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‘American Papist’ Papa

Dr. Edward Peters holds civil law and canon law degrees and is an adviser to the Vatican, but he is known in new media circles as the father of the “American Papist” blogger, Thomas Peters.

Dr. Peters, 53 years old, was born in St. Louis, and now lives with his wife, Angela, and their five younger children near Ann Arbor, Michigan. He teaches canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He has also served as a leading defense witness for the Holy See in a number of lawsuits related to the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Edward Peters with his wife, Angela, and their six children. Thomas Peters is in the back at right.

His expertise has been recognized by Pope Benedict XVI, who this year appointed him as a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura, the first lay person named to that position since the Signatura was refounded early in the 20th century. He is currently the only American among the 12 designated consultants.

Fathers for Good asked Dr. Peters about his work within the Church and his thoughts on his well-known blogging son.

Fathers for Good: As a teacher of the next generation of priests, what do you see as the biggest challenge for the Church and the faith in the coming years?

Dr. Peters: Well, there are two challenges. First, the world for which we are preparing priests is much more deformed than it was even a generation ago, let alone two or three. The New Evangelization called for by Pope John Paul II, and in which we specialize at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, requires priests who can confront not simply a non-Christian culture, but a culture that used to be Christian and has only a distorted image of Christianity. In other words, priests today must understand how to introduce Christ to those who think that they know him but who have concluded that he failed to make any real difference in the world.

The second problem is that, although most young men today come to priestly formation with hearts more open to the Word of God than, I think, was the case a generation ago, they too often lack the kind of broad Christian maturation that came with stable families and functional societies. We have to teach them many things about the faith that my generation could take for granted. Thank God, however, that they are willing to learn and are quick studies!

FFG: Is it true that the next generation of priests is more ‘American papist’ and orthodox than those ordained 40 years ago? What do you say to those who see ‘rigid’ where others see orthodox?

Dr. Peters: There is some evidence of that generational difference, but it’s not a helpful comparison to make because there are so many exceptions to it. As for the “rigidity” issue, well, I think that “rigid” is mostly a label that tells one more about the labeler than the one labeled. On the other hand, orthodoxy can be, and should be, frankly striven for, but with the caveat that any claim that “orthodoxy is enough” is dangerous. Knowing the right answers is important, but priests need also to be able to present those answers effectively to a wide range of people in a very wide range of circumstances. 

FFG: How does it feel to be the father of the famous American Papist blogger? Has his success at that new media surprised you?

Dr. Peters: I love my kids, but I am reluctant to take pride in their accomplishments, precisely because they are their accomplishments, not mine. I am going to be judged by God for, among other things, how I raised my kids, but not for what my kids did with the upbringing that Angela and I gave them. As the old saying has it, “God has no grandchildren.” Don’t get me wrong, I read the American Papist everyday and I often learn something from it. But I chuckle at being introduced as the father of the American Papist, as if that happy fact was going to cover for my own faults.

FFG: Is there a place in the Church for a layman with a doctorate in canon law? Most married men would assume it would be a one-way ticket to the unemployment line.

Dr. Peters: I get this question frequently. The problem is not finding work in canon law, for there are several full-time openings at any given time. Rather, the problem is supporting oneself and a family on a salary structure that assumes most full-time practitioners will be priests and religious. Many of the lay canon lawyers I know, at least in America, must support themselves by combining canonical duties with other specialties such as civil law, administrative ability, or teaching. That fact, taken in combination with the reality that canon law graduate studies are as lengthy as, and sometimes longer than, civil law school, makes entry into canon law difficult for laymen. Not impossible, but difficult.

That said, we need more good canon lawyers in general, and more solid lay persons in particular. Several of my lay students over the years have made canon law their profession and are now serving ably therein. I hope others will follow in their footsteps.

Dr. Peters maintains a website (www.canonlaw.info) of expert commentary on canon law, which he describes as the oldest continuously functioning legal system in the western world.