A Pop Quiz on Canon 915

Eamonn Clark, STL

In my recent post on introducing Canon 915, I had hoped to help bring some clarity to the discussion about “worthiness,” Holy Communion, and political life. Evidently, the Bishop of San Diego is not reading my blog. So, it is time for a pop quiz. See if you can spot what is wrong with this introductory paragraph in the Bishop’s May 5th article for America Magazine.

“In the six months since the 2020 election, a growing movement has emerged in the church in the United States that calls upon the bishops of our nation to publicly exclude President Joseph R. Biden and other Catholic public officials from the Eucharist. Those who support this action make a concise, three-part argument: The president supports positions on abortion that clearly depart from the teaching of the church on an extremely grave moral issue; the long tradition of the church requires personal worthiness to receive the Eucharist; and the persistent rejection of clear Catholic teaching extinguishes that worthiness.”

One might make a number of observations about this paragraph (and the rest of the article, which is overall a fine example of a bad argument made well), but there is a singularly fatal defect in these opening lines. It is not so much what is said but rather what is not said (and which is never mentioned in the article). What is it? What is the key principle that is lacking which sets up the rest of the Bishop’s case against what he calls a “theology of unworthiness”?

The answer is that Canon 915, which is the hinge of the whole discussion, is not a law binding recipients of Holy Communion in relation to personal worthiness, as is implied by the Bishop (who never actually mentions canon law at all, oddly enough) and which is even believed by many well-intentioned “conservative” clergy and laity. Rather, Canon 915 is a law which binds the minister of Holy Communion in relation to the possibility of giving scandal, in this case, a scandal of imitation. If a Catholic who publicly and obstinately supports or tolerates in principle the murder of innocent children can receive Holy Communion, onlookers can and eventually will infer that such support or toleration is not at odds with what is required of a disciple of the Lord, thus becoming liable to take up such behavior themselves. (And yes, this certainly would and should extend to other obstinate public support or habitual commission of grave intrinsic evils… even some kinds of racism!) The minister of Holy Communion then becomes a teacher of bad morals in the very act of distributing the Sacrament.

THIS IS THE BASIC PROBLEM. NOT PERSONAL WORTHINESS. Personal worthiness is the purview of Canon 916, and it involves a separate discussion.

Furthermore, there is a universal legal code the Church has which tells us all of this when read in its proper context in light of the interpretive tradition that accompanies it. So why there would ever be a need for a “national policy” on such things is, frankly, beyond me. We profess belief in a universal/catholic Church, not in a collection of national Churches. There is already a world-wide “policy” which is simply being misunderstood or ignored.

Not 100% of the issue could be solved by turning attention to what the law actually says… but it would definitely be a good start.

Hidden Signs in the Final Resurrection Appearance in John’s Gospel

Eamonn Clark, STL

The Sea of Galilee is a very important symbol in the Gospels. Briefly, it stands for the possibility of life – with the Jordan River running southward to the Dead Sea (“not life”), close to which we find the Baptismal Site (hidden in the valley which is the lowest point on planet Earth). To the west is the Land of Promise, to the east are the Nations, especially Assyria and Persia. Canaan was also initially entered from the east bank, after the Exodus from Egypt. It should then be no surprise that the Word habitually enjoys hovering over the waters of Galilee – by natural means (like a boat) and by supernatural means (like without a boat!) – and exercising power over the life hiding in the darkness beneath.

In John’s Gospel, we find the strange and stirring encounter with the apostles by the shore of the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection. There are many signs, but let’s focus today on just a few.

The first thing to note is that Greek has two words for “life” – bios (like “biology”), which means physical or bodily life, and zoe (like “zoology”), which means something more like a fulfillment of one’s purpose in possessing physical life, some kind of spiritual “living-ness.” When the Lord claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, He uses the word “zoe,” not “bios.” (John 14:6)

The Sea of Galilee was and still is a real means of supporting physical life, but merely chasing after sustenance is not what human beings exist for. Mere bios is not worth the effort and eventually becomes futile – we need zoe. As it turns out, the same Lord Who controls the weather and fish in the Sea of Galilee is zoe itself. What is merely biologically alive can and ought to become spiritually alive as well in Christ. We see this symbolized by the fish in the Sea of Galilee.

The Lord has fish already cooking on the beach, though only just a few. As we know, the apostles will haul in a miraculous catch of 153 large fish – a clear sign of the Nations (of which there were reckoned to be 153). The Lord has caught several fish in Canaan during His public ministry – those He is already cooking, perhaps two, maybe symbolizing the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah? – but the main work will be done by the apostles and their successors. They will participate in His grace to help souls come to Him. This approach, after the initial work of “catching” by preaching, pulling souls out of the chaotic darkness of worldly waters, entails a threefold process of initiation and sanctification.

First, the fish are pulled up out of the water, dying to their old life, allowing their nature to be changed in view of something higher which awaits them. This is surely Baptism. Then, the fish are to be cooked in the fire, changing them even further, brightening them and filling them with heat and light. Of course, we can only think of Confirmation. At last, what all of this is for, on the biological level, the fish are consumed, by the Lord… Which is precisely the point of the Eucharist, namely, to be united with Christ in His very Flesh and Blood. (To be sure, that we are eating and drinking Him is no obstacle to Him consuming us as well, though in a different way.)

All of this corresponds rather neatly with the three great ages of the spiritual life as well. From the sea, we have the initial conversion, leaving behind mere biological cares without greater purpose, and even the beginning of purgation. From the fire, we have the continuation of purgation and the entry into illumination and purity. And at the meal, we have union.

Thus, in these few short verses, we see at a minimum a description of the entire mission of the Church, a catechesis on the Jews and Gentiles, a theology of the Sacraments of Initiation, and a fundamental outline of the basic pattern of the spiritual life.

The CDF Declaration: A Meta-Reaction

Eamonn Clark, STL

For those who are outside of “Church-news world”, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (to oversimplify by some magnitudes – the “doctrine officials” for the Catholic Church) put out a statement not long ago stating that the Church cannot bless same-sex unions, which statement was approved by the Holy Father Pope Francis. This has triggered a number of reactions…

My favorite comment was from Orthodox Jew and conservative political commentator, Ben Shapiro, posting a reply to the AP’s headline on Twitter (March 15)… the line read: “In which we learn that the Catholic Church believes in Catholicism.” This is the most appropriate reaction – it is a “nothingburger,” insofar as there is nothing new here, as even pointed out by a certain archbishop of Chicago. What is newsworthy is that such a statement was made at all, precisely given the fact of its lack of novelty. The impetus, of course, was primarily the “Synodal Path” in Germany.

Other reactions, ranging from shock to anger to sadness to accusations of various types, I submit, should be understood in light of the foregoing. Unless one was truly unaware of the constant teaching of the Church on marriage, sexuality, and sacramentals, the problem likely lies elsewhere, probably deriving from a warped understanding of what the Church is.

The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. When the Church truly teaches something regarding faith or morals, those data are to be definitively held as true – by the authority of God Himself, in Christ, through His Mystical Body. Surely, many people do not know that this is what the Church sees Herself as – they therefore wonder why the pope doesn’t just “update” Catholicism to suit the tastes of today’s Western progressive elites (or any other group). Such people could use a healthy dose of study on the topics of apostolic succession, papal infallibility, and basic Catholic ecclesiology. This would at least remove some of the surprise when the Church doesn’t “get with the times.” (For what it’s worth, St. Augustine noted similar criticisms of the Church in his own era, some 1,600 years ago.)

The Church is also not a club, or an ethnicity, or a “cultural heritage.” This was much the attitude of many of the Jews whom Our Lord dealt with in the pages of the Gospels. Being a “son of Abraham” in the flesh does not save a person anymore than having went to Catholic school, having been an altar server, having some kind of relationship with the local parish, etc., and yet this is unfortunately what “Catholicism” means to many people who consider themselves to be Catholic. The high priest Caiphas was not really a Jew, you see, or else he would have recognized the coming of the Christ which Judaism is all about.

What is more interesting than the uncatechized and unchurched masses of millennials and Gen-Z’ers having such a negative reaction to a direct reiteration of basic Catholic moral-sacramental teaching is a similar response from clergy. The cloud of priests and bishops trying to do “damage control” on the CDF’s statement are, unfortunately, a great starting point for considering the entrance into Holy Week. Minimizing the necessity of the need to suffer and deny oneself in order to do God’s will is not an admirable impulse in clerics, but it is not a new one either.

We turn to a small group of men gathered around the Lord one day in Caesarea Philippi. In that area, there was a very large rock, under which there was a cave with a spring gushing forth a little stream. This place (close to the Temple of Pan) was considered an entrance into the underworld, where the demons – or pagan deities, especially fertility “gods” – would come up from sometimes, especially in winter. All kinds of sexual perversion took place there in “worship” of these demons. This was all quite well-known.

“Who do others say that I am?” The answers were given – John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the other prophets – a report of empirical observations which anyone could make about what is going on in the world. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gives his confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Flesh and blood did not reveal this, as with the answer to the former question; rather, it was God Who taught it to the blessed soul of Simon bar-Jonah, who is henceforth finally to be known to all as Cephas, Peter, the Rock. The Gates of Hell – as symbolized by the source of the little spring in Caesarea Philippi – will not prevail against the Church, which will rest upon Peter’s public teaching and public ministry, which will bind and loose in the power of the Holy Spirit, unlike the squabbles between the Jewish schools of Hillel and Shammai that were raging at the time, over how to wash one’s hands, how to pick grapes, etc…

Then it all goes south – first metaphorically, then literally, back down toward Jerusalem. Christ begins to speak about the Cross… and we know that Peter, the newly appointed public representative of the Twelve and of the whole Church, immediately fails in his new role, albeit in a semi-private conversation. Peter’s failures continue all the way until the triple-denial of the Lord while in the courtyard, when he finally completes the trajectory of his hope for a worldly messiah who would solve the problems of the day by natural means. Perhaps many are still following this part of Peter, the weak and private side of his life and ministry. It is a hope which will disappoint – there is no Resurrection without death.

Luke gives us the following speech from Christ after Peter’s declaration of faith at Caesarea Philippi. “And He said to all: ‘If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.'” (Luke 9:23-26)

The Cross awaited the Lord down in Jerusalem, and so too do crosses await for anyone who wishes to follow Him. He said this Himself: “Anyone who does not pick up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” (Luke 14:27; Matthew 10:38) And those who counsel the would-be followers of the Lord to avoid their crosses do no better than Peter at Caesarea Philippi. It was the Devil speaking through Peter that day. We know this not only from the words of Christ’s rebuke (“Get behind Me, Satan!”), but also from the experience already had by the Lord in the desert… He was tempted by Satan to jump from the Temple and fly around Jerusalem to coerce belief in His power by an open miracle, as opposed to the signs He worked in hidden ways (in the chaos of a crowd, in the obscurity of a storm, etc.), before dying and rising. No – the Cross must be endured… no short cuts, no softening of the blows, and no way out. Those who climb over the fence instead of going through the gate are robbers and thieves. (John 10:1) Here, on the Cross, the desires of the body must be denied, even the desire for biological life itself. And yet in giving up biological life, a higher life is obtained. With this consideration we can begin to enter into the heart of the Paschal Mystery… This is what Holy Week is the platform for.

The rebukes that the disciples will receive after the Resurrection are accusations of not having understood the teaching of the Scriptures that “the Son of Man must suffer and so enter into His glory.” The disciples were not stupid – but something blocked their minds nonetheless. There is some kind of willful blindness, both in reading the Scriptures and even listening to the Lord directly. One is inclined to make a connection between the darkness of the minds of the Apostles before the Resurrection and the failure of “academically sophisticated” clergy who either cannot understand that unnatural sexual acts are horrible offenses against the Creator, cannot make the clear distinction between blessing a person and blessing a relationship which constitutes and is even centered upon a near occasion of sin (a distinction which the CDF document went out of its way to stress), or both.

All who wish to explain away or even merely compromise the clear teaching of the Church on any number of moral imperatives often take up where the Devil left off in the desert and where Peter left off at Caesarea Philippi. The Devil gave good arguments for taking an easier way – “Use your power to eat and to feed many forever, to appear openly without suffering, to make a compromise to gain everything in the world…” The Devil used argumentation based on Scripture. He was quite sophisticated and apparently reasonable. And yet he was and is a liar.

A road that is wide and easy is rarely the way through the Cross, even if that road is “synodal” or claims to be “merciful,” “accompanying,” “pastoral,” and so on. The gate to life is narrow and the road to life is hard. (Matthew 7:14) Christ alone is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. (John 14:6) Those who wish to be saved from everlasting death must enter into the Lord through His Cross, the new “doorpost and lintel,” marked with the Blood of the Lamb, the Blood of the New Covenant. (Exodus 12:7) It is a gate that is narrow – our many sins and attachments cannot fit through but must be left behind… and yet it is a wide gate as well, ready to welcome all, Jew and Gentile both. And the “burden” of virtuous living is an easy one to carry for those who love the Lord as a true friend. (Matthew 11:30) True pastors encourage souls to carry their crosses and help them to do so – one gets the idea today that the opposite is the case: that the role of the priest is to convince souls they do not need to carry crosses, at least not “moral crosses,” and to help them put those crosses down.

We must not be ashamed of our Friend, or His Word, or His Cross, even if we gain the whole world thereby. We must follow Him all the way to Golgotha – a place where the Lord alone satisfies and where Divine Love was shown even more than on Mount Tabor, in the Transfiguration which directly followed the failure of Peter at Caesarea Philippi. To be deprived of Tabor is frustrating… but to be deprived of Golgotha is the ultimate tragedy.

The time for protests, petitions, and pressers will soon be at an end. Eternity will not allow for “nuanced” debates, and all souls will be utterly helpless before their destinies, then sealed forever. In the end, the Church and Her Faith will prevail. She will identify the demons that have crept up from the underworld and roam the Earth, and She will confess the Deity and Lordship of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Who will have all subjected to Himself. (1 Corinthians 15:28) Today, then, is the day – “Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” You can carry the cross which the Lord Himself has handed to you – and it is the only way to true happiness in this life, and it is the only way to everlasting glory in the next.

A blessed Holy Week to all my readers, near and far.

A Short Introduction to Canon 915

Eamonn Clark, STL

“Weaponizing the Eucharist” is a phrase I have now unfortunately heard from several clergy, most recently the Bishop of San Diego (1:18:00) attempting to persuade people that the President of the United States (and others), despite perfectly clear, consistent, and efficacious support for abortion, should not be denied Holy Communion. Of course, this relates to the meaning and application of the ever-relevant Canon 915, which describes the conditions for the public reception of the Eucharist.

In this post, I want to give a very brief primer on this severely misunderstood law. (In this task, I rely largely on the great work of Dr. Ed Peters, whose trove of resources on this point can be accessed here, along with other items of interest.) For what it is worth, I am not a trained canonist but have done a good deal of study of this area of the law.

The text of the Canon 915 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law is as follows: “915. Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”

For this post, we leave aside the first part of the canon, which is more or less straightforward and is rarely at issue. (Whether such mechanisms should be used with more frequency is a different question, but it is one worth asking.)

So, we shall go through each of the parts of the second part of the canon (“obstinate perseverance/persistence,” “manifest,” “grave,” and “sin”), but first we will look at two other things: first, what the canon does NOT say, and second, what is the relevant proximate context of the canon which is required for understanding its meaning.

What does the canon NOT say? Well, to cut to the point, obviously the canon does not add qualifiers beyond what it actually contains. The word “dialogue” is missing, one can note immediately, though dialogue in the right sense is important indeed. And while the “judgment of a proper authority” can sometimes be quite important and relevant, this relates to a specific phrase already included in the canon (“obstinately persist”) and so the more general judgment of the pastor, the bishop, etc. is actually not very relevant. Perhaps a wealthy “pro-choice” donor to the diocese will cease his donations if he is denied Holy Communion, and the bishop does not like that consequence and judges it would be better not to make this person upset. Well, this is quite unfortunate, and the judgment is wrong. It is not the purpose of the canon to preserve the financial (or political/diplomatic) integrity of a diocese, a parish, etc. These things, while important, sit beneath what the canon obliges, not above it, as is clear from the common sense effects that any sort of public humiliation could possibly have – as if we are only now first discovering “mercy” and “dialogue” and realizing that politicians and wealthy people (and others with influence) can bully or help the Church in various ways, and that this might depend on how such people are treated by the Church, including in the public administration of the sacraments… Of course we are not only first learning about all this. This is very old news. In the most proper sense, the “proper authority” is whoever is functioning in the moment as the minister of Holy Communion, and other judgments are secondary – the canon especially obliges bishops and pastors, but it directly obliges anyone administering the Eucharist in public. As Newman put it, “A toast to the Pope, but first to the conscience.” I certainly understand the squeeze that this puts many people in. But those taking up the grave task of assisting in the distribution of Holy Communion – most of all, clergy – need to gird their loins and be prepared for contradictions. (Coincidentally, this is one more reason to diminish the prolific use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, especially “on the fly.”)

Note that the word “conscience” is missing, as is “sacrilege.” More on that in a bit, as clearly they do somehow play a role, but they are not the direct concern of the canon.

The two pieces of context which I wish to present here are the following: first, Canon 855 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the current Code’s predecessor, which helps us to understand the legal framework out of which the current Code was developed and must be interpreted within to a significant degree. Second, Canon 916, which, as one might expect, immediately follows Canon 915.

Canon 855 of the 1917 CIC reads as follows, with its two sections: “855 §1. All those publicly unworthy are to be barred from the Eucharist, such as excommunicates, those interdicted, and those manifestly infamous, unless their penitence and emendation are shown and they have satisfied beforehand the public scandal [they have caused]. §2. But occult sinners, if they ask secretly and the minister knows they are unrepentant, should be refused; but not, however, if they ask publicly and they cannot be passed over without scandal.”

From this text, we begin to get an idea of what Canon 915 is up to. Let’s look at Canon 916 before drawing our conclusions here: “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.”

From Canon 916, we see by inference that Canon 915 is not a law binding the would-be communicant, it is a law binding the minister of Holy Communion. The language of Canon 915 is already talking about “admittance,” but 916 helps us to see with precision that the one bound by this law is the minister, not the would-be communicant. Canon 916, on the other hand, binds the would-be communicant.

From these two texts together, we can conclude that there is a distinction between the reception of Holy Communion in private and reception in public. The difference relates to what the 1917 Code refers to explicitly, and the 1983 Code refers to implicitly, which is scandal. Thus, the law is concerned with two things – the soul of the would-be communicant, and scandalizing others looking on at his reception (and even scandalizing the recipient himself). In public reception, in fact, it is the primary concern of the law, as demonstrated by the fact that the 1917 Code requires ministers to cooperate with what he knows with good certitude to be a sacrilegious reception of Holy Communion.

There are two types of scandal to consider here: “imitatio” and “admiratio”… The former is connected with known sins, the latter with secret sins. The scandal of “imitatio” (imitation) is to teach others that a sin is not a sin – or at least not grave sin, in this case – and thus to imitate it, while the scandal of “admiratio” (wonder) comes after a denial of Holy Communion which encourages others to inquire into the motive for that denial, thus creating untold gossip, prying, and possibly the complete ruin of a person’s good name. And, after all, who knows, maybe the person who did some very terrible thing in secret which the minister happens to know about has actually already made confession or at least a good act of contrition (with a grave reason for receiving Holy Communion and no prior opportunity to confess), or was even for some reason not gravely culpable for his sin. However, if his action was public, people already presumably know about it and will not go hunting for information. Thus, the known sin is also typically presumed to be known by the minister as well… thus possibly putting the minister into the role of a teacher of morals.

Now we are ready to look at the individual conditions laid out in Canon 915. Remember, this canon relates to the public reception of Holy Communion only (whereas Canon 916 and its roots in Canon 855 §2 would correspond to private reception), and ALL of the conditions need to be present for the canon to be justly applied. (This is where many well-meaning and “conservative” people can go astray – it is actually quite difficult, outside of a few textbook cases, to meet ALL of the criteria.) We will start with the end and work our way back.

Sin

In morals, “sin” is a voluntary deed, word, or thought against the preceptive will of God. Some might be surprised to know that there is a category outside of morals which “sin” relates to – well, there is, and it is canon law, our present concern. “Sin” in canon law does not actually always mean the same thing as it does in morals, though of course it is connected. Rather, sin in the canonical sense, as used in Canon 915 in particular, corresponds to an outward reality which is able to be judged by onlookers, not a reality of the soul of the individual. More specifically, “canonical sin” is a “moral sin” as judged by people with well-formed consciences that might observe the act. For example, a man takes some hostages in a bank robbery and begins to murder them one by one. A person with a well-formed conscience who sees this act would reasonably assume that this man is committing sin in the moral sense. However, if we suppose that the robber is actually a schizophrenic or has some other serious mental disability, he may actually bear no moral guilt at all. And yet, until his mental condition is made known publicly, thus clarifying his lack of guilt, he would be guilty of the kind of sin which Canon 915 speaks about.

Grave

The sin must be grave. It cannot be venial sin, which is an unfortunate part of everyone’s daily life. It must be sin of the sort which, according to its matter, separates a soul from the love of God. (Recall the immediately preceding point – it is not the concern of Canon 915 whether one is gravely culpable for the sin or not. In the bank robbery example, the act is pretty clearly grave matter, despite the schizophrenic robber’s lack of guilt.)

Manifest

This is where Canon 855 of the 1917 Code is helpful, as it makes this distinction very explicit. In public administration of the Eucharist (and other sacraments by extension), the immediately invisible disposition of the soul of the individual is irrelevant for whether or not they have a claim on the minister of the sacrament to receive it. If we reimagine our bank robbery to have been a heist, in which the pastor of the local parish was involved as a conspirator, the successful heist is a grave sin indeed but one which is unknown as being connected to any given individuals. If Father decides to celebrate the parish’s daily mass the next morning (which is its own problem, as the canon also notes,) and his co-conspirator presents himself for Holy Communion, Father cannot deny him Holy Communion based on their secret crime. It matters not one bit whether there is any realistic chance of there having been confession, contrition, reparation, or even regret. The grave sin is not manifest, it is secret. However, if his co-conspirator arrived at the rectory and asked to receive Holy Communion privately outside of the normal parish mass, there would indeed be grounds for denial – it is a clear sacrilege, unless he has made confession or has some grave reason to receive after a perfect act of contrition (which is not particularly realistic, of course).

Obstinate Perseverance

The manifest grave sin must be intentionally habitual, not a “one off” or some occasional act. Sometimes this comes by implication of the person himself – such as the public contraction of an obviously illicit “marital” union. In the standard sort of case, a person’s manifest grave sin is rightly judged to be obstinately perseverant after an explicit warning given to that same person by the proper authority, such as the pastor or the bishop. (This is where the judgment of the pastor or bishop would be relevant. He may have given a warning with the condition to make public amends by such-and-such a time. So in these cases, those assisting the pastor and bishop in distributing Holy Communion are “off the hook.”) However, some cases are so clearly grave that one or two acts without public reparation or apology would suffice of themselves to constitute obstinate perseverance, without the need for any special decision or declaration from the bishop or pastor. This would seem very much to be the case with voting in favor of intrinsically and egregiously immoral acts, such as abortion, euthanasia, etc. (While such a person perhaps might have some special and secret strategic reason for such voting behavior which would justify his outwardly horrific action, this is truly abnormal and would still exclude the individual from publicly receiving Holy Communion, though not privately. I will explore this strange kind of case in an upcoming book on the topic of voting… Stay tuned.) It could also apply to political symbols being used during the reception of Holy Communion itself (i.e. a “rainbow sash” – and one can even imagine the wearer of such a thing being ignorant of its actual meaning, thus removing subjective guilt but still meeting all of the conditions of the canon).

Practical Conclusions

The claim that merely enforcing the legislation of the Church which sits upon apostolic roots and is primarily aimed at protecting weak souls from being led astray is “weaponizing the Eucharist” is simply absurd. The law is there in part to protect the individual would-be communicant from committing sacrilege (normally), but it is primarily to prevent people from being taught that grave sin is not so bad (including the would-be communicant himself). In the case of pro-abortion politicians, clergy who support “mercy” and “dialogue” over enforcing a rather low bar in the Church’s law actively teach Catholics and non-Catholics alike that the Church does not consider abortion to be particularly sinful, such that one who tries to expand legal rights to abortion by a public vote can still carry on a loving relationship with Jesus Christ, which is the whole center of the reception of the Eucharist. This is false. (Alternatively, the lesson could be that the Eucharist is not that important, or that a good reception does not require the state of grace, etc. – also false.) A clear-thinking adult who deliberately supports the direct killing of the unborn or even deliberately tolerates it as acceptable, cannot be a friend of God and thus cannot receive Holy Communion, at least under Canon 916 by committing sacrilege, even if not barred under Canon 915. We are gravely bound to understand the basic requirements of the 5th Commandment, which includes understanding what a human being is in a basic way. And those who are bound to know well both ecclesiastical and moral law who neglect their duty as shepherds of souls in this respect, as in others, will have to answer for their actions and inactions on the Last Day. It is indeed a terrifying thought to think of what that “dialogue” will look like.

We do not need more “dialogue” here, we need more good instruction and more good examples. We need to focus on saving those who are hovering in the middle of the divide – not on trying to pretend that despite the angry mob’s commitment to egregious sins, we can still find enough common ground to have a healthy ecclesial relationship in the bonds of mutual charity. This was more or less the thinking of St. Paul, for example, when he counsels the excommunication of heretics from even the social life of the Church after one or two warnings. (See Titus 3:10 and especially 1 Corinthians 5 – where is the call for dialogue!?)

There is more to talk about, including but not limited to the extension of the logic of this law to other acts of sacramental administration, but for now I give the last word to Cardinal Arinze… Let us pray for our bishops and our governors, and for the protection of the most vulnerable in our world.

Blessing the Hour

Eamonn Clark, STL

There are a few Marian devotions which have become extremely popular over the centuries. The rosary of course, but also the Angelus (at 6:00 AM, 12:00 PM, and 6:00 PM), and the ubiquitous May Crowning devotions. All beautiful and worthy exercises of piety. However, there is another devotion which is shorter, simpler, and practiced by several saints, including St. John Vianney and St. Anthony Claret, two of my personal favorites. It is called “blessing the hour.”

It goes like this. Every waking hour, on the hour, one prays a “Hail Mary,” dedicating the following 60 minutes to Our Lady. 8:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” 9:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” 10:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” Etc.

That’s it.

By doing this, one reminds oneself to sanctify the whole day. It’s a great opportunity to pause, for just 10 seconds, and consider whether one is living up to the standards of the Gospel given the activities of the preceding hour, and then to make a resolution to do better in the next hour, asking the Blessed Virgin Mary for her help. She certainly likes to be asked for such favors, and she certainly likes to grant them – so why deny her the pleasure, meanwhile denying ourselves of her powerful help?

Over time, this practice will help one to keep up a constant kind of awareness and familiarity with the Lord and His Mother, in accord with St. Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17) If we are intent on one day making our eternity to be with such Friends, we ought to get in the happy habit of conversing with them at least every 60 minutes, no? And so, at the hour of our death, we are ready to spend every minute like those ten seconds each hour, but with so much more pleasure, peace, and love:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Main image: A statue of the Virgin with Child, outside Santa Sabina, in Rome

Ordinary Magisterium – what is it and why does it matter?

Eamonn Clark, STL

There has been a bundle of contentious theological topics in the past few years erupting into very public and occasionally nasty debates. Some of the contentious character of these debates comes from the subject matter at hand, while others are also resting in part on the issue of the “ordinary magisterium”… Some might think it is obvious what this strange sounding phrase means, while some are completely unaware.

Well, it is not particularly obvious. In fact, there are multiple meanings of the phrase, and this, I suggest has been part of the problem. Before tackling it: what are some of the topics that are at stake in the question of the ordinary magisterium?

Abortion… contraception… women’s ordination… capital punishment… homosexuality and transgenderism… the administration of the sacraments to those in illicit unions… and even usury.

If all these (and more) are on the table, it’s important to get the question of “ordinary magisterium” right.

First, “magisterium.” This means “teaching,” or more specifically a “teaching office/function” plain and simple. The cleric, especially the bishop, is normally called and bound to instruct the faithful in right doctrine. Without right knowledge, how will there be right love? It is not possible to love what is not known. Therefore, the data of revelation are to be delivered, explained, and defended by clergy.

Second, “ordinary.” This means – you guessed it – normal. Ordinary magisterial teaching is the normal kind. This implies that there is also an “abnormal” kind, which we call the “extraordinary magisterium.”

The extraordinary magisterium is the one that is a bit more familiar as a category. It consists of two parts: the canonical teachings of Ecumenical Councils which are accepted and promulgated by the pope, and the rare act of a pope defining some point “ex cathedra,” such as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both of these enjoy the status of infallibility. Note that the subject of extraordinary magisterial teaching is the pope, either alone or together with a Council.

The ordinary magisterium has more than two parts, and it has two kinds of subjects. First, the subjects. The pope certainly has an ordinary magisterium, such as daily homilies, encyclicals, and catechisms he may write, but so too does every bishop, who are also competent to teach in similar ways, viz., daily preaching, pastoral letters, and local catechisms (like the Baltimore Catechism). All the bishops of the Church are also said to exercise this ministry together in a second way, which is a special kind of ordinary magisterial teaching. Under special conditions, the Church Herself (“in se”) is the subject of ordinary magisterial teaching. Thus, when we say “the Church teaches x,” we are frequently appealing to this very thing – yet certain conditions must be met… There must be a broad consensus over time among the bishops, especially the popes. There must be a firm root in Scripture or in liturgy as well, as the Church does not “invent” new teachings, She only articulates what She has already received more clearly. The most notable theologians and saints should also be able to be called on in support of the point – especially St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and other such figures renowned for their learning. If you cannot find one of these four to give direct and explicit support for a moral or dogmatic position on something which they all have spoken about, then you are in big trouble and are very likely just plain wrong.

Also, the Church does not teach that the sky is blue, or that Latin is a cool language. Even if most bishops and popes have taught these things throughout time, we see that neither belongs to the ordinary magisterium because they are not about matters of faith or morals, the proper realm for the Church to teach about, in the magisterial sense. That might seem unimportant, but when you notice that this excludes points of biology, psychology, or sociology, for instance, it becomes much more important – can the Church really teach about issues of life and death, or about criminal justice, or about human sexuality?

Yes, but normally only by “skipping ahead” to the conclusions. For example, the Church in fact does not teach, in the full sense of the word “teach,” that human life begins at conception. (Note that there are distinctions to make about “teaching” – one may not simply ignore what comes from various Roman Congregations like the CDF or even a pope’s daily homilies simply because it’s not extraordinary magisterium – but I believe I have addressed that elsewhere on these pages, using this chart as a guide, and Dr. Feser’s short article on the 5 kinds of magisterial teaching is also helpful. For my readers who might be thinking about thesis topics – “theological notes” would be a great area to explore, starting with Fr. Cartechini’s chart, linked to above.) Perplexingly, even though the biology of conception does not seem to be the matter appropriate for magisterial teaching, a biological truth is nonetheless implied by something which is ordinary universal magisterial teaching, namely, the immorality of abortion. It is explicitly revealed, by the Fifth Commandment, that murder is immoral – however, it is not explicitly revealed that direct abortion constitutes murder… Nevertheless, it is taught to be so. It always has been taught to be so, from the earliest days of the Church, by a wide consensus of bishops, including popes. It has extremely firm Scriptural roots. Every major theologian to speak on it has been in basic agreement. And of course, it is an appropriate matter for magisterial teaching, unlike what color the sky is, or even when and how exactly human life begins in biological terms. Indirectly then, we learn from the Church that human life, in the relevant sense, begins prior to the point when what is called “abortion” is possible. Today, we clearly see that moment to be conception (a fact inaccessible to physicians in earlier ages), though it is beside the point, as even if this were to be discovered to be a false understanding of biology, the truth about direct abortion would remain – it is immoral. This is a teaching which enjoys infallibility.

John Paul II appealed to this kind of datum of the “ordinary magisterium of the Church” in his document on the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. In explaining the text, then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) said much about the character of the Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” which was claimed not to be extraordinary magisterial teaching but only a definitive and authoritative interpretation of the Church’s ordinary magisterium. (Interestingly, one might make a good case that, despite the pope’s insistence to the contrary, he actually exercised his extraordinary magisterium based on the content and purpose of the text… but I digress.) See “Lumen Gentium,” paragraph 25 as well for some background.

This brings us to the issues we are facing today – women’s diaconal ordination being among them, but certainly not the only one. Can a pope simply decide, for example, that a point of speculative or moral doctrine taught in the way we have been discussing as constitutive of the Church’s ordinary magisterium, is “not merciful” and therefore be just plain wrong? While it is indeed possible (and obligatory – as I have talked about here) to read the best continuity into everything a pope says, this sort of unjustifiable “development” is what many seem to be seeing with the question of capital punishment – a point reiterated in the Holy Father’s most recent encyclical. If capital punishment’s liceity in principle does not belong to the ordinary magisterium of the Church, one must wonder what does… How many popes, Fathers, saints, doctors, and major catechisms does it take to interpret the already rather clear texts of Scripture on the point? (I recommend here the work of Dr. Feser once again, in many articles on his blog and of course his book, which is now the standard text on the issue and simply must be dealt with for anyone looking to support the idea that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral – which, by the way, is not even precisely what the Holy Father has actually said.)

On the other hand, there is a topic like usury. But we will leave that hornet’s nest alone and save it maybe for another time.

I hope the point is clear enough. Understanding what the Faith contains means knowing the theological history of the Church, including both the “primary sources” for theology itself where we find revealed truths most clearly organically expressed (Scripture and Liturgy) and the way the Faith has actually been preached and taught and even lived throughout the past two millennia. To know the ordinary magisterium of the universal Church can be difficult – there are maybe a few borderline cases (such as Mary as Mediatrix of all Graces, for example), and getting acquainted with the doctrine of the Church in general can be time-consuming – but it probably helps to know that there is such a universal ordinary magisterium at all, distinct from albeit connected with the ordinary magisterium of the pope and all bishops as individuals.

St. Thomas Aquinas on how to ensure your prayer is answered – in 4 easy steps!

Eamonn Clark, STL

It’s a shocking claim, but it’s eminently sensible… if you want a guaranteed answer to your prayer, you must only do four things. And note that I mean the kind of answer that you are actually looking for, rather than getting something different which God wants for you instead (which would be better for you than your own idea anyway).

St. Thomas Aquinas lays out the four steps, or aspects, in the Summa Theologica, II-II q. 83, a. 15. They are:

To pray piously – If we are asking God for something rudely, as if we are entitled to it, we are not praying very well. A pious prayer is humble, respectful, and sincere.

To pray perseveringly – When we really want something, we will typically keep asking until we obtain it. So it is that when we pray for a favor in a fleeting way, we are not desiring that favor very seriously. Why then should we expect Providence to match our desires? We might fall into presumption if such prayers were answered and end up not even praying piously for favors the next time around.

To pray for what is useful for salvation – Despite what it may seem, God does not actually particularly care about the score of the big football game coming up. (In fact, it can be sinful to pray for certain outcomes in such things, unless one has some extraordinary vested interest in them.) While God will grant little favors sometimes that make our lives more pleasant or convenient, normally by the natural order of things, these are small potatoes. Even miraculous physical healings are low on the list of God’s priorities – just look at how Christ did not open up a miraculous hospital in Galilee to heal every single sick person, though He could have done so. What God really wants is our everlasting friendship.

To pray for oneself – People have free will. They can accept grace or resist it. It is not possible to merit another human being’s salvation, although we can assist in a way. However, when we desire our own salvation we have immediately put ourselves on the right path by that very act of the will. Our free will is moving in the right direction already.

That’s it! It may sound underwhelming, but it’s surely not. With this formula, we can obtain Heaven, thus fulfilling the purpose of our existence. God will never deny a soul that earnestly seeks its own salvation through humble and frequent prayer for favors that relate to growth in charity and avoiding falling into Hell. Do you want to obtain the courage needed to go to Confession? You will have it. Do you want to become more temperate? It will be given to you. Do you want to enjoy a deeper friendship with the Lord and be a great saint? He wants to give it to you. All you must do is ask in the right way, and it is sure to come to you.

Do you have an Admiral Ackbar in your spiritual journey?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Those “in the know” who also have a grip on spiritual theology already know what this post is about. For those who don’t, please allow me to introduce you to Admiral Ackbar, Commander of the Naval fleet of the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire, most notably in the Battle of Endor, as seen in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Read all about it on Wookieepedia. Well, here is his most famous line, with nearly 7 million views to date:

The evil Galactic Empire and yes, even the Sith, are wily and clever… They set traps, and we need someone to yell at us to let us know, as we’re so busy with everything else in our ship. We need an Admiral Ackbar… We need a spiritual director.

“Oh there’s not enough time for Father to do that for me.” Well, if everyone in the parish wanted spiritual direction, that would be the case, but if you bother to read Catholic blogs like this one then you’re probably in a small minority in your parish environment. So I don’t think that’s plausible in your case.

“Well, maybe Father would be able to make the time, but it’s me who’s too busy.” Oh. Okay. That Netflix binge/afternoon tea/yogalates class/whatever it is must be very important to you not to be able to have a serious conversation about your soul for an hour a month. Come on. You can do it, if you prioritize it.

“Okay. Fine. But isn’t spiritual direction really only for priests, seminarians, candidates for religious life, etc.?” No, though they form the bulk of those who are interested (and are normally required to have such a discipline). But if you are really seeking to grow in the spiritual life, you will need help from someone who knows the path before you, who can keep you accountable, and who will tell you bluntly when necessary: it’s a trap! It’s a huge advantage…

So, what are you waiting for? Why not ask someone to be your spiritual Admiral Ackbar today?

“I no longer call you servants…”

Eamonn Clark, STL

Here’s a one-minute Gospel reflection for you today.

We read the Parable of the Wedding Feast at Mass…

The one who shows up without a wedding garment is rejected in the following way:

“How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.

The Last Supper Discourses in John give us the great “turn” from servile fear to filial or reverential fear, acknowledged by Christ in the words (John 15:15), “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

We know that Judas is among them. Now watch (Matthew 26: 48-50):

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Friend. Where is your wedding garment? How did you get in here? I can no longer even call you a servant. You do not know the gift of the Eucharist, you do not know my love, you do not know the Church. You have no virtue, no love for me. You have no wedding garment, you bring the world in with you instead of purity. Friend… The darkness and pain which you lead me to this terrible night, you yourself will experience forever. If only you had loved me… You have not learned what my Father has given me to teach. Friend… You will indeed taste the Eucharist, as your lips touch my sacred Blood pouring already from my face. But it is to your shame. You are not prepared for the Banquet… Friend… Friend…

Just as David wept for Absalom, so does Christ sorrow over every soul that is lost, even the most wicked. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)

He is always a Friend to us… Even if we are far from Him, He is always close to us.

The future glory of our bodies

Eamonn Clark, STL

In my License thesis (on socialism and how it is so very unlike Christian charity), I had a small section on the gifts of the resurrection. Why? Well, in the context of my essay I wanted to show how the various socialist action-items are not only fulfilled but surpassed in Heaven… instead of merely recovering Eden and its preternatural gifts, which we cannot do, we get something even better. I would suppose that not many people even know that there are such gifts in the resurrection; and I know for a fact that many people struggle with this seemingly strange doctrine in the first place, namely, that after we die, our flesh will in fact be reanimated when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. So, in this post, I will go through a few points: first, the basic doctrine and its metaphysical fittingness; second, why this doctrine is so important and is actually much easier to believe than it appears; and third, a very short description of and reflection on the gifts of the resurrection.

The Article of Faith – gravely binding upon the conscience, to be believed by anyone taking the name of Christian – is stated in the Creed: “I believe . . . in the resurrection of the body.” This doctrine has extremely sound Scriptural foundations, in the Old Testament, in the Gospels, and in the Epistles, especially in the preaching of Paul (including in Acts). We will limit ourselves to mentioning only a few passages. First, the Vision of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. Second, the dialogue of Christ with the Sadducees in Matthew 22. Third, Paul’s preaching in 1 Corinthians 15. This list could be multiplied… It is a clear doctrine of Sacred Scripture. This eschatological hope was implanted too in those true believing Jews from of old – as we see from the words of Martha in John 11:24 before her brother Lazarus is raised – and the doctrine was taught very firmly in the early Church by the Fathers. The doctrine means that when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, the souls of the dead will receive their flesh again and have biological life, just like Jesus did – and just like those who rose with Him and appeared to people in the Holy City of Jerusalem. (We forget about that incident – we shouldn’t. Nobody would make this stuff up. See Matthew 27:52-53.)

The general resurrection makes sense of the reality of the human being. The immortality of the soul is demonstrable from natural reason; in short, the immaterial powers of the soul (the intellect and will) cannot come from the body and therefore cannot be destroyed by the body’s corruption. But we are more than souls, we are a body-soul composite. We are not souls trapped in bodies, ghosts condemned to dwell in a puppet-like mechanism until we finally escape… We most certainly do not become angels, which are beings who never had flesh and never will. No, we are really made from the dust of the Earth, as Genesis 2 teaches, and so the body is a good thing made by a Good God which is integral to what we are. The Manichaeans, the Albigensians, and the Buddhists are wrong. So, it seems appropriate that God would want to give us our bodies for eternity, seeing as He bothered to give them to us in the first place. Finally, we are what we eat – and if we are receiving the Lord in the Eucharist, which is Him in the Resurrection, well, we are united already with Him in this way. It is the “pledge of future glory” which the prayer “O Sacrum Convivium” speaks of…

So much for the doctrine. Why is it so easy to believe? First, God never lies and is never confused. Fair enough – to believe God is the fundamental aspect of faith – but what is there to help us “grip onto” this teaching? Well, the same God Who teaches it gave us the reassurance of it by His own Resurrection. He also raised up His dear Mother – who makes appearances, sometimes to large crowds, such as at Pontmain or Fatima.

On a theoretical level, it is “easier” to raise the dead than to create a new human. We have grown so familiar with the latter that it seems utterly boring, but the truth is that it is an utterly “strange” thing: the soul is made from nothing by an act of pure power, while blind matter is organized by a complex process into a body with the disposition to receive that soul. In short, God makes the new human when there was no human. At the resurrection, God makes something from something only; He takes the parts and puts them back together. He did it the first time without you existing at all, so why is it so hard for Him to do it when you already exist? It’s not. It’s “easier,” even, though all things are easy for God.

Finally, a short description and reflection on the gifts of the resurrection, which are derived from what we know of Christ’s glorified and risen Body. If God is going to raise up our bodies, certainly these strange and wonderful things are no difficulty at all for Him. First, immortality (or impassibility). This speaks for itself… We will no longer be subject to death or bodily corruption of any kind. Second, subtlety (or subtility). Just like Christ, Who appeared in the Upper Room when the doors were locked, our bodies will no longer be bound by physical barriers. Third, agility. Again, like Christ, we can appear here and there quickly. Fourth, clarity. Like the “pre-vision” of the Risen Christ in the Transfiguration, our bodies will be filled with light (like Moses’ face, which needed to be veiled – or like other saints who had such luminescence, which phenomenon makes sense of the “halo”).

We will be less like dust from which our bodies were made, more like air; closer to God, further from the ground from which we will rise. We will be powerful and glorious, not only in spirit but in body. Nothing will hold us back… nothing will contain the joy of our soul, not even the natural limitations of “normal” bodily life. Having surpassed mere “bios,” the life of the body, we will be living in full “zoe,” the life of the spirit, fully subjecting the body to that happiness and conformity with the Will of God in which we will find our constant delight and peace. We will be completely free in our total selves.