Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Canon 915 comes first

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 01, 2011

During the past few weeks Edward Peters, the noted canon-law expert from Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary, has been engaged in a running online debate on a familiar topic: Whether politicians who are in gross public violation of Catholic moral norms should be allowed to receive Communion.

Peters has advanced the same argument that Cardinal Raymond Burke, the head of the Apostolic Signatura, has put forward: The question is answered by #915 in the Code of Canon Law, which quite clearly states that those Catholics who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”

In an interview with CNSNews, Peters applied that argument to the case of New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. At a Mass for gubernatorial inauguration, Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany administered the Eucharist to Cuomo. This, Peters argued, was a clear case for the application of Canon 915. The argument gained greater exposure when the New York Times picked up the story—although unfortunately the Times account blurred the arguments.

Governor Cuomo is a public supporter of legal abortion and of same-sex marriage. On those issues he, like many other prominent liberal politicians, is clearly in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Moreover, Cuomo is openly living with a woman to whom he is not married. Thus he is engaged in “public concubinage,” and doubly disqualified from receiving the Eucharist.

Under the circumstances, Peters reasoned, Cuomo’s reception of the Eucharist was “objectively sacrilegious” and thus produced “grave scandal.” The implication was clear enough: Bishop Hubbard should not have allowed Cuomo to receive Communion.

In a short, dismissive response, the Albany diocese released a statement saying that “it is unfair and imprudent to make a pastoral judgment about a particular situation without knowing all the facts.” Peters agreed. In this case the facts—at least the facts on which he based his argument—are known to the world. Governor Cuomo’s offenses are not private misdeeds but public statements and public actions, which he has repeatedly affirmed. The diocese indicated that it “would not comment publicly on anything which should be addressed privately.” But Cuomo’s public support for abortion and gay marriage, and his public concubinage, clearly to not fall into that category.

Other liberal commentators have chastised Peters for suggesting that Cuomo should be barred from Communion. Reviving a now-familiar argument, they said that Cuomo himself should make that decision, because the Church expects each member of the faithful to examine his conscience and refrain from receiving the Eucharist if he is not in a state of grace. 

That’s absolutely true. Canon 916 states that a Catholic who is conscious of grave sin must not receive Communion before making a sacramental confession and receiving absolution. The onus is on the individual to refrain from Communion, not on the priest to refuse the sacrament.

But at the risk of stating the blatantly obvious, Canon 916 comes after Canon 915!

Canon 916 ordinarily applies to a sinner whose misdeeds are not a matter of public record. He is not free to receive the Eucharist, but the public does not know of his sins, and so if he takes Communion, while he does further grave harm to his own soul, he does not cause public scandal. Canon 915 applies to those engaged in “manifest grave sin;” it applies when the whole world knows of the individual’s sins. 

It is interesting, then, that Catholics who are reluctant to see Canon 915 enforced are so anxious to apply Canon 916—even in situations where the latter canon is not relevant, such as the Cuomo case. Their argument would be persuasive if Canon 916 included language something like this: “This canon supersedes the previous canon and renders it irrelevant.” Needless to say, there is no such language in the canon.

Canon 915 was placed in the Code of Canon Law for a reason. If there were no circumstances under which it could logically be invoked, it would not have been included in the Code. And if Canon 915 ever applies, it applies to Governor Cuomo.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Mar. 07, 2011 10:38 PM ET USA

    These bishops should fear God, not men. Unfortunately today it is the other way around. The only answer I have is that there is a massive crisis of faith even amongst the bishops, otherwise, why should so many grovel at the feet of openly defiant politicans who are Catholic in name only? The Church has collapsed largely because of the apostasy amongst the ranks of those who were given the task of leading the Church.

  • Posted by: pannw - Mar. 06, 2011 1:24 PM ET USA

    EZE 3:17-21 Failure of so many of our clergy to enforce Canon 915 leads me to wonder if they even believe. Scripture clearly states that eating the Eucharist unworthily brings condemnation to us. When they willingly permit members of their flock to do this, when they have the ability to prevent it, they are complicit, on top of their own sin of bringing scandal to the rest of their flocks. They should be scared to death! "Woe to him through which the scandal comes." Do they not believe? Mercy!

  • Posted by: impossible - Mar. 03, 2011 10:24 PM ET USA

    Why doesn't the Pope reiterate in a more pointed and clear manner how, when and why Canon 915 should be enforced? Even good bishops, i.e Chaput, refuse to enforce it. Why should people, Caholic or non, believe that the Church is serious about abortion and other intrinsic evils openly supported and advanced by Catholic politicians when Bishops refuse to enforce Canon 915?

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Mar. 02, 2011 9:06 PM ET USA

    What about the auxiliary bishop of Indianapolis, Indiana? Bishop Christopher Coyne. He said he would not deny Holy Communion to anyone except (not his words) a rapacious, crazy, out-of-his-mind (something like that) individual. Apparently, he thinks very little of Canon 915. I sent his responses to an interview to Cardinal Burke in the Vatican. This illustrates a real disconnect we have with the bishops: they are so very often not united in their teachings. More confusion for the laity.

  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - Mar. 02, 2011 11:08 AM ET USA

    If the charge of the clergy is to work for the salvage of the members of his flock, would not the distribution of Communion to Cuomo and his ilk be in conflict with that charge, adding grave sin on top of grave sin?

  • Posted by: - Mar. 02, 2011 10:34 AM ET USA

    I don't know what it will take before some clerics act on Canon 915. Gov Cuomo has set a new low by his personal, yet public, sins, yet he still receives Communion, even while his woman companion sits next to him in the pews.