Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Is the Vatican’s top canonical official undermining canon law?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 11, 2017

My favorite canon lawyer, Ed Peters, has some “Questions in the wake of Cdl. Coccopalmerio’s comments on Anglican orders.” I recommend his analysis highly, for anyone who wants an expert perspective; I happily defer to Peters on the legal issues. Let me add a few comments, however, on the pastoral implications of the cardinal’s statements.

In case you missed it, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio—who must be taken seriously, since he heads the Pontifical Council responsible for the interpretation canon law— made headlines by saying that we should not assume that the ordination of an Anglican priest is invalid. This appears to be a clear contradiction of the pronouncement by Pope Leo XIII that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void.” Cardinal Coccopalmerio remarked that the Catholic Church has held a “very rigid understanding of validity and invalidity.”

According the London Tablet, which broke this story, Cardinal Coccopalmerio suggested that it’s possible to say: “this is valid in a certain context, and that is valid in another context.” Peters repeatedly, and charitably, observed that the cardinal might have been misquoted—a point that should be kept in mind. But if the Tablet story represents his views accurately, Peters adds, this “is huge.”

In the Tablet account, Cardinal Coccopalmerio comes very close to saying that the validity of an ordination depends on the attitudes and/or merits of the individual. (“This is about the life of a person and what he has given…”) That attitude, however understandable, is contrary to the very purpose of law. The law is the same for every man: regardless of his status, regardless of his virtue. You either are, or are not, an ordained priest. Your attitudes, your behavior, your feelings—and how other people feel about you—do not determine the question. Canon law does.

Although Peters does not explicitly say why it is “huge” [his emphasis] that Cardinal Coccopalmerio places so much emphasis on the “context” of the Anglican ordination, I think it is because the Vatican’s top canonical official seems to be slipping into an increasingly common error: confusing the purpose of making the law, or preaching the law, with the pastoral application of the law. The results of this error reach far beyond the question of Anglican orders.

Every intelligent Christian knows that the morality of a given action is affected by the circumstances. There is an enormous difference between the act of a starving man who steals a crust of bread and that of a hoodlum who steals a car for a joyride. Any good confessor recognizes that difference. But the men who write laws—even canon laws—are not acting as confessors. They must fashion legislation that applies to everyone. The law is a teacher; it sets norms of behavior. Might there be exceptions to those norms? Of course! But if you begin with the exceptions—if you cannot state the law clearly without mentioning the exceptions—the law loses its force.

A good priest, when he preaches against a particular serious sin, leaves his congregation with no doubt that the action is gravely wrong. When a parishioner confesses that same sin, the same good priest might recognize that, in this individual case, the penitent bears little guilt for his act. But even if the sinner’s guilt is clear, and the matter is grave, the good confessor is quick to offer absolution, reminding the penitent that God’s abundant mercy can expunge all sins.

But imagine the confusion that would arise if the same priest, in his homily, had said that the same gravely sinful action could be excused in some circumstances. (And isn’t this the message that many pastors have drawn from Amoris Laetitia?) As a confessor, a priest might tell a repentant sinner: “You were wrong to rob the bank, and you must make restitution, but God forgives you.” But he should not, as a preacher, tell his congregation: “God will forgive you if you rob a bank.” That is a very different, and potentially deadly, message.

Or look at the question for a slightly different perspective. We are all tempted toward sins, and those temptations very often lead us to think that the moral law does not apply to our particular cases. The Tempter tells us: “This is an exception; the rule doesn’t apply to you here.” Then, if we do fall into sin, the Tempter changes his message radically, trying to convince us that we should not confess, because God can never forgive us for what we have done. The good priest counters temptation on both scores: as a preacher, by upholding the standards of moral law; as a confessor, by dispensing God’s mercy.

But when the preacher feels compelled to downplay the importance of law, isn’t he making the Tempter’s task easier? And when the president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts suggests that the answer to an important canonical question depends entirely on the context, he too downplays the importance of the objective law. That indeed is huge.

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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