Since Christ’s faithful have a right to receive the sacraments (Canon 213) and since the Church’s ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who properly seek them (Canon 843, §1) and since Canon 915 is restrictive of these rights of the faithful, it must be given the most narrow reading possible (Canon 18). Note that there are four requirements in that second clause of Canon 915: (1) obstinately (2) perseveres (3) in manifest (4) grave sin. Giving these requirements the narrowest reading possible, what do those words mean?
“Obstinately” means not yielding to reason. It implies that the person making the negative judgment has tried to educate or convince the obstinate person. “Perseverance” means to pursue something persistently, without stopping. “Manifest” gets its meaning from the preceding canon to Canon 915 in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 855, which denied Communion to those who were “publicly unworthy.” The reliable Abbo-Hannan commentary on this canon gives, as examples of manifest sinners, such persons as prostitutes, usurers, persons living in concubinage, and blasphemers—people whose way of life is openly sinful. “Grave sin” is, of course, mortal sin. Historically, this canon was applied to Catholics who were divorced and remarried outside the Church. Under Canon 915, they could not be admitted to Communion because they were living a life of concubinage. Canon 915’s possible application to Catholic politicians who fail to publicly support the Church’s teaching only dates to 2004.
What impresses most about the Canon 915 checklist is that it is not the sort of judgment that is easily made, least of all by a priest looking down the aisle to see who is coming up to Communion. As a matter of fact, unless the priest has had a chance to talk to the communicant beforehand, it is hard to see how the “obstinate” requirement can be met. And remember, Canon 915 is restrictive of rights, so it does not get a broad interpretation; it gets the narrowest possible interpretation. This is just one of the problems with the application of Canon 915 to Catholic politicians. Another is that unless abortion rights are the only, or the most important, thing that a Catholic politician campaigns for (to the point where the politician becomes completely, publicly identified with that cause), it is difficult to see how the persistently and openly sinful requirements of Canon 915 are met.
Then there is the very serious question about the application of Canon 915 after Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris laetitia, in 2016. This papal document states in Note 336 that personal discernment can recognize that no grave fault exists “with regard to sacramental discipline.” It’s a reference to Canon 915 and its prohibition of divorced and remarried Catholics being admitted to Communion. This meaning was taken up by both the German and Argentinian bishops’ conferences in their responses to Amoris laetitia. The German bishops said that “For the question of the reception of the sacraments, the bishops do not see in Amoris Laetitia a general rule or an automatism, but rather they are convinced that discerned solutions which do justice to the individual case are required.” The Argentinian bishops said that “it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment…. Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments.” In his answer to the Argentinian bishops, Pope Francis said their response “explains precisely the meaning of…Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.” That makes the Argentinian bishops’ response a part of the papal magisterium on Canon 915.
What effect does this have on the application of Canon 915 in general? Recall that, for most of its history, this canon was thought to prevent Catholics who were divorced and remarried outside the Church from receiving Communion. But now, after Amoris laetitia, a divorced and remarried Catholic’s ability to approach the Eucharist is based on the individual’s personal discernment of the state of their soul—a discernment guided by pastoral care, to be sure, but nonetheless their personal discernment. This same interpretation of Canon 915 would apply to Catholic politicians because, in the eyes of their Catholic critics, this is the canon that prevents them from receiving Communion. After Amoris laetitia, and assuming for argument’s sake that Canon 915 is even applicable to Catholic politicians to begin with, their ability to receive Communion must also be based on their individual personal discernment, their own prudential judgment, guided by pastoral care. This Franciscan reading of Canon 915 leaves no role for the Communion police; as Pope Francis himself says in Amoris laetitia, No. 37, “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
In February of this year, the pro-choice president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, visited the Vatican. In a Mass at St. Peter’s celebrated by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, an Argentinian bishop who is chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, President Fernández was given Communion. Canonists have always relied on the praxis of the Roman Curia for the proper interpretation of law. If Canon 915 had the meaning that Joe Biden’s Catholic critics would give it, this is certainly proof of a contrary practice by the Roman Curia. Perhaps it simply reflects the changes in Canon 915 made by Amoris laetitia in 2016. Or perhaps it reflects long-standing curial practice. John Paul II gave Communion in 2001 to Francesco Rutelli, who was Rome’s avowedly pro-choice mayor. He also gave Communion in 2003 to Tony Blair, the pro-choice prime minister of Great Britain, who at the time was not even Catholic, although he did convert in 2007.