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The Plague of Ecclesial Positivism:
No Truth, Only Law

by Christopher A. Ferrara
December 6, 2017

In my column of December 4, I challenged the “normalists” to explain how they intend to continue their “everything is still OK” narrative now that Pope Francis has affixed the label “authentic Magisterium” to his “private” letter approving the guidelines of the bishops of Buenos Aires authorizing, pursuant to Amoris Laetitia (AL), absolution and Holy Communion for public adulterers in “second marriages” according to the nebulous, open-ended criteria of “complex circumstances” and a “journey of discernment.” In short, a morality of situation ethics for violations of the Sixth Commandment, and with this a threat to the entire moral edifice of Catholic teaching related to all the Commandments.

Sad to say, the respected canonist Ed Peters has provided a truly dismal response to the challenge of dealing with this unprecedented disaster. On his blog he retreats to the last ditch, writing that “It is crucial to understand that, today, what actually prevents ministers of holy Communion from distributing the Eucharist to divorced-and-remarried Catholics is Canon 915 and the universal, unanimous interpretation which that legislative text, rooted as it is in divine law, has always received.” As that Canon provides:

“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.”

Turning to Francis’ attempt to create exceptions to the moral and sacramental reality, which the canon merely reflects as a matter of divine law, Peters argues: “unless and until that law is revoked or modified by papal legislative action or is effectively neutered by pontifically approved ‘authentic interpretation’ (1983 CIC 16), Canon 915 stands and, so standing, binds ministers of holy Communion.” 

Thus, Peters continues, given that “[n]either the pope’s letter to the Argentines, nor the Argentine bishops’ document, nor even Amoris laetitia so much as mentions Canon 915, let alone do these documents abrogate, obrogate, or authentically interpret this norm out of the Code of Canon Law,” the sacred ministers are still forbidden to admit public adulterers to Holy Communion, Pope Francis not having “revoked or modified” Canon 915. Yet, Peters ruefully concludes: “I wish that Canon 915 were not the sole bulwark [emphasis mine] against the abandonment of the Eucharist to the vagaries of individual, often malformed, consciences.”

Seriously? Does Peters not notice that he himself roots the prohibition of Canon 915 in divine law and that he cites the Church’s pre-Francis “unanimous and universal” interpretation of the canon according to divine law? Is Peters seriously suggesting that Francis would have the power to “revoke or modify” the same norm, rooted in divine law, that his own predecessor declared to be “without exception,” which is to say irrevocable, precisely because it is rooted in divine law? Is the Pope now to be viewed as God — a God who changes His mind? Or, as Francis puts it, a “God of surprises” who speaks through a Pope who would be a kind of Oracle of Rome?

What we have here is a classic example of the plague of legal positivism in the Church: i.e., that philosophy of law which looks only to the mere existence of a law, posited by authority, in order to determine its validity and binding effect, without regard to the truth and the end of virtue a law must serve in order to be valid. It is sheer legal positivism to suggest, as Peters does, that a mere canon in a code of canon law is “the last bulwark” against “the abandonment of the Eucharist to the vagaries of individual, often malformed, consciences,” but that Pope Francis could revoke or modify the canon in order to bring about that abandonment.

In truth, the one and only bulwark against the profanation and sacrilege that Francis is attempting to cloak with the false and misleading label “authentic Magisterium” is God’s law, not canon law, which in this case merely conforms to God’s law. Therefore, it would not matter in the least if Francis should dare to proclaim the outright “repeal” of Canon 915. Divine law would still forbid what he is attempting to do and render his effort void before God and man alike, as an immoral law is no law at all, to advert to the famous dictum of Saint Augustine.

Moreover, Peters is dreaming if he thinks Pope Francis has not, by his latest abuse of power, purported to “modify” precisely Canon 915 by authorizing, via AL, admission to the sacraments of certain public adulterers based on a nonsensical “journey of discernment” in “complex circumstances.” The purported “modification” of Canon 915 is no less void than would be an outright revocation. For God’s law cannot be modified or revoked by a mere man, even if he be the Pope.

How ironic it is that the same Pope who condemns the imaginary Pharisaism of the orthodox Catholics who rightly protest his reckless novelties has elicited the most Pharisaical of defenses from those who insist that Pope Francis is not really undoing the practical operation of the moral law in the Church. But he has undone it in practice, even if in reality it remains irrevocable and untouchable.

It is time for Catholics like Peters to join his fellow Catholics the world over who recognize the crisis of this pontificate for what it is: a rebellion against the will of God which it is the duty of every Catholic worthy of the name to oppose as such rather than resorting to the kind of legal quibbling Our Lord condemned in the Pharisees that Francis sees everywhere but in the mirror.

Here, yet again, we see the enduring relevance and indeed centrality of the Message of Fatima, with its warning (in the integral Third Secret) of a “final battle” over marriage and family. A battle in which, incredibly enough, a Pope appears to be leading the enemy forces.