A corrective to some of Prof. Buttiglione’s recent assertions about canon law

October 6, 2017

It is simply not possible for me to re-explain, every time I address the latest canonical misstatements proffered by some writer or another, the whole canon law on the reception of holy Communion and the administration of that Sacrament by ministers. Further information on those crucial topics is available elsewhere. Here I comment only to caution others that some of Prof. Rocco Buttiglione’s recent comments on the administration and reception of holy Communion are not canonically sound.

Readers might recall that a year or so ago Buttiglione authored an essay alleging that divorced-and-remarried Catholics had been excommunicated until John Paul II courageously eliminated that supposed sanction from the 1983 Code. I showed that no such excommunication existed in universal law (searching back more than 100 years) and suggested then that Buttiglione was not a reliable historian of canon law. To my knowledge he did not modify his claims. Oh well.

Now Buttiglione has authored another essay, this time against the Correctio Filialis.  As stated earlier I have no position on the Correctio itself but I pause to suggest that, once again, Buttiglione has misunderstood and/or misrepresented some important, if this time more subtle, canonical points. Our discussion is hampered by Buttiglione’s failure to specify exactly which disciplinary norms he has in mind at various stages of his essay. Sorry, we’ll proceed as best we can.

For example, Buttiglione writes:

There is an absolute impossibility of giving Eucharist to those who are in mortal sin (and this rule is of Divine law and therefore imperative) but if, due to the lack of full knowledge and full consent, there is no mortal sin, communion can be given, from the point of view of moral theology, also to a remarried-and-divorced. There is also another prohibition, not moral but legal. Extra-marital coexistence clearly contradicts the law of God and generates scandal. In order to protect the faith of the people and strengthen the conscience of the indissolubility of marriage, legitimate authority may decide not to give communion to remarried-and-divorced even if they are not in mortal sin. However, this rule is a human law and the legitimate authority can allow exceptions for good reason.

There are many canonical mistakes in the above passage though I will deal with only three at present. Also I will rephrase some of Buttiglione’s words because I think bad translations might have interfered with his message.

(1) There is an absolute impermissibility of giving the Eucharist to those who are in mortal sin.

This claim is wrong. Setting aside the impossibility of one human being knowing for sure whether any other human being is “in mortal sin”—why do so many people think that reading souls is part of a canon lawyer’s stock-in-trade?—it is quite possible, indeed, canonically required, to administer holy Communion publicly to members of the Christian faithful whom a minister suspects (perhaps on excellent evidence) to be “in mortal sin” unless all five elements of Canon 915 (obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin) are simultaneously satisfied. This is standard sacramental law, yet Buttiglione seems unaware of this norm and unaware that Canon 18 requires its strict interpretation such that, doubtless and sadly, sacrilegious Communions can be made in accord with Church law—something hardly possible if divine law absolutely prohibited it. This botching of a crucial point in his argument does not instill confidence that Buttiglione will handle other points reliably.

(2) Extra-marital cohabitation clearly contradicts the law of God and generates scandal.

Sometimes false. I am aware of no divine law that prohibits “extra-marital cohabitation” per se (let one alone “clearly” prohibiting it) and can imagine situations wherein such “cohabitation” (not extra-marital sex, but cohabitation), strictly speaking, could be prudently countenanced, at least for a time (complex discussion omitted). Rather I suspect that Buttiglione is, wittingly or not, confusing “cohabitation” with “divorce-and-remarriage” and thereby substituting what the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2384 describes as “a situation of public and permanent adultery” for something that mightbe morally acceptable. Again, such an assertion hardly exhibits the level of precision that discussion of these points requires.

(3) To protect the faith of the people and to strengthen the respect for the indissolubility of marriage, legitimate authority may decide not to give communion to remarried-and-divorced even if they are not in mortal sin. However, this rule is a human law and the legitimate authority can allow exceptions for good reason.

Again Buttiglione assumes that ministers and canonists know who is “in mortal sin” and who isn’t. For the last time, that’s balderdash. But more to the point, Buttiglione’s earlier erroneous assertion that divine law always prohibits ministers from giving holy Communion to persons “in mortal sin” (assuming we even know who they are), returns now to create new confusion between canons resting on divine law (as some do) and canons supposedly resting on mere human law (such as, one surmises, Buttiglione believes Canon 915 does when it prohibits administration of holy Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics) which law, because it is ‘just a law’, and not ‘morals’, can supposedly be changed.

But, as has been explained numerous times, Canon 915, operating in the face of obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin (here, the sin of contradicting the permanence of marriage by purporting to marry again while a prior spouse is yet alive), prohibits ministers from giving holy Communion to certain persons when such administration causes scandal to others, scandal being defined by the Catechism as “a grave offense” which is worsened “when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others”. CCC 2284-2287. In other words, Canon 915 rests at least in part on divine law, the divine law that prohibits, among other things, anyone (especially ministers of the Church!) from giving scandal to others. Buttiglione seems unaware of this aspect of Canon 915.

Canon 915 is not about withholding holy Communion from a couple that one thinks is illicitly “doing it”; it is about withholding holy Communion when its administration would lead the community to, here, doubt the gravity of the contradiction that civil divorce-and-remarriage gives to marriage as proclaimed by Christ and his Church. Even the much-invoked and usually misunderstood “brother-sister” accommodation is to be considered only if the couple’s status as divorced-and-remarried outside the Church is not known in the community (and if the couple promises continence which, obviously, ministers cannot monitor). But at this point, I must repeat that these wider matters are explained elsewhere, and my focus now is on Buttiglione’s latest essay, which essay, I think I have shown, is not a reliable guide to the canonistics in question here.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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