Growing up American means growing up aware of how deeply society is influenced by laws. We know, without even having to think about it, that law has something to say about almost everything we do.
As children we’re taught about the various branches of government — legislative, executive, judicial — that pass, enforce and interpret the laws at various levels — federal, state and local. So we recognize how important it is to understand the different rules and regulations that affect so many daily activities.
Most of the time, of course, we carry on our activities without consciously thinking about how many laws impact us. We can do this, in part, because most of the civil laws we live under make sense and contribute to the smooth operation of society.
But in the back of our mind, especially when something goes significantly wrong, we are aware that, to one degree or another, civil law might have something to say. And we have at least a basic idea of where to turn for help in learning more about legal issues.
The Law of the Church
Growing up Catholic, on the other hand, means growing up with almost no appreciation of how extensively canon law, the internal legal system of the Catholic Church, affects our daily life of faith. It means not knowing that canon law lies behind many things that we as Catholics take for granted. And it means not knowing that, in too many cases, important ecclesiastical rights and obligations might be going unrecognized in our lives.
Occasionally a canon law issue comes directly into our personal world, as might happen, say, in an annulment case. Or canon law may gain our attention when it makes the headlines, as might happen, say, when a public figure is excommunicated.
But even then, most Catholics don’t realize that what they see is only a small part of a complete legal system, a legal system that goes back to the ancient Church — in short, a legal system about which they might want to, and need to, know more.
Like every large and complex society, the Catholic Church long ago discovered that reasonable, written rules were important for the smooth functioning of the disparate people and projects being under-taken in so many different lands and conditions. Over the centuries, the accumulated pastoral and administrative wisdom of Church leaders was recorded, organized, tested and commented upon by legal experts.
Over time, however, these collections of regulations and “canons,” as they were called to distinguish them from civil laws, became increasingly hard to use. (The word canon comes from a Greek term meaning “a rule.”) Rules that made sense in one context were sometimes mistakenly applied in other contexts. Norms that worked at one time in history might be misapplied in other historical periods.
To remedy these problems, in 1917 the Catholic Church published its first integrated Code of Canon Law. At last, in one place, clear provisions on the work of priests and bishops, administration of Church property, celebration of sacraments, issues in education and so on were set forth (albeit in Latin!) for the consultation of anyone in the Church.
This Pio-Benedictine Code (so-called because of the two pontiffs, Popes Pius X and Benedict XV, involved in its creation and promulgation) was immediately hailed as a juridical and pastoral work of genius.
But while Roman (Latin-rite) Catholics benefited enormously by having a single Code of Canon Law, Eastern Catholics still did not have their own code (although work toward one had been going on for several decades).
Moreover, as the 20th century unfolded, it became increasingly clear that many of the canons in the 1917 code would need updating. This became quite apparent after the Second Vatican Council, which helped the Church confront better an increasingly secular civil society.
After a long, worldwide consultation process, Pope John Paul II promulgated, in 1983, a revised Code of Canon Law for the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1990 he issued the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. These two documents, both of which are available in modern language translations, represent the primary current legislation of the Catholic Church.
Looking only at the 1983 code, its 1,752 canons are spread over seven chapters, or “books.” Book I offers general canonical definitions and sets out the ground rules for applying law in the Church. Book II presents the basic rights and obligations of various persons in the Church.
Book III contains the norms that apply to the Church’s teaching ministry. Book IV gives the most important rules on sacraments (though there are not as many rules on liturgy in the code as some might think).
Book V regulates Church property. Book VI deals with ecclesiastical offenses and penalties. And, finally, Book VII is a procedural book with rules for canonical trials.
Yes, you read that last line correctly: The Catholic Church conducts legal trials in courts (called tribunals), which in turn play an important role in the canonical system. For that matter, canon law has lawyers (called advocates), law schools to train its specialists (called pontifical faculties), law reviews and commentaries, and indeed, in one way or another, just about everything that we might expect to find in a modern legal system.
Civil Law vs. Canon Law
There are, however, some important differences between canon law and civil law. For starters, canon law does not take its “marching orders” from secular or political concerns, but rather from the theological principles of the Catholic Church.
Canon law, moreover, approaches many technical legal issues in a way that more resembles the “continental law” or “civil law” legal tradition. This approach differs in many ways from the “common law” process with which Americans and people in other nations legally influenced by England are familiar.
Also, there are far fewer canon lawyers than there are civil lawyers. So finding answers to canonical questions, whether they are simple or complex, can take a bit longer than some might wish.
More and more, though, dioceses and seminaries are offering survey courses in canon law to the wider public. Websites dedicated to canon law are beginning to appear, and affordable commentaries — that is, private explanations by experts — on canon law are available through Catholic and secular booksellers.
Best of all, the 1983 Code of Canon Law is available online and in hard copy. While canon law is, to be sure, a technical discipline, it was nevertheless meant to be read and applied by the faithful at all levels in the Church. There is no better way to begin acquiring some familiarity with our fascinating Catholic legal system than by simply picking up and reading passages of the current Code of Canon Law.