Obedience and Canon 1752

Q: Could you elaborate on Canon 1752, and whether it can legitimately be used to argue that “what is illicit in ordinary times, can in a time of crisis be a good and holy act”?  I ask because of what is going on in the Archdiocese of San Antonio [Texas, USA] with the Mission of Divine Mercy.  Members of the Mission are claiming to receive locutions from Our Lord and Our Lady.  Although the Archbishop has forbidden them from sharing these messages, they began to publish them…

In response, the Archbishop … removed the Mission’s status as a Catholic apostolate of the Archdiocese.  Despite this, the Mission remains open … the Mission’s response to the question of obedience to the Archbishop is to claim that Canon 1752 permits their illicit Mass, and the faithful should rest assured that because of the crisis of the times, attending mass at the Mission can be a “good and holy act.”

… The Mission is causing confusion, I have family members who have been ensnared by the confusion and I am looking for ways to pull them out of it. –Cathryn

A: Cathryn is certainly right about the confusion.  Readers may be wondering why, if canon 1752 says what is being claimed here, we don’t hear about this canon more often!  Let’s take a look first at what has been happening in San Antonio, Texas, and then at what canon 1752 says and how it might (or might not) be applicable to this sad situation.

The Mission of Divine Mercy is located within the Archdiocese of San Antonio, and is home to what might appear at first glance to be a religious institute, consisting of both men and women.  In fact, it is a lay association (cc. 321-326),  to which then-Archbishop granted the status of a private juridic person (c. 116) in 2010.  While the members of this group wear religious habits and refer to each other as “religious,” they are actually governed by the canons on lay associations, not those pertaining to religious institutes (which procedurally makes a big difference in this case—more on that later). This arrangement may sound shady, but there’s nothing necessarily questionable about it: it’s common for Catholics who wish to begin a new religious institute to establish themselves first as a lay association of the faithful.  We saw another example of a group who did the same thing in “Founding New Religious Institutes: Pope Francis Changes the Law (Episcopal Authority, Part II).”

In this case, a priest from the Archdiocese was assigned to be the Guardian of the association—presumably functioning more or less as the group’s spiritual director, ensuring that all they do is in accord with Catholic teaching and with the stated purpose of the association, etc.—and the Mission of Divine Mercy was designated an “apostolate” of the Archdiocese, which would indicate among other things that its ministry met with the Archbishop’s approval, and that it was entirely suitable for the faithful of San Antonio to participate. Directly relevant to the Mission’s current situation is the fact that the Archdiocese does not contribute to its financial support; and the Mission isn’t located on diocesan property, either.  As a private juridic person, its buildings, bank accounts, and other possessions do not constitute ecclesiastical property (cf. c. 1257, and see “Who Controls Ecclesiastical Property?” for more on this).

So what prompted the “confusion” that Cathryn mentions?  According to the Mission’s website, one or more members of the association have been receiving “prophetic messages” from God.  As the priest-Guardian declared in February 2024,

…[W]e have been receiving powerful, loving, IMPORTANT Messages, from God the Father, from Jesus, from the Holy Spirit and from Our Blessed Mother.  These Messages, many of which were received by a Sister in our Community, offer tremendous hope for all God’s suffering children. (Emphasis in original)

One alleged prophecy, posted on February 22, 2024 and addressed to “priests and bishops,” declared,

You have not only let the smoke of Satan infiltrate into My Sanctuary; but you have allowed a whole army of demons to take your places.  And you have allowed the usurper to sit on the chair of My Peter—he who is carrying out the Great Treason that will leave My Church desolate.
AND YOU HAVE ALLOWED THIS….  Woe to you. (Emphasis in original)

The “usurper,” of course, is a pretty clear reference to Pope Francis—so this alleged prophecy is declaring that he is not really Pope, which in turn means of course that he should not be obeyed.  Lest you wonder whether or not the Mission of Divine Mercy interpreted it that way, the priest-Guardian subsequently said this:

If it is true that a usurper, intending to subvert the faith, is on the throne of Peter, are we to obey him and those under his dominion when they command unjust actions?

The “unjust actions” which Pope Francis “command[s]” weren’t specified; but “those under his dominion” would naturally include all diocesan bishops who acknowledge Francis as the Pope—the Archbishop of San Antonio among them.  Following his argument through to its logical conclusion, the priest-Guardian said of his Archbishop,

When superiors are actively committing or commanding grave evil, one is not obliged to obey them…. our Archbishop … is enthusiastically following Bergoglio, whom we do believe is trying to subvert the Church.

It’s not at all surprising that news of this quickly reached the Archbishop.  In his March 15, 2024 “public statement” posted here (see the final document, at the bottom), the Archbishop provides the faithful with some useful information regarding the history behind these “prophetic messages.”  It appears that the Archbishop was aware for some time that members of the association claimed to be receiving these messages from God—and “in order to prevent any misunderstandings and possible scandal,” he ordered the members of the Mission

… to refrain from publishing any alleged prophetic message until they were reviewed to ensure they were not harmful to the people of God.  This stipulation was intended to protect the faithful since the alleged prophetic writings include many scandalous claims and false teachings.  Until just recently, the members of the Mission of Divine Mercy have been obedient to my request.

The Archbishop didn’t specify how long he has known about these alleged prophecies, or whether any of them have ever been reviewed, and by whom.  Regardless, the priest-Guardian’s decision to publish (at least some of ) them without episcopal approval put the Mission on a direct collision-course with the Archbishop of San Antonio.

This brings us to the crux of Cathryn’s question.  Defending the decision to publish these “prophetic messages,” the priest-Guardian declared,

We Must Obey God.  We know that many people are concerned that the Mission of Divine Mercy is being disobedient to our Archbishop in publishing these Messages.  And that our “disobedience” discredits these Messages.  That is a very legitimate concern.  The key question is:  Are we obeying God?
We should always obey God.  And normally, we should obey legitimate human authorities—but only in those cases where human authorities are acting in accord with God’s law.

Earlier on, the priest-Guardian had noted that “we are neither theologians, nor canonists, nor Church historians”; but in support of his argument, the priest-Guardian cites the canon which Cathryn mentions:

…[W]e must follow a higher law.  This is something which the Church’s canon law itself asserts.  The most important canon in the Church, Canon 1752, is the measure by which all other canon laws are to be understood and implemented.  It states that the supreme law in the Church is the salvation of souls.  Therefore, in extraordinary circumstances, sometimes good, but lesser laws, may have to give way to this supreme law.

Well, if canon 1752 really is “the most important canon in the Church,” then you might understandably be asking yourself why you’ve never heard of it before.  Let’s take a look at what canon 1752 actually says, where it’s located in the code and why it’s there—and in the process, we’ll see what it means … and what it doesn’t.

There are a total of 1752 canons in the current Code of Canon Law.  The final book of the code is about procedural law; and the very last chapter of this very last book addresses “The manner of proceeding in the transfer of pastors.”  Here’s what the very last canon of this very last chapter says, in full:

Canon 1752.  In cases of transfer the prescripts of can. 1747 are to be applied, canonical equity is to be observed, and the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.

It should be evident that canon 1752 primarily addresses some of the procedural technicalities involved in transferring a pastor from one parish to another.  In fact, we ran into this canon in that context, in “When Can a Bishop Lawfully Transfer a Pastor to Another Parish?”  As can be seen, the phrase “the supreme law in the Church is the salvation of souls” is only one part of canon 1752 (and yet here’s a Catholic journalist who apparently never read it, wrongly declaring the contrary).  So why is the mention of “the salvation of souls” inserted at the end of this canon, instead of being placed somewhere else?

The answer is found in the history of the revision of the Code of Canon Law, which went on  for quite a few years after the end of the Second Vatican Council.  As we saw in “Are Women Required to Cover Their Heads in Church?” the current code was promulgated in 1983 by then-Pope John Paul II, replacing the previous code promulgated in 1917.  The final book of the 1917 code was the one on penal law—you can see the full outline of the books of the (now abrogated) 1917 code here.  When the Code Commission started the revision process, the initial presumption was that the book of penal law would once again be at the end of the code.

Those canonist-members of the Code Commission who were charged with the revision of the book on penal law wanted the final canon of this book to contain mention of this fundamental principle of church law, that the salvation of souls is the Church’s supreme law—which is actually an ancient Roman legal maxim (see “Tithing and Excommunication” for another example of canon law embracing Roman civil law).  In this way, the law would point out that in imposing penalties on Catholics who commit canonical crimes, judges shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the main point of the law is not to hammer violators with ecclesiastical sanctions, out of some obsession with the law for its own sake (remember the character of Inspector Javert in Hugo’s novel Les Miserables?).  Rather, judges shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that law exists as a guide, and they should be concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of those who are bound by it.

If the final book of the code were the book on penal law, then sticking this phrasing onto the last canon would likely be entirely appropriate.  Think about it: you’d be reading through canons talking all about punishing people … and then this reminder would pop up before your eyes, perhaps tempering any un-Christlike inclination to enjoy slamming some offender with a harsh sanction.

This neat, clever idea got derailed, however, when the decision was made to reorder the books of the new code, so that the code wouldn’t end with the perceived negativity of a discussion of penalties.  The book on sanctions and the book on procedures were flipped—so the 1983 code now ends with the dry, more neutral section on legal processes.  See the outline of the current, 1983 code here.

Consequently, tacking the statement that “the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church” onto the final canon of the final book of the code isn’t so neat and clever any more; but the Code Commission did it anyway.  This is the reason for the very curious reading of canon 1752.

(“How did you know that?” readers might ask.  When the various committees (called coetus in Latin) of the Code Commission used to meet, they always took detailed minutes—in Latin.  Over the many years since the promulgation of the code in 1983, the Commission has published various bits of various meetings of various coetus in this publication, which is not online.  Perhaps there was some rhyme or reason to it; but the decision to release different sets of minutes in this or that issue of the publication, in this or that year, has always seemed to be random and haphazard—making any search for a particular meeting of a specific coetus a tough slog, even if your Latin is excellent.)

This history naturally begs the question: since the phrase about the salvation of souls is included in a canon specifically about transferring a pastor from one parish to another, is that the only situation to which it is meant to apply, or what?  Whether you understand the story behind canon 1752 or not, it’s fairly obvious that “the salvation of souls is the Church’s supreme law” is a general principle, meant to apply to canon law overall, and not simply to one relatively uncommon procedural issue.  At the same time, note that the Code Commission certainly could have put this principle into a canon of its own—in fact, they might have made it canon 1 and introduced the entire code in this way, if they had wished!  But they didn’t, which obliquely tells us something about its relationship to the rest of the Code of Canon Law.

How, then, does this general principle apply to the situations addressed by the other 1751 canons, many of which we encounter every day?  Here’s an example that arises every day.

We saw in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic” that a marriage between a person baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it, and another person who is not baptized, is invalid (c. 1086.1).  But the very next paragraph (c. 1086.2) declares that a dispensation can be granted for a just and reasonable cause, if the Catholic spouse will not be in danger of defecting from the faith.  This is, of course, going to be a judgment call, made by either the bishop himself or a person whom he has delegated to grant such dispensations.  So what sort of criteria should be guiding the bishop (or his delegate) in making this decision?

Well, the general principle tacked onto canon 1752 provides the answer.  The decision to grant or refuse a dispensation in cases like these should depend, not on how loud the Catholic will complain if he/she doesn’t get his way, or on how much money the Catholic has donated to the diocese, or on the fact that the Catholic is an old classmate/friend of the bishop, or on how many dispensations the diocese has already approved this year.  No, it’s the principle that “the salvation of souls is the Church’s supreme law” which should be guiding the decision to dispense or not.  Is the non-Catholic spouse so hostile to the Church that there’s good reason to fear that the Catholic won’t be able to practice the faith in peace, once they’re married?  Or is the Catholic’s faith so obviously weak that he/she is already expressing interest in the non-Catholic’s religion—which might lead to leaving the Church and joining that religion later on?  This is one of many ways that “the salvation of souls is the Church’s supreme law” is correctly applied.

A far less common example was discussed in this space during the now-infamous 2020 lockdowns, in “When Can a Pastor Be Removed From Office?”  In that particular case, a Welsh parish priest defied the (illegal) civil ban on celebrating marriages, because an engaged couple of nomadic Travelers asked to be married now—and (as that post explains in more detail) the priest had good reason to fear for the couple’s moral wellbeing if he told them the wedding had to be postponed indefinitely.  The priest, in short, rightly put the salvation of their souls above any other consideration, correctly following canon law, and he ended up in hot water with the civil authorities as a result.

While we’re on the subject of those lockdowns, comparable instances in which this principle applied were encountered by clergy all over the world during that time, when many of their bishops forbade them to celebrate Masses, administer the sacraments, and otherwise minister to the faithful for whose spiritual wellbeing they were responsible—in direct, blatant violation of canon law and Catholic theology.  We looked repeatedly at these issues, in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” and “Refusing a Funeral Mass, Because of the Virus,” among many others from that time-period.  When faced with a choice between obeying an illegal order, and doing what was inarguably best for souls, priests who quietly ministered to Catholics who asked for Mass and the sacraments were obviously following this principle, rightly judging that “the salvation of souls is the Church’s supreme law,” and thus it overrode any unlawful command from their superiors.

Speaking of which, note that these examples are a far cry from unilaterally deciding on one’s own that a lawful order of one’s lawful superior must be disregarded.  In the San Antonio case, the Archbishop says that he had ordered the Mission not to publish the content of their alleged (i.e., unproven) “prophetic messages”—yet the Mission did so anyway.  The Archbishop’s instructions were reasonable and justifiable, and they certainly don’t violate the law.  In a nutshell, the Archbishop had authority to issue a command, and the Mission disobeyed it, because Mission-members disagreed with it.  In these circumstances there is no way to argue that canon 1752 justifies the Mission’s actions.

Now contrast this situation with that of Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), the great Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church, who claimed to her Carmelite superiors that

canon 1752

Santa Teresa de Ávila, school of Jusepe di Ribera, 17th century. Museo del Prado, Madrid

Jesus repeatedly appeared to her.  Since the Spanish Inquisition was still going strong during this period, anybody alleging to receive special favors from God was a prime candidate for interrogation as a heretic (and that’s exactly where Teresa ultimately ended up, only to be acquitted later).  False claims to mystical experiences by imaginative, hysterical women were far too commonplace; and even worse, in some cases it seemed that diabolical forces were involved.  Thus it’s no surprise that when Teresa’s confessor first heard that Jesus was purportedly appearing to her, the priest ordered her to disregard it, as a trick of the devil.  “Give him the fig!” her confessor ordered.

In Spain, “giving the fig” is roughly the equivalent of showing someone your middle finger today.  If the devil were appearing to you, disguised as Jesus, this could be construed as an appropriate reaction to the deception; but of course in Teresa’s case, Our Lord Jesus Christ really was appearing to her, and she knew that!  So what was she to do?

The answer was simple: obey.  When Our Lord appeared to Teresa, she reluctantly did what her confessor had commanded—apologizing to Christ at the same time.  He assured her that she was right to obey her superior, and that He was not offended.  Eventually, as we all know, Teresa’s communications from God were rightly acknowledged as such; but we can only imagine her internal conflict in the meantime, as she forced herself to obey her confessor.

The contrast between the response of Teresa to a lawful command of her lawful superior, and that of the Mission of Divine Mercy to theirs, is evident.  Apparently the priest-Guardian realized this when he wrote,

But don’t the saints show us heroic examples of obedience to what seem unjust orders? … Certainly. That is normal and good in normal times. But these times are different.

These times are different?  It’s an amazing assertion, given the chronic upheavals which the Catholic Church has been enduring for nearly 2000 years, as the forces of hell try constantly, yet vainly, to prevail against it (cf. Matt. 16:18).  The Church has survived, despite violent persecutions that have ended the lives of countless martyrs; despite heresies and schisms which have taken millions of people outside the Church; and perhaps worst of all, despite corruption and venality among the clergy, including bishops, archbishops, and even popes (see “Can You Be Both a Catholic and a Sedevacantist?” for discussion of some particularly well known examples of this).  And let’s not forget times of world war and plague, when normal daily life was disrupted for years across huge swathes of the earth—impeding the Church’s salvific mission as a result.  A church historian would be hard-pressed to identify a period of time when the Catholic Church was not struggling to deal with one major crisis or another!  Sure, the names and the details change; but the life of the Church pretty much consists of lurching from one disaster to the next.

Here’s the bottom line: canon 1752 cannot be invoked as justification to disobey a lawful directive from one’s lawful superior, merely because you’re convinced that the superior is wrong.  Period.  The reaction of the Archbishop of San Antonio here was understandable: in accord with canon 326.1, he suppressed the Mission of Divine Mercy, which is no longer a Catholic lay association (see the first document here).  For the record, procedurally it is far, far easier to suppress an association, than to suppress a religious institute (the latter was discussed in “Canon Law and a Convent of Rebellious Sisters“).  Once again, the members of the former association are expected to obey a lawful decree, by acknowledging its suppression; and once again, as Cathryn points out, they have instead chosen to disobey.

As we saw in “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” the Church has taught for centuries that the end does not justify the means.  It is one of the hallmarks of our faith that we Catholics obey lawful authority, whether we agree with it or not, and whether we like it or not!  As St. Teresa of Avila would doubtless remind us, obedience is a virtue.  It is a tragedy that the disobedience seen in the Archdiocese of San Antonio is causing confusion among the faithful.  St. Paul said it best: God is not the God of confusion, but of peace (1 Cor. 14:33).


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