What is canon law and why do we have it?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Tuesday 02, October 2018 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs
Canon law
What territory is governed by canon law? Norms for the sacraments, worship, preaching, clerical and religious life, Catholic education, the use of church property, how to resolve internal conflicts, when to administer penalties, and both the rights and obligations of the faithful.

I didn’t do well in canon law class, so here’s a chance to redeem myself. Canon comes from the Greek word for rule; the church applies it to its own unique law. The early church began to develop codes and standards as early as the household codes recommended by St. Paul. Church fathers in the first several centuries added their recommendations. Church Councils throughout history augmented these. Different regional bishops assembled their own regulations, and for a long time, the church had competing laws in different places.

Then came Gratian, an Italian canonist of the twelfth century. He organized and reconciled some 4000 rulings in a compilation that remained in wide usage until 1917. In that year, the first codified universal canon law was put into effect. While intended for periodic updating, such evolution was neglected until the present code of 1983.

The use of the word canon in regard to church law can be confusing. The canon of Scripture, for example, doesn’t change, and canonized saints are presumed to be in place for good (but remember what happened to poor St. Christopher!) Canon law, by contrast, is obviously not permanent. Much of canon law concerns church discipline, which certainly does evolve over time. Even laws presently in force can be dispensed for “due cause”. Some laws, however, are considered representative of “natural law”: reasoned according to the created order. Some follow “divine positive law”: revealed by God, as in Scripture. These latter two kinds of law within canon law are considered unchangeable.

What territory is governed by canon law? Norms for the sacraments, worship, preaching, clerical and religious life, Catholic education, the use of church property, how to resolve internal conflicts, when to administer penalties, and both the rights and obligations of the faithful. It’s a big book, and if you’re intent on viewing it, my recommendation is to go to a library, and get a volume that includes the very helpful commentary.

Pope John XXIII called for the revision that emerged by 1983. Pope Paul VI oversaw ten guiding principles for that new version. Three are especially helpful for our understanding: Law is necessary so long as it’s employed pastorally. Law is subsidiary; that is, rulings are not created equal and some are clearly more urgent. And finally, protecting the rights of the faithful is paramount.

Scripture: Exodus 20:22—24:18; 34:17-27; Deuteronomy 5:6-21; Matthew 5:17—6:8; 15:1-9; Luke 10:25-28; Galatians 2:21; Romans 2:12-24; James 2:8-13

Books: The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, by Canon Law Society of America, edited by James Coriden, et. al. (Paulist Press, 1985)

A Concise Guide to Canon Law: A Practical Handbook for Pastoral Ministers, by Kevin McKenna (Ave Maria Press, 2000)
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