When discussing canon law, Primum non nocere

In the Light of the Law

A Canon Lawyer’s Blog


  • Edward Peters, JD, JCD, Ref. Sig. Ap.

    Dr. Peters has held the Edmund Cdl. Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit since 2005. He earned a J. D. from the Univ. of Missouri at Columbia (1982) and a J. C. D. from the Catholic Univ. of America (1991). In 2010, he was appointed a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura by Pope Benedict XVI. For more infomation on Dr. Peters, see CanonLaw.Info.

April 4, 2013 – By Dr. Edward Peters

This post arises in the wake of, but is not about, Pope Francis and foot-washing.

Rather, this post addresses the problems occasioned for others when canonical misinformation is injected into popular discussions of controversial matters. Although errors about canon law can be made very quickly, the time required to correct them allows such errors, thanks to modern technology, to be widely propagated among audiences largely unable to recognize them. But, like physicians honoring the Hippocratic maxim “First, do no harm”, those making canonical arguments should “First, don’t misrepresent the law.” I address here a misrepresentation of the law in one area that is being parlayed into a defense of disregard for it in others.

Several places assert that Pope St. Pius X (reigned 1903-1914) acted contrary to Church law when he famously authorized administration of holy Communion to a young English child. One phrasing of the Pius-qua-autocrat claim runs as follows (emphasis added):

The pope … can either depart from mere ecclesiastical law … or completely change it …. A good example is that of St. Pius X who, in order to combat growing threats of modernism and moral Jansenism within both the Church and the wider culture, lowered the age of Holy Communion from that of canonical adulthood to that of the age of reason. … St. Pius X also would have violated several canons when he ordered that a young child who had expressed to him faith in the Real Presence, but had not yet reached canonical age, be administered Holy Communion. It was only after that experience that he changed the law.

Now, whatever rhetorical use one wishes to make of this famous story, one cannot cite it as an example of a pope changing, let alone violating, Church law for Pius did not change or act contrary to the law of his time in this regard. Indeed he expressly and correctly described such action as being in full accord with then-current law. I will contest two specific allegations, namely, that Pius: (1) “lowered the age of Holy Communion from that of canonical adulthood to that of the age of reason”, and (2) would seem to have “violated several canons when he ordered that a young child who … had not yet reached canonical age be administered Holy Communion.” I think both of these assertions are wrong.

A preliminary point.

Both assertions (that the age of Communion was “canonical adulthood” and that several canons seemed contravened by the pope’s action) are offered gratuitously. Granted these assertions are made in internet posts, and internet posts need not be written as quasi-dissertations, but neither are internet assertions exempt from the norms of discourse, especially not when their claims concern technical and controversial matters. So, Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur, the public has a right to ask for evidence that the age of holy Communion in Pius’ time was “canonical adulthood” and that several canons stood in the way of the pope’s action with the child. Recalling that Pius X lived completely under Decretal (not codified) law, we would, of course, be awaiting evidence of these claims under the Ius Decretalium.

To save some time, let me suggest that no evidence supports these claims. While it is not my duty to prove negatives, I am willing to attempt that burden here.

1. The age of holy Communion in Pius’ day was not “canonical adulthood”.

We begin by asking, what was “canonical adulthood” in Pius’ time?

The canonical age of adulthood under current canon law is 18 (1983 CIC 97 § 1); the canonical age of adulthood under Pio-Benedictine law was 21 (1917 CIC 88 § 1). The canonical age of adulthood in Decretal law, however, depended on many factors including sex, location, state in life, and the context of the question (DDC I: 317 and DMC I: 128), but ranged from about 12 to about 25. Wernz-Vidal II: 4-5. No set age for “canonical adulthood” can be identified in Decretal law, so one should not claim that it was abandoned by Pius.

This obvious complication for the Pius-qua-autocrat argument need not detain us, though, for the age for licit reception of holy Communion in Pius’ day had nothing whatever to do with “adulthood” of any sort. Notwithstanding controversies among authors in Pius’ day, the canonical age for holy Communion was, under Decretal law, clear and Pius observed it.

2. In Pius’ day, holy Communion could be licitly administered at age seven—or even earlier.

Summarizing his presentation of the late Decretal law under which Pius governed (including citations to Lateran IV, St. Thomas, Trent, and several Roman interventions against local bishops delaying Communion), Crotty (1947) at 19, 21, wrote: “Despite the teachings of many theologians and the decrees of various local councils and synods, the official teaching of the Church from the thirteenth century has been that children should begin to receive Holy Communion immediately after attaining the use of reason. … [and] it is clear that Rome regarded children as having reached age of discretion when they could distinguish the Blessed Eucharist from common bread; … the opinions of those who demanded a more advanced age were not in accordance with the mind of the Church” (my emphasis).

So, how does one view Pius’ action now? The pope encountered a child who, in his opinion, “could distinguish the Blessed Eucharist from common bread” and, contrary to widespread practice, but not contrary to the law, he administered holy Communion to that child. I conclude that Pius followed Church law (an unpopular one at that); he certainly did not contravene it.

In 1910 (I suppose after the incident with the English child) Pius authorized publication of the famous curial document on early Communion, Quam singulari (good summary here). That document plainly reiterated that early holy Communion, administered around the age of reason—with ‘reason’ to be assessed partially in terms of years but more specifically in terms of a child’s ability to distinguish the Blessed Eucharist from common bread—was what Church law and teaching had long held and still held about early holy Communion, albeit in the face of many who were claiming that the law (or at any rate common practice and various extraneous factors like keeping kids in Catholic schools longer) supported delay.

In short, there is far more evidence that Pius was, and saw himself as, applying Church law on Communion exactly as it then existed, and that he boldly called on others to observe the law, too, even if that meant giving Communion to a four year old child when that child could distinguish the Eucharist from ordinary bread. Pius indeed received criticism for his actions, but it was criticism for having followed what was the law, not for his having changed it (which he did not do in this regard), and certainly not for his having disregarded it (which, again, he did not do). Pius brought about a welcome change of practice precisely by recalling the law for those who had—not malevolently, but misguidedly—strayed from it. His example is that, and nothing else.

I trust the above is sufficient to cast doubt on casual claims that Pope St. Pius X changed the age of Communion, let alone that he acted contrary to Church law in that matter, and reminds the public of their right to ask those making canonical arguments to be prepared to document or demonstrate their claims.

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