Greenlighting Adultery Is a White-Collar Crime

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by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  •  January 9, 2017   

Priests break canon law counseling civilly remarried Catholics to live in sin

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As priests expound on the mercy of advising penitents to follow their conscience regarding sexual misconduct, the Catholic Code of Canon Law continues to forbid clerics from encouraging divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to live in sin.

Dr. Ed Peters, a noted canonist, takes to task Fr. Paul Keller for describing a case where he would approve adulterous relations between a civilly remarried couple. The priest posited a controversial case of a hypothetical couple named "Irma" and "Tony," which was published Friday, January 6 in CruxNow.  

Peters demonstrates that such counseling by a priest during confession amounts to the canonical offense of "solicitation" and is a serious ecclesiastical crime. "If as a confessor, Keller approved Irma's choice to engage in sexual relations with Tony, he has committed the crime of solicitation in confession."

Canon 1387, which a priest breaks when encouraging a penitent to violate the Sixth Commandment, reads:

A priest, who in the act, on the occasion or under the pretext of confession solicits a penitent to sin against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue, is to be punished, according to the gravity of the delict, by suspension, prohibitions, and privations; in graver cases he is to be dismissed from the clerical state.

Many people understand canon 1387 is violated when a priest seeks to be personally involved with the penitent in some sexual way. But Peters points to three approved commentaries on the current 1983 Code of Canon Law, which all agree that solicitation isn't limited to cases wherein a confessor is advising the penitent to commit sexual misconduct with the priest himself.

The first witness Peters draws on to prove this point is John Martin, commenting on Canon 1387 of the British-Irish canonical commentary Letter & Spirit (1985), wherein Martin observes, "The offense is committed whether the priest encourages the penitent to sin either with the priest himself or with any third party."

The second witness summoned is Thomas Green, from the CLSA New Commentary (2000): "The delict might also be verified if the solicited sexual activity involves the penitent and a third party, not necessarily the priest and the penitent."

And the third testimony Peters proffers is Leon del Amon's popular Code of Canon Law Annotated (2004): "The offense consists in soliciting the penitent to sin against the Sixth Commandment, either with the person soliciting or with a third party."

Peters confirms that commentary is not divided on this interpretation. "No commentator on the 1983 Code disputes the understanding of solicitation in canon 1387 as embracing not only a confessor's advice toward sexual sin between the penitent and the confessor himself, but also between the penitent and a third party."

Under this prevailing understanding of canon 1387, which includes priests counseling penitents to commit sexual sins, Peters posits that the serious canonical crime of solicitation is far from rare. The open rebellion of priests against Humanae Vitae as seen by Canada's Winnipeg Statement and by similar rejections at the same time by churches in Germany and Austria, all bolster Peters' concern.

In creating his hypothetical case of Irma and Tony, Fr. Keller justifies his counsel by appealing to the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. "As I respond [to Irma's request for Communion], I must follow the guidelines that Pope Francis described in Amoris Laetitia, issued after the discussions and discernment of two Synods of Bishops on family life."

Peters disagrees.

Wrong. In administering Holy Communion to a member of the faithful, Roman Catholic ministers are bound not by "guidelines" supposedly fashioned from a single, ambiguous, and highly controverted papal document, but instead by the plain and dispositive text of another papal document, called the Code of Canon Law.

Watch the panel discuss the necessity of priests telling penitents to obey God in The Download—Being "Pastoral."


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Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.

Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th. is a staff writer for

Follow Bradley on Twitter: @BradleyLEli