In the Spirit of Thomas More

Canon Lawyer Provides Continued Light on Amoris Laetitia Controversy

Detail of Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of St. Thomas More
Detail of Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of St. Thomas More (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

For all of the good that is in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL), it is the ambiguous material regarding Communion for the divorced and remarried (Chapter 8) that has garnered the most attention.

There have been some fine analyses on the matter, and I have joined my own voice to aid the cause of showing how AL has and can be problematically interpreted and implemented, with grave harm to the Church as a result.  Indeed, you don’t have to formally change Church doctrine or law to undermine them in practice.  Bad pastoral policy will suffice, and that’s why four cardinals have submitted five dubia (questions) to Pope Francis to help stem the rising bad tide.

Arguably the leading crusader in the U.S. to resolve the AL controversy has been Edward Peters, a civil and canon lawyer who teaches at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.  Peters was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura, the universal Church’s highest court.  He is one of the Church’s leading canon lawyers.  He has shown that again in various posts on AL.  And if Peters takes the time to let you know you’ve misunderstood Church teaching and law, it’s best to heed his advice.

Some have accused Peters of being a Pharisee, overly concerned with the letter of the law instead of also taking into account the pastorally important spirit of the law.”  Peters can be hard-hitting in his posts on his must-read blog, but anyone who follows his writing realizes that Peters deeply loves Jesus Christ and his Church, regularly manifesting concern for the spiritual welfare of the Catholic faithful. 

For example, Peters has admonished Catholics who have publicly called for pro-abortion Catholics to “be honest” and simply leave the Church.  Peters reminds us that we should never further imperil a person’s soul by telling them to separate from the ark of salvation Christ established. The right response is to tell such people to refrain from Holy Communion while fulfilling their Sunday obligation otherwise, until they have repented and are thus properly disposed to receive the Eucharist.

Which brings us back to AL.  Like Thomas More almost 500 years ago, Peters is defending Church teaching and law regarding Holy Matrimony.  For More, it was standing up to Henry VIII over his invalid marriage to Anne Boleyn and his desire to become “supreme head of the Church in England” to get his way.  For Peters, it’s opposing Church policies rooted in AL that are beginning to undermine Catholic doctrine and discipline regarding marriage and family and the reception of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Confession.  Granted, Peters is not in danger of being imprisoned in the Tower of London, let alone being executed as was More.  But, like More, Peters realizes the serious spiritual threat of his time.  He gets to the nub of the matter with sober perspicacity in a very recent post:

Oh well, let’s talk about a canonical issue with profound implications for the Church in our day, shall we?

Specifically in regard to the debate over admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion, a steady “dissing” of canon law is crucial because canon law—and the centuries of accumulated pastoral wisdom and doctrinal clarity that it represents—lies directly athwart the campaign to admit Catholics to Eucharistic communion on their own terms instead of on Christ’s terms and the Church’s.  Whatever damage to Catholic doctrine and discipline some might spy down the road—say, abandoning the indissolubility of Christian marriage, eliminating repentance as a condition for forgiveness of sin, absolutizing private conscience against public order, usurping the Church’s authority over the sacraments, and so on—it all begins by admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to Eucharistic communion upon, in the final analysis, their own assessment of their own conscience, chiefly by using Amoris laetitia as cover (italicized emphasis added)..

Peters understands that what some bishops are offering the members of their flocks in so-called “irregular marriages” is Christianity without a redemptive cross, a form of which we all must carry in our lives, lest we follow the wide and easy path that yields temporal turmoil and eternal damnation (cf. Mt. 7:13-14).

And if Peters is a modern-day Thomas More, then Father Gerald Murray, himself a canon lawyer, can be called a modern-day John Fisher, a clerical analogue to the saintly bishop who also stood up to Henry VIII. Father Murray has written insightfully and pastorally on the AL controversy several times, and he has spoken the truth in love on EWTN’s “The World Over Live.”

Our beloved Holy Father Pope Francis has likened the Church to a “field hospital,” where wounded sinners may access the medicine of truth and sacramental graces.  Yet seeking mercy necessarily entails recognizing one’s own sinfulness and the need to repent, if one is truly to benefit from the Church’s divine remedies.  And in this case, that’s living the Church’s teaching on chastity according to your state of life, whether you’re single, married or divorced and invalidly remarried.  Whatever the case, we must always remember and proclaim that living the Church’s teaching with God’s help is not simply possible but preferable, as we embrace the truth that truly sets us free (cf. Jn. 8:31-32) and thereby give witness to the peace which the world cannot give (cf. Jn. 14:27).

Ed Peters and Father Murray understand this well, and that’s why they’re so committed to the Church’s authentic mission of merciful love.