What Is Canon Law All About?

Canon law has been in the news quite a bit recently. Normally, canon law isn’t in the spotlight; however, it effects every Catholic whether they know it or not.

Some comments about canon law can be rather negative. Unfortunately, the law is seen by many as being opposed to mercy. This is actually not the case. Justice and mercy are always hand in hand. We need both.

The Purpose of Law

So what is canon law all about? Put simply, canon law is how the Church organizes and governs herself. The word “canon” basically means rule. There are about 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, and the Church administrates a large collection of institutions. Therefore, the Church needs an organizational structure to carry out its office of governance and its saving mission. Every society needs laws — and so does the Church. There is an old saying: ubi societas ibi lex (“where there is a society there is law”). Imagine driving on the highway where there are no rules of the road? It would ultimately lead to disaster.

Canon law deals with all the issues that any legal system does — for example, rights, property issues, procedures, administration, personnel, crimes and trials. It also does some things that civil law cannot, such as laws regarding sacraments, sacred places and magisterial teachings.

The Church’s laws have developed greatly over its 2,000-year history. Beginning in the New Testament, we see that there are procedures for replacing an apostle (see Acts 1:15-26); also, what to do when there are disputes in the Church (Mt 18:15-20). As time went on there were various councils that legislated on issues of concern. Popes would issue decretals to settle disputes or enforce discipline. Courts were established to hear cases and issue decisions. In addition, they used procedures adapted from Roman law.

Eventually, these disparate laws and decretals were collected into what became known as canon law. In 1917, there was a major reform and the law was codified, published as the first Code of Canon Law. After the Second Vatican Council there was a revision, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law was issued for Latin-rite (often referenced as Roman-rite) Catholics by Pope St. John Paul II. Later, in 1990, a separate code was issued for the Eastern Catholic Churches. While not all of the Church’s laws are in the code, it is the place to start.

Since it affects most Catholics in America, let us consider the Roman-rite code. It is organized into seven books. A brief survey of the code will provide a general idea of what it covers.

A Walk Through the Code

There are several Books in the code as follows:

Book I is called General Norms and is the backbone of the code. While it might not seem exciting, it informs the rest of the code, which cannot be understood without it. Book I deals with the various kinds of laws in the Church, how they are issued, who they pertain to, and how they are enforced. There are canons regarding juridic persons — things like your diocese or parish. Also there are canons on the officers who serve the Church. Some of these canons may seem like minor details, but the code is a complex thing. If one part of your car’s engine fails, even if it is just a small screw, it can cause the whole thing to malfunction. It is the same with the Code of Canon Law.

Book II is about the People of God. It sets out the obligations and rights of the lay faithful and clergy. If you want to know what rights you have in the Church, this is the book where you will find them. In addition, it contains the hierarchical constitution of the Church including the Pope, dioceses and religious orders. It shows how they are to be organized and governed.

Book III is on The Teaching Function of the Church. This book covers preaching, catechesis, missions and education. This book tells us what levels of authority there are for Church teachings. It also has rules for educational institutions, including Catholic universities.

Book IV is about The Sanctifying Function of the Church. This pertains to the sacraments. It tells us who can receive them, administer them and what is required for their validity. The section on matrimony is of particular interest since the recent synods on the family. It defines marriage and its valid celebration, and gives the legal reasons why a marriage may be ruled invalid in an annulment process. This book also covers other liturgical acts such as funerals. In addition, it contains regulations for churches, shrines and other places of worship.

Book V covers The Temporal Goods of the Church. This is basically the Church’s property law. It gives regulations on how to properly administer the Church’s property and finances. Also, it includes rules on contracts and wills.

Book VI is on Sanctions in the Church. This is the Church’s criminal law. It sets out the authority the Church has to punish crimes, who can be punished, what crimes may be punished, and what the penalties are for those crimes. It may surprise many people to find this in the Code of Canon Law, but every institution has disciplinary regulations. However, in our law, the goals are to repair scandal, restore justice and reform the offender. So there is more to it than simply punishing crime.

Book VII is about Processes. This book covers trials, their procedures, officers of the court, how to organize courts, the rights of the parties and appeals. Those who watch “Law & Order” on television would find Church trials not nearly as exciting. Normally, cases are handled in a documentary way. Rarely do the parties meet each other in an open court. This may strike us as odd, but, in fact, it is the norm in many judicial systems influenced by Roman law in other parts of the world.

In total, there are 1,752 canons in the code, so to cover them all would require a lengthy commentary. In fact, there are a variety of commentaries and other books that are helpful in understanding canon law.

Canon law includes both divine law and ecclesiastical law. Divine law is unchangeable and is applicable to every human being — for example, the law against murder. Ecclesiastical law is rooted in Church law and is not infallible, although it is authoritative — for example, the laws regarding fast and abstinence. Our system of law is human and not perfect.

Justice and Mercy

As mentioned earlier, often in our minds we think of law and mercy as being opposed. Even some priests do not see the law as being “pastoral.” However, the law is about order and justice. These are necessary if there is to be mercy.

Justice is defined as giving and receiving one’s due. If we are wronged, we desire justice. If someone hits your car in the parking lot, you will want their insurance to pay for the accident. Justice involves moral obligations and responsibilities.

Centenary of First Code of Canon Law
The Catholic Church is the oldest continually operating legal system in the Western Hemisphere. That being said, however, the Church’s code of law has a long and complex history. The first canons decreed by the Church were from early ecumenical councils. During the first millennium more canons were added in a variety of ways — from local councils to papal decrees. By the Middle ages it became desirable to begin gathering disparate canons into a comprehensive and systematic corpus — first effectively accomplished by an 11th-century monk named Gratian. It was not until the 20th century, however, that Pope St. Pius X called for the disparate canons to be brought into accord and harmony to form one body of canon law. Completed by 1917 and put into use the following year, the 1917 Code of Canon Law was the Church’s first and is often referred to as the “Pio-Benedictine Code” in deference to the two popes who brought it about.

The law is concerned with the common good. Of course, there are disputes about what the common good is, and that is where the law comes in, to settle the issue fairly. The Church is concerned with spiritual realities, but these are lived out in the material world. We are not divorced from this world. This is where we must live out the demands of the Gospel. These include justice for the poor, oppressed and others who cannot defend their own rights. Therefore, mercy, in fact, includes justice rather than opposing it.

For us to show mercy to others means ensuring that their rights are respected and upheld. It also means that they have the right to the true teachings of the Church, that the sacraments will be validly administered, that the finances will be handled properly, that those who injure others will be restrained and punished and that everyone will receive the due process of law. All of these things are part of our canon law. They are concrete ways in which mercy is accomplished in the Church.

In the bull of indiction by which he opened the Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis said: “It would not be out of place at this point to recall the relationship between justice and mercy. These are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love” (No. 20). He added, a little bit later: “Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert and believe.… God’s justice is His mercy given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus the Cross of Christ is God’s judgment on all of us and on the whole world, because through it He offers us the certitude of love and new life” (No. 21). Pope Francis points out that Jesus Christ is to be at the center of all that canon law aims to accomplish.

Ultimately, canon law is at the service of the Church. It exists to assist the Church in its mission to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. The last canon in the code states clearly that the purpose of the law — indeed, the highest law — is the salvation of souls. That makes canon law a true work of mercy.

The Very Rev. James Goodwin, J.C.L., is a graduate of The Catholic University of America and judicial vicar of the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota.