Is Canon 915 a reflection of a universally binding divine law itself?

Dr. Ed Peters has made some exaggerated and harmful claims about Canon 915. That’s the canon that is used to deny Communion to the divorced and remarried. Peters and others say that the divorced and remarried must be denied Communion, since they meet all of the conditions for the type of sin in Canon 915, a sin that is:
* grave
* manifest
* and in which the sinner obstinately perseveres
Those three conditions mean that the sinner in question should be denied Communion. This Canon concerns the external forum, a judgment made about manifest grave sins. The internal forum — conscience, prayer, and the advice of one’s confessor — falls under Canon 916. Those who should not receive under Canon 916 generally must apply the Canon to themselves. It’s kind of like an honor system, where you are responsible for denying yourself Communion, if you are conscious of grave unrepented sin.

My opinion is that Canon 915 should be changed or removed altogether. It is too difficult for extraordinary minsters of holy Communion (emhocs) to know the situation of each person who presents themselves, and to render a judgment in the seconds between one communicant and the next.

I should also mention another problem. When someone is denied Communion, and rightly so, they can complain to the Bishops, and the odds are pretty good that the Bishop (or Cardinal!!) will take the side of the grave unrepentant sinner. Examples here and also here. Additionally, we are all aware that Catholic politicians who vote for abortion and whose positions on a number of issues are gravely immoral under Catholic teaching are nevertheless given Communion by Cardinals and Bishops. How can an emhoc refuse Communion, when the leaders of the Church do not refuse Communion? They would not be an emhoc for long, if they obeyed Canon 915. More in my post The Failure of Canon 915.

Now to the main point of this post. Dr. Peters has gone so far as to suggest that Canon 915 is “divinely rooted”, and is a reflection of “universally binding divine law itself.” [His post is here]. Supposedly, the purpose of the Canon in preventing scandal gives it this supra-canonical status: a canon that is above canon law and therefore dogmatic.

To be fair, some Canons are direct expressions of magisterial teachings on faith and morals. And such canons, only in so far as they express an infallible teaching, are irreformable and universally binding. However, the purpose to avoid the danger of scandal does not make 915 a “divinely rooted” reflection of “universally binding divine law itself.”

First, the sin of scandal is not intrinsically evil. The Pharisees were scandalized by Christ — yes, scandalized in the formal theological sense — and yet Christ did not sin. Scandal pertains to the circumstances of an act, not to the font of the moral object. Therefore, the fact that giving Communion to someone might cause scandal does not imply that Communion cannot be given. An act which causes scandal can be entirely moral, based on the proportionality of the effects (third font), and if the other two fonts are good, certainly.

Second, the decision as to who may receive Communion is discipline, not doctrine. The fact that a person is guilty of a grave sin does not necessarily imply, as if the decision were dogma, that they cannot receive Communion, until they go to Confession. A priest who commits an actual mortal sin can make an act of perfect contrition, say Mass and receive Communion, and then go to Confession subsequently. Thus, if the Pope Francis, the Supreme Judge of all the Faithful so desires, he can extend a similar leniency to the laity, such as to the divorced and remarried.

It is true that Saint Paul, in Sacred Scripture, teaches that some persons are unworthy to receive. But he is clearly not speaking of denying Communion to persons who consider themselves worthy, after examining their conscience and consulting with their confessor. Paul is rather speaking of those who either do not examine their consciences, or who disregard their own grave sins, and yet receive:

[1 Cor]
{11:28} But let a man examine himself, and, in this way, let him eat from that bread, and drink from that cup.
{11:29} For whoever eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks a sentence against himself, not discerning it to be the body of the Lord.

Thus, Canon 915 is not a direct implementation of a teaching of Scripture, nor a direct expression of dogma. Communion may be given to sinners who are baptized Christians and who are not conscious of unrepentant actual mortal sin. Orthodox Christians can be given Communion, even though they reject many teachings of the Catholic Church. A Protestant can receive Communion at his or her Catholic Wedding Mass (mixed marriage), despite not converting to Catholicism. And the Roman Pontiff has the authority, whether self-exalting canon lawyers like it or not, to loosen the discipline for Communion, extending it to Catholic persons who believe themselves to be in good conscience, despite objective mortal sin.

Basically, the claim that Canon 915 is “divinely rooted”, and a reflection of “universally binding divine law itself,” is just a clever way to try to bind the Vicar of Christ to the opinion of modern-day doctors of the law. And I take issue with the claim that only canon lawyers are qualified to discuss this issues. Grave questions affecting so many of the faithful are rightly considered and discussed by all believing and practicing Catholics.

My preference for Communion discipline is that anyone guilty of any objective mortal sin, even if it is not manifest, even if it lacks the full culpability of actual mortal sin, should generally not receive Communion. The basis for this denial of Communion is usually Canon 916, which is based on conscience. But there are a number of public sinners who should be denied Communion under 915, other than the divorced and remarried. It is bizarre that so many commentators are wailing loudly about the divorced and remarried, when, without any exaggeration, the vast majority of Catholics who receive Communion are also guilty of unrepentant objective mortal sin. And yet we hear nothing from these papal critics about those grave sins and reception of Communion.

Eventually, the Church will deny Communion to anyone guilty of objective mortal sin. That is not the only possible reasonable discipline. But I consider that the next conservative Pope will have to deal with this issue. And if he responds according to a conservative point of view, he will deny Communion to ALL who are guilty of ANY objective mortal sin. The result will be that most Catholics will be told they cannot receive, will stop attending Mass, and will stop donating money to the Church. And then the Church will be struck by a severe crisis. Most parishes will be forced to close — yes, MOST parishes. Most Catholics will stop calling themselves Catholic or Christian and will lead wholly secular lives.

And this dispute about Communion for the divorced and remarried is the start of it all. It’s like a cartoon character who pulls on the thread of a sweater, and then not only the whole sweater, but the whole character wearing the sweater, unravels into a pile of threads on the floor. How do you not see this coming? How do you see an arrow, flying toward a target, and not realize that the arrow will soon strike the target?

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

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4 Responses to Is Canon 915 a reflection of a universally binding divine law itself?

  1. Dora says:

    It seems one of the great “scandals” is the Catholic bureaucracy. My RCI candidate was in a situation where her Protestant husband’s ex-wife (Catholic) was playing hard to get with the tribunal and questions about the prior marriage. The ex-wife had incredible power and she knew it, and any testimony from her might be suspect due to animosity toward the ex-husband and/or the church. Sure enough, my candidate had to sit out the Easter Vigil, and as a matter of fact, I don’t see her at church anymore. She was a blank slate and had just baptized her daughter. So I understand the new emphasis on conscience — within limits of course. Otherwise, it’s as if the church is chasing away members.

  2. Matt Z. says:

    Personally Ron if you committed an objective mortal sin would you refrain from Communion until Sacramental Confession?

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