Commentary by Ed Peters, Canon Lawyer

April 2, 2009 ( – I often tell my students, the answer to a canonical question is seldom found in a single canon.

Two prominent American prelates, Abp. Donald Wuerl of Washington DC and Abp. Raymond Burke of the Apostolic Signatura, are the lead figures in a significant disagreement over admitting certain pro-abortion Catholic politicians to Holy Communion. Wuerl basically believes that, under Canon 916, Catholics, including pro-abortion politicians, should determine their own eligibility for reception of Communion. Burke argues that, beyond Canon 916, Canon 915 requires ministers of Holy Communion to withhold the Eucharist from some pro-abortion politicians if they don’t refrain from approaching on their own. Both sides can’t be right, and I suspect that the more compelling case is made by reading the two canons together instead of reading one to the exclusion of the other.

Some preliminary thoughts toward sorting this out.

First, awareness of Church history helps contemporary Catholics sleep at night. This is not the first time that upright bishops have differed over important points of pastoral practice; for that matter, strong episcopal conflicts over (unsettled) matters of doctrine are not unknown in the Church. So, let’s be confident in the Holy Spirit’s power to lead the Church through this issue as He has led us through others.

Second, one must avoid “personalizing” the debate. Both archbishops are distinguished thinkers and both have many decades of loyal service to the Church behind them, including some services rendered under very difficult circumstances. In short, each is an attractive figure. But, while it’s tempting to rally behind one or the other, personalities are not what’s at issue here.

Rather, if we want to resolve the question of Communion admission, we must plainly identify the core of the disagreement. I think it’s this: may one rely on a single canon to absolve arch/bishops of any direct responsibility to act when pro-abortion Catholic politicians present themselves for Communion, or must one read both the relevant canons in these cases, even if one of those canons requires ministerial intervention under certain circumstances?

The two relevant canons are not complicated.

Canon 916 expresses the fundamental responsibility of individual Catholics to weigh their conscience before approaching the Holy Banquet and to refrain from receiving Communion if they believe themselves to be in grave sin. Canon 915 requires ministers of holy Communion to withhold the Eucharist from Catholics who, though their public conduct is gravely at odds with Church teaching and/or morals, insist on presenting themselves for holy Communion.

I suggest that, for one to argue that Communion reception by Catholics is a purely personal decision under Canon 916 is to ignore impermissibly Canon 915 and its assertion of ministerial obligations in certain cases.

To be sure, both canons make serious demands on the faithful.

It’s not easy for an individual Catholic to refrain from going to holy Communion at Mass. The so-called ‘Communion fast’ offers no cover for a Catholic with a doubtful, let alone a guilty, conscience. These days, to remain in the pew while everyone else goes to Communion is tantamount to saying “I think I’m in the state of grave sin.” Who wants to imply that? But neither is it easy on a minister of holy Communion to withhold the sacrament from a Catholic seeking it. Who wants the responsibility of taking the most august sacrament, the source and summit of the Christian life (1983 CIC 897), into one’s own hands, only to say to a fellow Catholic in the Communion line “move along”?

So the question squarely confronts us: is the answer to the canonical problem of admitting notoriously pro-abortion Catholics to Communion found in a single canon, or is it found primarily in two canons? Do we read Canon 916 as if it sufficed to let pro-abortion Catholics decide about their own eligibility to receive holy Communion, or do we read Canons 915 and 916 together, being willing to invoke Canon 915 against certain Catholics who insist on receiving holy Communion despite their public disregard of important points of Catholic doctrine and/or morals?

Wuerl seems to think that one canon, namely 916, settles the question. Burke says that we must read both norms, Canons 915 and 916, together to arrive at the correct answer.

What can I say? I think Burke’s right.

(Note: Ed Peters is a Canon Lawyer who teaches at, and holds the Cdl Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary and is a frequent guest on Ave Maria Radio/EWTN Radio, among others.)