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By Father Pat Legges

Over the past months, we have been hearing more and more about "canon law," but very little explanation has been given as to what that means. For some people, it conjures up the image of something archaic, a holdover to a time when the Church exercised temporal as well as spiritual authority. For others, it comes as a revelation that the Church has its own system of law.

Why "canon" law? The word kanon in Greek means a ruler or a measure. So when we speak of "canon law" we refer to the measure by which our behavior is to build up the unity of the Church. In the Church's history, such measures or standards were usually published after the major councils of the Church. These were compiled at different times in the Church's history, but were finally written into a single code in 1917. When Blessed John XXIII called for an ecumenical council on January 25, 1958, he also called for a revision of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. The revision was done in consultation with all the bishops of the world, along with the bishops' conferences and the schools and professional societies of canon law throughout the world. The result of this was the current Code of Canon Law which went into effect on November 27, 1983. From time to time, this law is supplemented by other legislation issued by the Holy Father, as well as by local legislation by the diocesan bishop or the conference of bishops, as well as local parish policies. [Archdiocesan policies and procedures can be accessed on the Archdiocesan Web Site:]

What's in the Code of Canon Law. The Code consists of 1752 canons, divided into seven "books" (General Norms, the People of God, The Teaching Office of the Church, The Sanctifying Office of the Church, Temporal Goods, Sanctions, and Processes). The reason why we have so few laws for the Church (as opposed to, for example, the civil or criminal codes in the United States) is due to the fact that canon law is based upon Roman law, and not English common law. As such, it lays down basic principles that are then applied to individual cases by those who have the responsibility of governing the Church.

The reason for law in the Church. Sometimes people wonder why the Church, inspired by the Spirit, needs a system of law. There is no opposition between those two things. As Pope John Paul II wrote when he issued the Code of Canon Law, "The Code [of Canon Law] is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace, charisms, and especially charity in the life of the Church and of the faithful. On the contrary, its purpose is rather to create such an order in the ecclesial society that, while assigning the primacy to love, grace, and charisms, it at the same time renders their organic development easier in the life of both the ecclesial society and the individual persons who belong to it." Thus, the laws of the Church are meant to make it easier for us to use the gifts of the Spirit in a more organized and unified manner.

The three functions of law. In general, the laws of the Church do three things: they specify rights, set forth duties, and provide for the vindication of rights. In specifying rights, the Code states who has a right to do something; for example, who has a right to receive the sacraments, who has a right to be consulted in Church matters, who has a right to expect compensation for their work in the Church. At the same time, Church law specifies who has a duty to do certain things. It details, for example, the responsibilities of bishops and pastors, so that people can know what they can expect from the pastoral leaders of the Church. Finally, the Code of Canon Law provides means by which people can vindicate their rights. Thus, if they do not feel their pastors are performing their duties correctly, or if they feel they have been injured by an action of another, or if they want to clarify their rights with regard to a previous marriage, people can approach the Church in order to vindicate their rights.

The purpose of law. This is all in keeping with the purpose of law, which is to allow people to use their gifts in the service of the good of the whole Church. This ensures that no one has to live out the gospel calling apart from all of those who have been baptized. All that we do is done in the context of the community of believers. The Code of Canon Law assures that we have unity in our service to one another, and that those who believe their rights have not been respected are able to gain a fair hearing.

For further readings: A Concise Guide to Canon Law by Kevin E. McKenna (Ave Maria Press, 2000)



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