Whatever happened to the Church’s Code of Canon Law.  At the very least it has been so largely ignored that the average Catholic is probably unaware that there is such a thing as the Code of Canon Law.  To Blessed Pope John Paul II’s credit he reformed and revised the Code in 1983 making it much more suited to the life of Catholics in the 21st Century.  Sad to say, however, one rarely hears of the application of Canon Law to the life of the Church in the United States other than when the laity appeal the actions of their bishops to the Holy See.  Pope Benedict had something very important to say about the relevance of the Church’s Code of Canon Law to the present situation of chaos that seems to characterize so much of the life of the Church in the United States today.

–   Abtssum





VATICAN CITY, 21 JAN 2012 (VIS) – This morning in the Vatican, Benedict XVI received the dean, judges, promoters of justice, defenders of the bond, officials and lawyers of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, for the occasion of the inauguration of the judicial year.


Benedict XVI focused his remarks on a fundamental aspect of judicial ministry: the interpretation of canon law with a view to its correct application. The hermeneutic of canon law “is closely associated with the very concept of Law in the Church”, the Pope explained, and he went on to define two forms of interpretation which lead to impoverishment of the law: “The identification of canon law with the system of canonical legislation”, which effectively means overlooking “natural law, divine positive law and the vital relationship of all law with the communion and mission of the Church”. In the second form of interpretation, “the specific situation becomes a decisive factor in determining the authentic meaning of a legal precept in a particular case”; but in this way “it is human interpretation that decides what is juridical, and a sense of objective law is lacking”.


“But there is another way”, said the Holy Father, “in which a correct understanding of canon law leads to its being interpreted as part of a search for the truth about law and justice in the Church. … Authentic law is inseparable from justice. Obviously, this principle also holds true for canon law, in the sense that it cannot remain closed in a merely human system of norms but must be associated with a just ordering of the Church in which a higher law holds sway. In this perspective, human positive legislation loses its primacy … and can no longer simply be identified as the Law. Nonetheless human legislation is an important expression of justice, first and foremost for what it declares to be divine law, but also for what it identifies as being the legitimate ambit of human law.


“In this way”, Benedict XVI added, “it becomes possible to apply a legal hermeneutic that is authentically juridical, in the sense that, in keeping with the meaning of the law, we can raise the crucial question of what is just in each particular case. … Human rules must be interpreted in the light of the situations with which they deal. These situations always contain a core of natural law and of divine positive law, with which all norms must be in harmony if they are to be rational and truly juridical.


“From this realistic standpoint, the sometimes arduous task of interpretation acquires a meaning and a goal. … It is revitalised by an authentic contact with the overall situation of the Church, which facilitates access to the true meaning of the law”.


“It follows that the interpretation of canon law must take place within the Church. … ‘Sentire cum Ecclesia’ also applies to discipline, because of the doctrinal foundations which are always present and operative in the Church’s legal norms. Thus the hermeneutic of renewal in continuity, about which I have spoken with reference to Vatican Council II (which is so closely associated with current canonical legislation), must also be applied to canon law”.


“This basic approach is applicable to all forms of interpretation: from academic research on canon law … to the daily search for just solutions in the lives of the faithful and their communities. Meekness is necessary in order to accept the laws, seeking to study … the juridical tradition of the Church in order to identify with that tradition and with the legal dispositions issued by pastors, especially pontifical laws and Magisterium on canonical issues, which are binding in their teachings on the law”.


All this has particular importance “as regards laws on the act of Marriage and its consummation, and Holy Orders. … Particular care must be taken to apply all juridically binding measures which tend to ensure coherence in the interpretation and application of laws, as required by justice. These measures include the Pontifical Magisterium in this field, contained above all in addresses to the Roman Rota; the jurisprudence of the Rota itself, … and the norms and declarations issued by other dicasteries of the Roman Curia”.


The Holy Father continued: “This hermeneutical unity in the essentials in no way prejudices the function of local tribunals, which are called to face the complex real situations that arise in all cultural contexts. Each of them must proceed with a sense of reverence towards the truth of law, applying judicial and administrative norms so as to achieve exemplary communion in discipline, this being an essential aspect of Church unity”.


Finally Pope Benedict turned his attention to the recent transfer to the Roman Rota of an office dealing with the procedures for dispensation from unconsummated marriage and causes for the nullity of priestly ordination. “I am sure”, he said, “that there will be a generous response to this new ecclesial task”.

AC/                                                                                                   VIS 20120123 (830)

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. anselmusjmj says:

    If we ever keep Canon Law again, Canon Law will keep us; It will keep us from division, disunity, and unholiness. As Aristotle said in Book 5 of his Nichomachean Ethics: “Justice and equity are neither absolutely identical nor generically different. … If they are different, either the just or the equitabe is not good; if both are good, they are the same thing. … For equity, while superior to one sort of justice, is itself just … Justice and equity are therefore the same thing, and both are good, though equity is the better. The source of the difficulty is that equity, though just, is not legal justice, but a rectification of legal justice. The reason for this is that law is always a general statement, yet there are cases which it is not possible to cover in a general statement.” There have been inequities in the Catholic Church, especially in the dealings of bishops against Mother Church’s priests, because of the disregard of Canon Law. The scandal of how bishops have mishandled and abused priests is even more scandalous than the sins of priests (the ones who are ACTUALLY guilty and not falsely accused.). Would that bishops around the world would follow Canon Law, when properly enforced, is loving.


  2. Curt Stoller says:

    Dr. Edward Peters, who holds the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and who in 2010 was named a Referenary of the Apostolic Signatura by Pope Benedict XVI was very impressed with the book, “The Courage to be Catholic,” by George Weigel, a Catholic layman [who was awarded the ‘Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice,’ the highest medal that can be awarded to any layman by a Pope. ] But Dr. Peters felt that Weigel’s otherwise admirable book left out the entire “canon law” dimension of the liberal crisis that wrecked havoc on the Catholic Church during the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s:

    “He [Weigel] does not convey effectively that the ‘failure’ to follow canon law for decades was in large part what got us into this mess. . . I don’t know what else to say. If people are going to break the law, and other people with responsibility to enforce the law, don’t do so, we see the failure, not of law, but of those who are supposed to follow it. [].

    The Catholic culture of dissent that followed Humanae Vitae is now the status quo in the Catholic Church in the United States. The first test of the dissenters was in the Archdiocese of Washington where 19 priests who opposed official church teaching were disciplined by Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle. Fear of schism prompted the Congregation of the Clergy led by John Cardinal Wright to throw Cardinal O’Boyle to the wolves. Cardinal Wright didn’t want discipline. He wanted the whole thing to go away quietly without a public retraction from the dissenters or even a requirement that they publicly affirm the moral truths of Humanae Vitae. No public retraction? No serious discipline for disobedience?

    This was all that was needed to encourage and embolden the soft and easy Catholic dissenters who were already firmly entrenched in Catholic universities by the tenure system. Word spread quickly that so long as Rome feared open schism, there would be no consequences for disobedience and disloyalty to the Church. None or at most, a slapped wrist. Orthodox Catholic students at Catholic universities were put on notice: either become a zealous dissenter yourself or face a bleak academic future. Scholarships, publishing opportunities, hiring and tenure all depended on whether a student could openly take a Papal Encyclical and throw it in the garbage. First an encyclical. Then Denzinger. Then the Gospel itself.

    Anti-nomianism [a term created by Martin Luther!] became the order of the day. Everything remotely legalistic was to be stripped from Catholicism and this included the morality and harsh sayings of Jesus Himself. Catholicism was to be nothing more than a form of superficial civility, understanding and compassion. “I’m OK. You’re OK. We’re all OK.” Jesus was seen as rendering the Law obsolete and not just the ritual laws of the Torah, but even the moral laws. Jesus was seen as rendered law itself obsolete. The idea that Jesus took the moral law and deepened it and sharpened it and demanded perfection from His followers was explained away through antinomian biblical scholarship [a la Rudolph Bultmann.]

    Individual bishops, pressured by the inappropriate corporate consensus system of the NCCB and the USCCB caved into liberal groupthink. Note well: A copy of “Robert’s Rules of Order” is not laid on a bishop’s neck during the rite of episcopal ordination. The Gospel of Jesus, not liberalism is the yoke that Bishops are to carry. A bishop is given a ring at his ordination. This is not some meaningless rite. It is a wedding ring uniting the Bishop to his flock. It is not like a secret ring that gets one past the doorkeeper of the USCCB “club.”

    The laity too were eager to embrace Lite Christianity. There is plenty of guilt to go around.

    Law is not some troublesome thing that God lays upon us out of caprice. Law is medicinal. Telling a person to drink water and eat and get plenty of sleep. These are laws. Are they oppressive? Is telling someone not to drink antifreeze an imposition and an outrage?? God’s laws are not some external burden placed upon us. They are what keep us spiritually alive. This is perhaps an issue that should be explored by serious catechists. The anti-nomianism that produced decades of soft and cozy Catholic Lite catechisms filled with pictures of butterflies and sunflowers . . . that anti-nomianism has got to go!

    The schism Pope Paul VI feared did not go away and disappear. It just went underground.

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