McQuaid HS and Edward Peters’ Incomplete Ecclesiology

Edward Peters is a well-known canon lawyer, an expert on the law of the Catholic Church. Dr. Peters has been much in the press lately. He provided expert canonical knowledge about what happens when a living Pope resigns, what Church law requires for the valid election of a new Roman Pontiff, as well as canonical commentary on actions of the new Holy Father, Pope Francis — especially regarding the Pope’s decision to include two young women in the foot-washing rite of Holy Thursday.

McQuaid Jeusit High School, Rochester, NY

McQuaid Jeusit High School, Rochester, NY

His most recent blog post provides commentary on the letter by Fr. Edward Salmon, S.J,, president of McQuaid Jesuit High School (Rochester, NY).  Not surprisingly, Dr. Peters finds great fault with Fr. Salmon’s decision to permit two male students to attend that school’s Junior Ball as a couple.  Also not surprisingly, I disagree with Dr. Peter’s in his assessment of Fr. Salmon’s very pastoral decision and his clear articulation of the reasons for it.

My purpose here, however, is not to argue the issue at McQuaid, but rather to take note of something in Peters’ post that seems to underlie much of his writing. Betraying his own very obvious biases, Peters writes this:

Catholics who were mercifully spared the “Church of the 70’s” might find illuminating Salmon’s letter; it’s vintage what so many of us were force-fed for ten dark years: condescending, platitudinistic, partial quotes of Church documents used to justify the exact opposite of what the Church wants her members to know about Christ and his Gospel. [emphasis added]

“What the Church wants her members to know.”  This statement exposes a fundamental and serious theological flaw in Peters’ understanding of what (or, more precisely, who) the “Church” is. This language is rooted in a predominantly hierarchical understanding of Church and seems to equate “Church” with those who have particular leadership roles (i.e. popes, bishops, pastors and perhaps even canon lawyers), while “her members” appear to be those of us who do not have such roles and are supposed to be merely passive recipients of what those in authority “want us to know.”

Thankfully, God’s People understand more and more that “the Church” is not limited to those with leadership roles, but rather includes all — as we celebrated once again this past weekend — who have been baptized into the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through our baptism and our faith, there is also wisdom in the People of God and in our lived experience. It is this lived experience, I believe, that is behind the process that is forming the consciences of so many Catholics — now even a majority of Catholics — who see the full humanity of their/our LGBT brothers and sisters; and who likewise see the limitations of formal teachings that have called that full humanity into question.

In addition to “what the Church wants her members to know,” it’s also vital to the life of the whole Church that those in positions of leadership listen to “what her members” want them to know!

Confirmation Confusion in Minnesota (and Canon Law)

Canon Lawyer Edward Peters

Edward Peters, JD, JCD is a canon lawyer. I occasionally follow his blog, as he sometimes has interesting posts about his take on Church matters in the public eye. I say “occasionally” because his blog does not allow comments or feedback, so I prefer not to give my own time to bloggers who do not allow for such engagement. After all, isn’t engagement and interaction what blogging and the tools of social media are all about?  In this regard, I think Dr. Peters confuses “blogging” with “lecturing” … but I digress.

That said, his recent post, Confirmation and advocacy of ‘gay marriage’ [sic] cries out for response.

Two points:

First, my “[sic]” notation is to draw attention to the fact that Dr. Peters is one of those folks who puts the phrase gay marriage in quotations or otherwise off-sets it as a means of communicating that they do not think such a thing is real.  If he were speaking to you in person, you could just see him holding up both hands and making finger-quotes as he voiced that phrase, as if to say, “they call it ‘gay marriage,’ but we know such a thing doesn’t really exist.” They think that God’s gay sons and daughters — living their full humanity, including their sexuality, as given by God — are incapable of entering into marital relationships with someone of the same sex. Instead of seeing with open eyes and thoughtful minds the evidence from so many human sciences, including theology  (not to mention the lived experience of millions of gay men and women living in committed relationships), Dr. Peters prefers the blinders of ecclesiastical legality to the truth self-evident to so many.

Lennon Cihak

Second, Dr. Peters’ post discusses the situation of a young man who has been denied the Sacrament of Confirmation for his opposition to Minnesota’s recent ballot initiative that would have included in that state’s constitution language limiting marriage to one man and one woman. Peters focuses his brief post on the meaning of “proper disposition” as one of the criteria necessary for the Faithful to share in the sacraments.

I do not take issue with this basic principle of sacramental theology. The sacraments in our Tradition are indeed not to be taken lightly and must be appreciated as the gifts they are, a means by which God’s People share more fully in God’s grace.  Sacramental participation requires a minimal understanding of what a particular sacrament is all about; a freely-expressed desire to share in the sacrament; and the expressed intention to live one’s life as best one can with the fundamentals of Christian faith.

Peters, however, goes on to observe the distinction between “internal disposition” and “external disposition” as follows:

Generally “proper disposition” is not a question of internal disposition (such as interior faith, fervor, or grace) but rather of external disposition (public demeanor, dress, and conduct). The state of a would-be recipient’s soul is not determinable, of course, but his or her attitudes and conduct are observable (we’re talking Facebook, no?), and potentially actionable.

In all fairness, Peters does not state explicitly that the pastor’s action in this situation was correct. A benign interpretation of Peters’ post could be merely that it points out that Church order allows for a pastor to refuse the sacraments in certain circumstances. Priests and pastors do and should have this right. After all, a pastor can and must deny marriage to someone who is already married, or Eucharist to someone who is not Baptized and has no intention of living the Christian life (as they, the potential recipient, would declare).

Nonetheless, a more likely interpretation of his post is that Peters supports the pastor’s decision — and it is with this, i.e. that the pastor’s decision was correct, that I (and others) take issue. Despite what Dr. Peters’ and the USCCB say formally about civil marriage, the fact is that a majority of American Catholics support the rights of God’s LGBT sons and daughters to marry the person they love. Would Dr. Peters deny the sacraments to these millions of Catholics? Or only to those who wear a rainbow ribbon on their lapel or post a supportive photo online? And, of course, why be limited to support for civil-marriage as the litmus test for deciding appropriate “external disposition”? There are countless issues where millions of Catholics hold different positions than do official Church leaders — civil divorce, war, immigration, capital punishment, to name but a few.  Would every Catholic, for example, who holds that civil divorce should be allowed in a pluralistic society likewise be denied the sacraments?

My point is this:  the denial of confirmation to this young man was a bad decision.  Using the sacraments as tools of discipline (especially when that discipline is misguided) is a bad idea.  It’s a lesson that this pastor — and the US bishops — need to learn.