Dr. Edward Peters 

To work for the proper implementation of canon law is to play an extraordinarily

constructive role in continuing the redemptive mission of Christ. Pope John Paul II







1983 Code



1917 Code


 Liber Extra



 Eastern Code


1152 x 864


3 jan 2013

Review of John Catoir, Where do you stand with the Church? (Alba House, 1997) 82 pp.

Edward Peters, Review of J. Catoir, Where do you Stand with the Church? The Dilemma of Divorced Catholics, in National Catholic Reg. (13-19 Jul 1997) 5.


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For more than 20 years, Father John Catoir directed The Christophers, a multi-media Catholic evangelization project that, in its gentle way, reaches millions of unchurched Americans each year. Before that, however, Father Catoir served as a diocesan judicial vicar for several years, notably during the 1970s, when major changes in canonical procedure were beginning to affect the annulment process first in the United States and then around the world.


Where Do You Stand, an updated version of Father Catoir's Catholics and Broken Marriages (1979), allows the priest-author to apply insights he developed during his two decades of work with inactive Catholics. In reading Where Do You Stand, however, it must be kept in mind that he penned his volume for a large, but nevertheless specific, audience: divorced Catholics. This decision helps keep Father Catoir's book focused; it also explains some of my misgivings.


The truth on Church teaching about marriage is the same for divorced Catholics as it is for married ones. Marriage is a life-time commitment between a man and a woman for their good and the good of any children God might send them. Admittedly, however, the manner in which one explains this teaching might vary depending on whether one is addressing a married Catholic or a divorced one. But, while Father Catoir's understanding and compassion for divorced Catholics comes through strongly in this book, it does so, at times, at some cost to the precision that one would want to see in a monograph dealing with such a controversial topic as annulments.


Example: "If a divorced Catholic" writes Father Catoir, "obtains an annulment and has the new marriage validated in the Church, everything is fine, but what about those who have simply followed their consciences and acted as if they have God's blessing on their second marriage? If there is no annulment, they have a canonical problem and possibly a grave moral problem." Now, in an age when many priests fail to call attention to grave moral problems among their people, Father Catoir's willingness to do so is responsible and welcome.


But, in wanting to strike a benign tone, he refers to the Catholics above as having "followed their own conscience." But, if these Catholics have truly followed their own consciences, such action itself virtually eliminates any possibility that they personally labor under a grave moral problem. Thus, Father Catoir's decision to use, shall we say, accomodational vocabulary, arguably smudges an already difficult subject. Moreover; his manner of expression, as it stands, says nothing to those many Catholics who have not so much followed their own conscience in marrying outside the Church, as they have basically overruled their consciences by so marrying. Surely this group, too, needs to hear what the Church has to say to them.


The strength of Father Catoir's book lies in chapter two, entitled "Why Is the Church so Strict on Marriage?" There Father Catoir deftly interweaves statistics and personal anecdotes with canon law and pastoral insight, calling on such diverse writers as Father Jean Pierre de Caussade SJ, and Hillary Rodham Clinton to help struggling couples access the Church's teaching treasury on marriage. No one can read Father Catoir's reflections herein and conclude other than that the man, and the Church he loves, know what they're talking about on marriage.


Chapter three provides an overview of the annulment process that, in the very small space available for it, is done well enough. Chapter five on the Church’s pastoral presence to the divorced resumes the highly thoughtful reflections that the author utilized to good effect in his second chapter.


Chapter four, however, addresses the "internal forum," and causes me the most concern. For starters, I think Father Catoir should have been much clearer that the "internal forum" solution is only to be considered after one has truly exhausted the Church's extensive "external forum" apparatus. In my experience, this important point is often soft-peddled in pastoral settings.


On some issues, moreover, the priest's practical advice limps. For example, he suggests that Catholics, divorced and remarried outside of the Church, who resume receiving Holy Communion should deflect questions from families and friends about their action by saying either (1) it's a personal matter between us and God, or (2) "I can't believe you're asking such a personal question!" Such responses, however, seem inconsistent with the notion of Christian marriage as a public sign of the unity between Christ and his Church, not to mention that reception of the Eucharist, our expression of literal communion with the Church, is a public act.


Indeed, even making allowances for the terminological latitude that one may allow a pastor, there are some lapses in precision. For example, on p. 62, Father Catoir claims as a direct quote from the 1983 Code of Canon Law the following lines: "The principles of the pursuit of truth and the primacy of conscience still come into play. In other words, dissent is possible.... The search for truth is everyone's duty and right." These lines, however, do not exist in the 1983 Code. Several times he slips into talking about marriages as being "proven valid" even though this is something that canonically cannot be done; and elsewhere he uses the term "revalidation" to mean, one supposes, convalidation, thereby replacing an admittedly unfamiliar term with one even less familiar.


These kinds of smaller issues, of course, can be easily addressed before a second edition comes out. What does require, I think, some significant reorganization is the treatment of "internal forum" lest, through a book that many pastors will place in the hands of divorced Catholics, an uncritical reading of chapter four results in many Catholics trying to adjudicate their marriage situation in their own minds.