"Why does the Catholic Church excommunicate doctors who perform abortions?" "Am I still obligated to attend Mass on Sunday if my car is in the shop and there is no Catholic church within walking distance?" These are questions a Catholic often comes across when engaged in apologetics, catechesis, or evangelization.
Unfortunately, the Bible does not provide direct answers to these types of questions. Two millennia have passed since Jesus walked the earth with his apostles, and the Church has developed since then. A Catholic must often turn to other sources when answering questions about the Church’s structure and discipline.
For the majority of Catholics in North America, the Code of Canon Law presents a major source for understanding ecclesiastical law. It provides Latin Catholics with a basic framework for the Latin Church’s internal legal system. (Eastern Catholics come under a similar framework, namely, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.)
Like any other piece of legislation or system of jurisprudence, the Code is often difficult to decipher and there is a risk of missing some nuance in the text or of not being aware of some underlying legal principle. Therefore, some guidance is necessary when exploring the Church’s internal legal system. With this in mind, here are five fundamental principles that every Catholic should remember while delving into the Code.
1. What Is the Text or Context?
This is the first question every person should ask when seeking to interpret an individual canon or law: What is the text and the context of this specific law? Experienced Catholic apologists understand that randomly proof-texting a Bible verse does not lead to a sound understanding of Holy Scripture. Neither does proof-texting from the Code. Rather, each canon should be understood within the broader context of the Church’s current legislation as well as its legal and juridical tradition.
Canon 17 provides a clear definition of this principle:
Ecclesiastical laws are to be understood according to the proper meaning of the words considered in their text and context. If the meaning remains doubtful or obscure, there must be recourse to parallel places, if there be any, to the purpose and circumstances of the law and to the mind of the legislator.
In short, one should consider not only the letter of the law but also its context, its relation to similar laws, the historical circumstances that gave rise to the canon’s necessity, and the spirit with which the law came into being.
For example, at first glance, canon 926 seems absolute in its application. "In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Latin Church," the canon states, "the priest is to use unleavened bread wherever he celebrates Mass."
But what about the Eastern Catholic tradition of using leavened bread? Since canon 926 mentions no exceptions, are Eastern Catholics in violation of canon law? This seems to be the case if one reads only the canon’s text, but a little context demonstrates otherwise. Pope John Paul II did not intend to bind Eastern Catholics to the Code of Canon Law. This is clear from the first canon of the Code, which states: "The canons of this Code concern only the Latin Church."
Therefore, canon 926 applies only to priests celebrating Mass within the Latin Church. It does not apply to priests celebrating the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or any other Eastern liturgy. Hence the importance of understanding the text, the context, and the mind of the legislator when studying canon law.
2. The Salvation of Souls Is the Supreme Law
Here is a question every Catholic should ask when trying to understand the purpose of a specific canon: How does this law contribute to the salvation of souls?
For example, many Catholic politicians support abortion and so-called same-sex marriage. These same politicians balk when bishops decide to enforce canon 915, which states:
Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.
Yet far from being harsh, this law is an act of charity when understood within the context of saving souls. For as Paul reminds the Corinthians:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself (1 Cor. 11:27–29).
Canon 915 is meant to prevent an unrepentant public sinner from profaning the Eucharist and thereby bringing condemnation on his own head. Additionally, the canon encourages the affected individual to examine his conscience. And while not explicitly stated by Paul, denying Holy Communion to a manifest grave sinner can help deter other Catholics from embracing the same sin or error. Thus, when approaching canon law, one should always remember that the salvation of souls is the supreme law.
3. Does the Law Bestow a Favor or Impose a Burden?
Odia restringi, et favores convenit ampliari is a common Latin expression among canonists and denotes another important principle of canon law, namely, "Favors are to be multiplied and burdens restricted."
If an individual law bestows a favor, a Catholic should apply it to every case in which it is appropriate to do so. On the other hand:
Laws that prescribe a penalty, restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception to the law are to be interpreted strictly (CIC 18).
Within this context, the word strictly does not connote rigidity or inflexibility. Rather, it means that the application of the law should be restricted to as few cases as possible without distorting the law’s meaning.
For example, a common pastoral scenario in today’s society involves the reconciliation of teenage girls who have procured abortions. Many of these young women know that the Church’s penalty for abortion is excommunication. As canon 1398 states: "A person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication."
Now excommunication is the Church’s highest penalty. An excommunicated person is cut off from both the sacraments and other important.aspects of the Catholic faith. The term latae sententiae means that the excommunication is automatic; whoever transgresses the specific law incurs the excommunication. Thus, many young women fear that they are forever cut off from the Church because of their abortions.
Yet canons 1323 and 1324 list various factors that either excuse or diminish penalties prescribed in the law. In the case of teenage girls, the most obvious excusing or diminishing factor is age. Canon 1324 diminishes the penalty for an offense committed by "a minor who has completed the sixteenth year of age," while canon 1323 completely excuses anybody under the age of sixteen from all canonical penalties.
Of course, a restrictive application of canon 1398 does not excuse a teenage girl from the sin of abortion. Assuming she consented to this intrinsically evil act, she must still approach the sacrament of confession. Nevertheless, excommunication is a penalty, and the law considers penalties to be a burden. Thus a restrictive application of canon 1398 prevents any minor from incurring the excommunication that accompanies abortion. This is a good demonstration of why, when seeking to understand a particular canon, a Catholic should always ask whether the law bestows a favor or imposes a burden.
4. Observe the Common Good
Canons 204–223 outline the basic canonical rights of every Catholic. For example, canon 211 states that all Catholics have the right to evangelize others, whereas canon 215 establishes the right of every Catholic to found associations within the Church.
Yet no canonical right is absolute. While only some canonical rights come with corresponding canonical obligations, every canonical right must be exercised in view of the common good. Canon 223 establishes the following canonical principle:
In exercising their rights, Christ’s faithful, both individually and in associations, must take account of the common good of the Church, as well as the rights of others and their own duties to others. . . . Ecclesiastical authority is entitled to regulate, in view of the common good, the exercise of rights that are proper to Christ’s faithful.
Catholicism is a team sport. Together we seek to help one another grow in holiness as we evangelize the world. When it comes to the exercise of canonical rights, one should always be careful to behave in a Christian manner and respect the rights of others. "For the body [of Christ] does not consist of one member but of many," Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians. "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Cor. 12:14, 26).
5. Nobody Is Bound to the Impossible
Basically, nobody can be compelled to fulfill an obligation or meet a requirement of the law when to do so would be impossible. An impossibility may be either moral or physical. Take the Easter duty, for example, which binds Catholics to approach the sacrament of confession at least once a year. Among some remote villages in the northern parts of Canada, this is physically impossible, since the nearest Catholic priest lives hundreds of miles away and the only access is by bush plane.
There are many scenarios in which following the strict letter of the law becomes impossible. These scenarios include war, persecution, famine, natural disasters, and other emergency situations. Thus a Catholic should remember in these scenarios that nobody is bound to the impossible.
Don’t Fear the Code
No Catholic should fear the Code of Canon Law when answering questions about the Church’s internal discipline and structure. Yet like the Bible, there is a proper way to interpret canon law and an improper way. If a Catholic keeps the five above mentioned principles in mind when approaching canon law, he is more likely to understand and interpret individual laws in a correct manner.