Canon Law, Good Conscience, and Pope Francis

I am a canon lawyer, trained more than 50 years ago to apply the letter of the law. However, as I oversaw the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal during the 1960’s, I encountered real people who were suffering severely and I began to understand how the rigid application of canon law was denying them true justice.

My Background

I was born in Manhattan, raised in St. Joan of Arc Parish, Jackson Heights, Queens, and I graduated from Fordham University in 1953. The Korean War was still winding down and I was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving my first year as a Military Policeman, and my second year as a Chaplain’s assistant.

After my discharge, I immediately made an appointment with the Brooklyn Diocesan Chancellor, who told me that their Seminary was at full capacity and that I lacked any College credits in Greek. I was very disappointed. Not knowing what to do next, I went to the Dean of Fordham U. and asked him to help me get enough credits Greek to make myself more acceptable. He told me that even if I took some courses, I’d have no guarantee that they would accept me because of the volume of candidates.

I still vividly remember his next few words, “Across the Hudson River in New Jersey, the Paterson Diocese is desperately in need of vocations, why not apply there?” I decided instead to apply to the New York Archdiocese. They told me the same thing, “no room at the inn.” I finally realized that this was Divine Providence at work and reconciled myself to the will of God. I applied for admission to Paterson and was immediately accepted.

After my ordination in 1960, they sent me off to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. to get a doctorate in Canon Law.

The Rigid Application of Canon Law

When I returned with my JCD three years later, they made me the assistant pastor at St. Brendan’s parish in Clifton, NJ, and I was happy at last. As an afterthought, I was also told that I would oversee the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal, part-time. It was hard at first, but I gradually began to see it all as a blessing in disguise. I had been given the power to help many Divorced people who were suffering severely, and I began to understand how the rigid application of canon law was denying them true justice. When I studied Canon Law, the 1917 CCL was still in effect. It was not changed until 1983. In respect of the divorced and remarried, Canon 2356 provided that:

“Bigamists, that is, those who, notwithstanding a conjugal bond, attempt to enter another marriage, even a civil one as they say, are by that fact infamous; and if spurning the admonition of the Ordinary, they stay in the illicit relationship, they are to be excomunicated accordingly to the gravity of the deed or struck with personal interdict.”

And Canon 855 provided that:

 All those publicly unworthy are to be barred from the Eucharist, such as excommunicates, those interdicted, and those manifestly infamous, unless their penitence and emendation are shown and they have satisfied beforehand the public scandal [they caused]. passed over without scandal.” 

However, I gradually began encouraging some of them to return to the sacraments based on their good conscience. Even the 1917 CCL did not provide an automatic ban on the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried when they believed in good faith that their current union was their only presently valid marriage, and their irregular situation was not widely publicized.

Pope Francis: Rely on the Conscience

FYI, that’s the reason I’m a huge fan of Pope Francis. He has encouraged Catholics in certain circumstances to rely more on the conscience than on the letter of the law, which always presumes that people are living in a state of mortal sin. 

The Synod Fathers noted that “special discernment is indispensable for the pastoral care of those who are separated, divorced or abandoned. Respect needs to be shown especially for the sufferings of those who have unjustly endured separation, divorce or abandonment, or those who have been forced by maltreatment from a husband or a wife to interrupt their life together. To forgive such an injustice that has been suffered is not easy, but grace makes this journey possible. Pastoral care must necessarily include efforts at reconciliation and mediation, through the establishment of specialized counselling centres in dioceses”. At the same time, “divorced people who have not remarried, and often bear witness to marital fidelity, ought to be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life. (Amoris Laetitia)

The fact that we have annulments testifies to the fact that often these early presumptions turn out to be false. God knows that perfection in all circumstances is beyond heroic virtue, and He only calls on us to make a reasonable effort to be good. Perfection is humanly impossible.

The enemies of the Pope are quick to condemn people, including the Pope himself, and slow to “lift a finger to help them,” as Jesus put it so wisely centuries ago.

The Holy Spirit often leads us in directions that favors mercy over legalism. God bless you for your patience in these challenging times.