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Ten Questions about Canon Law

Pete Vere

1. What is canon law and why is it important?

Every organization, whether secular or religious, requires its own laws and customs in order to maintain order. Within the Catholic Church, the internal legal system that governs its day-to-day workings is known as canon law.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic laity has become increasingly aware of the science of canon law. Whether because of the rise in annulments or because of the crisis over sexual misconduct among the clergy, coming across references to canon law is no longer uncommon for most Catholic laity.

The word canon comes from the old Greek word kanon, which means “reed.” In the ancient world, a reed symbolized the authority to rule.

Now, returning to the original Latin, one finds two words for law: lex and iusLex refers to an individual or particular law. From its plural form leges we derive the English words legislator and legislation. The term ius, on the other hand, means an entire system of law or the subject of law in the abstract. From it we derive the English words justice and jurisprudence. When the Church employs the term canon law, it is referring to this ius. Thus the Code of Canon Law is known in Latin as the Codex Iuris Canonici.

2. What is a canon lawyer?

With the Church’s internal legal system comes the need for professionals trained to function within this system. This is where canon lawyers, also known as canonists, come in. Typically, a canonist is one who has graduated from a program of studies at a pontifical faculty of canon law. Most canonists hold the licentiate (J.C.L.) degree. Some, after further study, obtain doctorates in canon law (J.C.D.) or in both canon law and civil law (J.U.D.). A few canonists have no degree in canon law but receive special permission from the Holy See to practice. Canonists may be clergy, religious, or laity.

Some canonists find work in a diocesan chancery office, where they assist the bishop in the administration of the diocese. Transferring a priest to another parish, signing a dispensation to permit a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic, and drafting the constitutions of a new lay organization are just a few of the ways a chancery canonist assists a bishop in diocesan governance. Other canonists end up teaching in Catholic colleges or schools, and a few even enjoy moonlighting as Catholic journalists.

Most canonists find employment within the Church’s tribunal system—that is, its court system. Within the tribunal, these canon lawyers function much like their secular counterparts. It may be as an advocate for a party, as a judge, as a defender of the bond in marriage cases (where the canonist defends the validity of the bond of marriage), or as a promoter of justice. This last office loosely corresponds to the position of district attorney or crown attorney within the secular justice system.

3. Why does the Church have a Code of Canon Law?

We need only think of the Ten Commandments as an example of how God has given law to his people. The New Covenant of Christ gave birth to a new set of laws for the Christian community. The Church eventually used.aspects of the legal system of the Roman Empire to enforce these laws. The Church in turn was the principal means of stability for Europe through the Dark Ages. Law kept the Church focused on its mission to evangelize the nations and provided an environment in which the Church was more receptive to God’s plan.

The Code of Canon Law provides an orderly presentation of law. Canons are individual paragraphs of set law that the Church interprets and applies to given situations. Though the Roman Catholic Church has had collections of laws for many centuries, the Code of Canon Law was issued first in 1917, revised in 1983, and will be revised again at some point in the future. The Eastern Catholic churches have their own code of law, which was issued in 1990.

The Church does not need a Code of Canon Law, but it has chosen to use such a structure. Canon law deals with the day-to-day affairs of the Church.

4. Can the pope resign from office?

We are witnessing something extraordinary in modern times: His Holiness John Paul II is the most traveled pope in history, and, given the length of his term in office, he likely has met more people than any pope before him. As well, unlike other pontiffs, he has struggled with his health in view of the world. This has given rise to a question: Can he resign?

Though the pope traditionally remains in office until death, he certainly can resign. Canon 332, paragraph 2, states, “Should it happen that the Roman pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.”

Since the pope has “supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the Church” (CIC 331), his actions are not dependent upon another’s response. Thus his resignation does not need to be accepted to become effective.

How then could a pope resign? He would have to state clearly his resignation in spoken word or in writing. He also could make provision in writing that if he were to become completely incapacitated in his judgment, his resignation would be automatic.

5. Why do we have diocesan bishops if the pope is the one we are to listen to?

Christ’s mandate to Peter was to administer his Church in collaboration with the other apostles. The Church has come to understand that there are two expressions of the same Church: one at the local level and one on the universal level. Canon law states, “The office of preaching the gospel to the universal Church has been committed principally to the Roman pontiff and to the college of bishops,” and, “For the particular churches . . . that office is exercised by the individual bishops, who are the moderators of the entire ministry of the word in their churches” (CIC 756).

The pope’s authority comes through the mission that Peter received from Christ, but this mission is exercised in communion with all the bishops of the world. It is inaccurate to think that the pope is a CEO and the bishops are branch managers. The local church has pressing needs that the pope is not aware of or has no time to attend to. These local needs are not his mandate. The bishop has the faculty to proclaim the gospel and minister to the Church in his area.

6. Are parents required to use the name of a saint when giving their child a baptismal name?

While giving one’s child the name of a saint is a pious practice in many parts of the world, it is no longer essential under canon law. This does not mean that any name may be given to the child. Rather, as canon 855 clearly states, “parents, sponsors and parish priests are to take care that a name is not given that is foreign to Christian sentiment” (such as Lucifer or Jezebel).

The obligation to choose a name consistent with the Christian faith falls upon parents, godparents, and pastors. The saints provide a vast reservoir of names from which to draw, but other names are also consistent with Christian sentiment. For example, Faith, Hope, and Charity are popular choices. These names of the three theological virtues are certainly consistent with Christian sentiment. Therefore, canon 855 permits their use.

7. My Jewish aunt is undergoing surgery. Can I have a Mass offered for her even though she is not a Catholic? Does the fact that she is still living make any difference?

Although this would have been a problem in previous times, there is no longer any prohibition against having a Mass offered for a non-Catholic. Nor is there a requirement that an individual be deceased before one may have a Mass offered for him. As canon 901 clearly states, “a priest is entitled to offer Mass for anyone, living or dead.”

One should never underestimate God’s mercy, nor should one underestimate the efficacy of the holy sacrifice of the Mass offered for the living or the dead. Indeed, no prayer is wasted in God’s eyes. While these theological truths are not strictly spelled out in the Code of Canon Law, theology is at the root of every canon.

8. My son suffers from a severe form of autism, which makes catechesis next to impossible. Can he still make his First Communion?

The Second Vatican Council upholds the Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11). Thus the spiritual life of any Catholic would be incomplete if he were not permitted to receive the Eucharist. For this reason canon 912 states, “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to Holy Communion.”

Canon law usually requires that a Latin Catholic be catechized properly prior to receiving his First Communion. The law is silent concerning reception of the Holy Eucharist by the mentally and cognitively challenged. Therefore, in keeping with canon 17, we must answer this question by seeking “recourse to parallel places” in the law. A parallel place in this context is any canon that presents similar but not identical circumstances.

One such place is the second paragraph of canon 913, which allows children in danger of death to receive the Holy Eucharist “if they can distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food and receive Communion with reverence.” Your autistic child’s situation can be said to be parallel to that of the dying child in that both are unable to receive the necessary catechesis. So, applying the second paragraph of canon 913 to your child, you need to discern if he “can distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food and receive Communion with reverence.”

9. I noticed that canon 914 places sacramental confession before First Communion. Most seven-year-olds have not obtained the sufficient use of reason to commit a mortal sin, so why should they make a sacramental confession prior to receiving their First Communion?

As you aptly point out, many pastors and catechists argue that a young child is incapable of committing a mortal sin. Fr. William Woestman, a respected professor of canon law, often replied to these arguments as follows: “As a priest, the Church recommends that I go to confession often. However, the Church most certainly does not expect me to commit mortal sins on a regular basis.”

In other words, even if a child has not committed a mortal sin during his brief lifetime, he still should be given the opportunity to make a sacramental confession prior to receiving First Communion. This helps develop in children the good habit of regular and sincere confession and reverence for the Eucharist.

10. Would my children be considered illegitimate if I were to obtain an annulment?

Church law clearly states that children born within a marriage that was entered into “in good faith” are not to be considered illegitimate (cf. CIC 1137). In good faith means that at the time of the wedding one or both people truly believed that they were establishing a marriage. This holds true even if the marriage, at a later date, is declared null (that is, invalid according to Church law).

Church law has not completely dropped reference to the legitimacy of children. Children born to single-parent families or in a civil union that is not recognized by Church law are regarded as illegitimate. It should be noted that Church law does not create a single obstacle for a child born outside of marriage. Though our Western culture has used the term illegitimate in a derogatory way, these children have a right to the sacraments, catechesis, and all the respect due to children of God.

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