applies only to priests and bishops) or receive Communion (any Catholic) until they repent and confess — unless there is a grave reason and no opportunity to confess. Both are needed. You can’t receive Communion merely because you had no opportunity to confess before that particular Mass. You also need a grave reason.

For a priest, the grave reason is not to cause scandal to the faithful, and not to deprive them of the Mass that the priest is saying. So a priest with no opportunity to confess can make an act of perfect contrition, say Mass, receive Communion, and confess at a later time. But for a layperson, ordinarily he or she must attend Mass but refrain from Communion, until after Confession.

Canon 915 is of the external forum. A judgment of the Church (excommunication or interdict), imposed (ferendae sententiae) or declared (latae sententiae), prevents the person from reception of Communion. In addition, others “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” are not to be permitted to receive. So Canon 915 proposes that Communion be withheld by those distributing Communion.

The Church certainly has the authority to decide who may receive the Sacraments, and to withhold them in certain cases. So the Canon is a reasonable and faithful regulation.

But I notice that 915 has failed in the modern context. It is not an effective rule, and it is not generally observed. The reasons are several.

First, the extraordinary minister of holy Communion (emhC) generally does not know whether the person who seeks Communion is obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin. I’ve been to innumerable Masses in my life so far. I can think of very few persons whom I would have even been able to know were in such a state. I look around at Masses nowadays, and I don’t know the situation of most persons. So it is not possible, in most cases, for the emhC to follow Canon 915.

As for the parish priest, he also might not know the manifest grave sins of communicants. And if he does know, solely from Confession, he cannot apply Canon 915. So Canon 915, as faithful and reasonable as it is, just can’t be applied in most cases.

Second, the Cardinals and Bishops of the Church have not supported Canon 915. There have been numerous news stories in the past of Catholic politicians taking Communion, despite manifest grave sin. And the Bishops in question refuse to tell priests and emhCs to refuse Communion to such persons. Bishops themselves sometimes give Communion to Catholic politicians who should be denied Communion under Canon 915.

Third, cases are know where a priest refuses Communion to someone under 915, and the Bishops of his diocese do not support his action. A most prominent example occurred in the Washington D.C. diocese, when a woman who was a lesbian (living with her same sex partner) and a practicing Buddhist approached a priest (Fr. Marcel Guarnizo) for Communion at her mother’s funeral Mass. She made a point of introducing the priest to her partner before Mass. And when he refused her Communion, the diocese publicly rebuked him, placed him on administrative leave, and subsequently forced him out of the diocese entirely.

What priest in that diocese is going to follow Canon 915 now, and deny Communion to politicians who publicly support abortion, as if it were a right, and who vote for widespread legalized abortion? If there are any such faithful priests, they will quickly be removed by the bishops who run the diocese. And then what do you expect a layperson, who is a humble emhC to do?

Canon 915 has failed because it is impractical — we don’t usually know the grave sins of communicants, even when those sins are in some sense public. And it has failed because the Apostles of the Church do not support that faithful and reasonable law.

What Can Be Done?

My suggestion is that the Pope and Cardinals and Bishops impose upon all celebrants of Mass the duty to teach the faithful on faith and morals. Specifically, all priests who say Mass should be required to teach against all the popular grave sins of today. They should be required to give sermons against abortion and contraception and gay marriage and gender ideology. They should be required to rebuke the faithful for every kind of grave sexual sin, and strictly instruct them that they also sin gravely if they receive Communion before repenting of those sins and (except for a grave reason) before confessing them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Eventually, people who are unrepentant from any kind of grave sin, manifest or not, will either repent and confess, or stop attending Mass altogether. Out of sinful pride, they will not be willing to sit at Mass every week and listen to a sermon against the sins from which they are unrepentant.

But it is NOT a reasonable plan to have all the Catholics who are unrepentant from any grave sin attend Mass but refrain from Communion. If they are not repentant, and have no intention of confessing at any time, they should not be at Mass. All are NOT welcome.

The Pope and the Cardinals and Bishops must publicly teach against every grave sin — not only against the particular type of adultery called divorce and remarriage. Every Catholic who publicly promotes any grave sin, or who offers a theological rationalization why it is supposedly moral, or who in any way distorts or contradicts Catholic moral doctrine, should be publicly rebuked, and then excommunicated and fired (from every position in any Catholic organization) if unrepentant. Then anyone who anonymously promotes or justifies a grave sin, or distorts or contradicts Catholic moral teaching, should be subject to automatic excommunication, and a public rebuke by his or her peers online.

Many Catholic teachers, especially online, promote and approve of the grave sins of abortifacient contraception and various sexual sins in marriage. They undermine and contradict the teaching of the Church in many various ways. They are thoroughly publicly unrepentant. And then they complain that the divorced and remarried are permitted to receive Communion.

This hypocrisy must stop. Abortifacient contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, just as is adultery. Unnatural sexual acts in marriage are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, just as is adultery. If the divorced and remarried cannot receive Communion, unless they are repentant and chaste, then neither can anyone else. Abortifacient contraception is even more gravely immoral than adultery, and yet many Catholics continue to commit this sin, without repentance, and continue to receive Communion. Worse still are those false teachers, so popular online, who justify the use of abortifacient contraception in marriage, who claim that the Church does not condemn contraception outside of marriage, and who justify unnatural sexual acts in marriage.

There is a clear double standard here. The unpopular intrinsically evil acts, such as the grave crime of murder and the sin of adultery are condemned, as they should be, as always wrong regardless of intention or circumstances. But then the “popular” intrinsically evil acts, such as abortifacient contraception (a type of murder) and unnatural sexual acts in marriage (figuratively a type of adultery) are approved, under the guise of various theological rationalizations.

Every intrinsically evil act is always wrong, regardless of intention or circumstances. And whosoever teaches otherwise, teaches heresy.

But the approval of reception of Communion by persons guilty of intrinsically evil grave sins does not imply a change to the teaching of the Church on intrinsically evil acts. It is discipline, not doctrine.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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2 Responses to The Failure of Canon 915

  1. Mark P. says:

    Thank you for this post, Ron. Last week my parish sent out a questionnaire consisting of several questions to which we were to respond with varying forms of “agree, disagree, etc.” One of the questions asked if the parish did enough to teach about the sacraments. To this question I disagreed, commenting that there is not enough teaching on the sacrament of reconciliation and its relation to receiving the Eucharist. Even if the priest does not use every single homily to teach these topics, the parish bulletin can at least be used to state church teachings straight out of the Catechism. Many Catholics respect only the teachings of the Church that advocate works of charity and mercy (which is effectively done by almost the entire population, whether Christian or atheist), but ignore Church teachings on morals and personal behavior. Or many adopt the stance that they are personally opposed to something, but have no problem with others doing it so as to avoid any type of confrontation. Many people are either unable or afraid to defend the faith, due to lack of either knowledge or courage.

    Our secular society has produced many people with very fragile feelings, so any notion of sin or guilt that makes them feel bad in turn harms their self-esteem, which is seen as the gravest sin in our culture. Coming across as either “intolerant” or even vaguely using language seen as “offensive” are completely impermissible in our society. However, the Church must stand apart from society and our leaders must not be afraid to spread all aspects of the Gospel. Do they think it was easy for St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John, St. Philip, St. Timothy and all the other apostles and disciples when they first spread the Gospel? Those men faced and risked actual physical harm, whereas now these men are scared of a mere argument!

  2. Scott Smith says:

    In the event its of interest, please see my Apologia for the orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia, which covers some of these same issues around Canon 915.

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