Good stories tell the whole story

By Dr. Ed Peters from In the Light of the Law:
October 20, 2017


Pope Francis is a story teller who uses stories to make his points. A time-honored method of teaching, of course, but it comes with a risk: omitting parts of a story can leave listeners with a distorted sense of the reality behind the story.

Complaining yesterday for the umpteenth time about Pharisees in the Church—apparently Francis has discounted complaints from Jews that his unrelenting portrayal of Pharisees-qua-boogeymen is lending comfort to anti-Semites—the pope told a story about a pastoral travesty committed in regard to baptism. And it was a travesty.

Per Francis: Three months ago, in a country, in a city, a mother wanted to baptize her newly born son, but she was married civilly with a divorced man. The priest said, ‘Yes, yes. Baptize the baby. But your husband is divorced. So he cannot be present at the ceremony.’ This is happening today. The Pharisees, doctors of the law are not people of the past, even today, there are many of them.

I winced when I read the story not because I assumed, as would any non-lawyer in the wake of those words, that canon law is so heartless as to exclude a father from his son’s baptism, but rather because I know, precisely as a lawyer, how much pastoral wisdom is packed into the Johanno-Pauline Code and how little of that wisdom was brought to bear by the priest’s actions as narrated in the pope’s story

First, let’s us be clear: No canon of the 1983 Code bans parents from sacramental celebrations involving their children and no canon authorizes priests to exclude parents from such sacred events.

In fact quite the opposite approach is taken by canon law: e.g., Canon 226 upholds parental primacy over the raising of their children, Canon 835 § 4 defends this right and duty in the midst of the sacramental-liturgical life of the Church, Canons 867-868 impose parental obligations to seek baptism for children promptly, and Canon 1136 recognizes that parents have “the most grave duty and the primary right to take care as best they can for the physical, social, cultural, moral, and religious education of their offspring.”

So, here, a priest illegally bans a parent from his child’s baptism and yet canon law gets blamed for it. See what happens when key aspects of a story are left out?

But here’s another part of the story, one that the priest who attracted the pope’s ire might have been stumbling toward but which, perhaps being the product of the shabby canonical training that so many seminarians “in a country, in a city” seemed to have received over the last fifty years, he did not understand correctly: canon law (reflecting doctrinal mandates and centuries of disciplinary wisdom) requires for the licit baptism of a child “a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion” per Canon 868 § 1 n. 1.

Ahhh. A “founded hope” of being raised Catholic. Might some vague awareness of that requirement have been behind the priest’s hesitation to treat this baptismal request the same as he would treat a baptismal request from a couple married in the Church and active in the practice of their faith? Or, are all baptismal requests owed an automatic “Sure!” from pastors now?

However illegal was the priest’s decision to ban a father from his son’s baptism (and it was illegal), might the priest’s common sense intuited that Catholic parents who live in contradiction to the teachings of Christ and his Church on marriage diminish the chances that their children will be brought up in an environment conducive to learning and living the requirements of the Catholic faith?  If so, he might have been recognizing exactly what countless of his brothers have recognized in the course of their ministry and, if advised and not ridiculed, he might have been led to spot signs of a “founded hope” for a Catholic upbringing that he overlooked before or, if that were not possible, he might have (as many priests I know have done) used the good desire of the parents to see their child baptized as an occasion to invite those parents into regularizing their own status in the Church both for their good and their child’s.

Either way, though, what the priest would not have done, one hopes, is exactly what canon law seeks to prevent: imposing the burdens of Catholic life on a child unable, through no fault of his own, to fulfill those burdens—perhaps with the pious hope that baptism will somehow just make everything turn out alright.

In any case, none of these, I suggest, highly relevant concerns comes across in the pope’s story. Instead, canon law once again gets blamed for supporting something (here, the banning of a parent from a baptism) that in fact it repudiates, and the possibility that a canonical norm meant to protect children (the “founded hope” requirement) might also have been at issue, is ignored.

+ + +

Postscript. Last fall I commented on Francis’ modification of Canon 868 in regard to the baptism of the children of non-Catholics. The questions I asked then are, to my knowledge, still unresolved.

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3 Responses to Good stories tell the whole story

  1. JabbaPapa says:

    There is a great deal of confusion around these sorts of issues, and rather uncharacteristically, Dr Peters is simply adding to it.

    There has been no justification for turning people away from the Mass since Pope Martin V authoritatively banned that practice, even to the extent of authorising public heretics to attend Mass and forbidding Faithful Catholics — priests included — from shunning public association with such people.

    Furthermore, the divorced-remarried are NOT excommunicated, not since the penalty of “minor excommunication” was abolished — before Trent, by the Fathers of Trent, and definitively in the 19th Century.

    Now, the priest could certainly request from this father that he should refrain from presenting himself at the altar at a Baptismal Mass ; but this does NOT mean “banning him from the Mass” — or, far more sensibly, the Baptism could have been conducted outside Mass, and ALL problems thereby avoided.

    But where Dr Peters adds to the confusion is in his suggestion that absence of “a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion” might in some manner have “excused” this priest’s behaviour to any degree. Because frankly, if there were any serious doubt about this, then the Baptism should simply not have been given in the first place — not some illegal halfway measure whereby the infant were baptised and the father excluded.

    His complete exclusion of the possibility whereby the mother might be a Faithful Catholic willing and able to raise her child in the Faith is, frankly, shocking, as well as uncharitable and presumptuous.

    … and VERY uncharacteristic of Dr Peters’ usual skill in these matters.


  2. Mary Salmond says:

    What I got from Dr. Peters is that the priest should have done his homework, checked Canon law, and told the dad. He could have told the dad, “let me check it out and get back to you, since I’m unsure of what protocol is.” A physician does the same thing about serious diagnosis. There is less confusion if one can present the truth in a sensible presentation.


  3. Francis says so many things, and tells so many stories. Often they’re true.

    Often they’re not.


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