Friday 30 August 2019

Canon Law: Freedom and Authority in the Catholic Church

The Church can be very personal; it is with us from birth, to marriage, to death, and helps us to develop our relationship with God. But the Church is also a large, complex, global institution. It has a lot of moving parts involving over a billion people and almost 3000 dioceses. With so much going on, how do you make sure that each of the Catholic Faithful have their rights under the Church protected and know their responsibilities?

It is for this reason that we have the Code of Canon Law. In 1983 St. Pope John Paul II wrote,
"...a Code of Canon Law is absolutely necessary for the Church. Since the Church is established in the form of a social and visible unit, it needs rules, so that its hierarchical and organic structure may be visible; that its exercise of the functions divinely entrusted to it, particularly of sacred power and of the administration of the sacraments, is properly ordered; that the mutual relationships of Christ's faithful are reconciled in justice based on charity, with the rights of each safeguarded and defined; and lastly, that the common initiatives which are undertaken so that christian life may be ever more perfectly carried out, are supported, strengthened and promoted by canonical laws."

Commemorative booklet  produced for the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Code of Canon Law.


PO RC476.10
Archbishop Pocock Fonds

The 1983 Code of Canon Law is a seven part collection of rules and norms dealing with every aspect of life in the Church. Everything from Church governance to sacraments to punishments is covered. For example, regarding archives Canon 486 states,
"§1. All documents which regard the diocese or parishes must be protected with the greatest care.
§2. In every curia there is to be erected in a safe place a diocesan archive, or record storage area, in which instruments and written documents which pertain to the spiritual and temporal affairs of the diocese are to be safeguarded after being properly filled and diligently secured.
§3. An inventory, or catalog, of the documents which are contained in the archive is to be kept with a brief synopsis of each written document."
The early rules of the Church came from scripture and from the teachings of the apostles. Over the centuries, additional laws were added from various sources such as Papal teachings and ecumenical councils. These laws were collected systematically after the year 1000, but weren't codified until 1917, when the first Code of Canon Law was promulgated by Pope Benedict XV. When the Second Vatican Council was announced, the intention to revise the Code was also announced, and the new and current version was promulgated in 1983 by St. Pope John Paul II.

Dioceses are also able to make rules for the Catholics in their jurisdiction. Here in the archives, we have a handwritten copy of Archbishop Lynch's rules for Toronto. He wrote,
"Rules are necessary in every station and calling in life. The mechanic or merchant who works without rule and order is certain of failure and ruin. Ignorance of rule is a fruitful source of many fatal mistakes, as contempt of the rule itself."
"It has been our most ardent wish, since our Lord imposed on my weak shoulders the heavy and formidable burden of the Episcopacy to establish in the diocese certain rules of Canon law suitable to our condition, and to embody them in diocesan constitutions. After visiting all the missions of the diocese, even the most remote, and some of the most important places several times, we thought this an opportune time to confirm and promulgate those statutes. We have compiled them 1. from the statutes of the first diocesan synod held by the illustrious and most Reverend Dr. Power the first Bishop of Toronto 2. From the pastoral letters and instructions of our venerable and saintly predecessor Rt. Rev. Dr. de Charbonnel 3. From the decrees of the councils of Quebec 4. From the general canons and decrees of the church, adopted and arranged by holy and zealous Bishops, and given to their churches to be observed. A few which are expression of years of the sacred ministry have suggested to our minds, and some by our own beloved clergy.


HO 03.22
Holograph Collection

Just like civil law, Church law has lawyers. A Canon Lawyer, or Canonist, has an advanced degree in the study of canon law. Canon Lawyers work in various positions in the Church, helping to interpret and apply the law for Catholics so that things are done in the right way. For example, Canon Lawyers working in marriage tribunals decide whether marriages are valid according to the Code when annulments are sought.

Even if they don't have the advanced degree, priests and bishops need to know about Canon Law. Bishop Power's notes on Canonistics are here in the archives:

Index to Bishop Power's student notes, including a section on the Crime of Simony.


HO 01.03
Holograph Collection

Cardinal McGuigan earned a Licentiate in Canon Law from Laval University in 1916:

Magisterii seu Licentiae in Jure Canonico Gradum

June 18, 1916

MG AA02.03
Cardinal McGuigan Fonds

While the canons themselves aren't particularly lengthy, there is a lot more commentary of Canon Law that helps while applying the law to real situations. For example, the annulment of the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough was an issue discussed by canonists:

Rev. Stanislaus Woywood, OFM, discusses why the Vanderbilt-Marlborough marriage was invalid.


MN AS22.03
Archbishop McNeil Fonds

While promoting the study of Canon Law to the bishops in 1975, the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education explained and quoted Pope Paul VI,
"While first place is assigned to the spirit and to the interior life, nevertheless belonging organically to the Body of the Church, the presence of the Church authority, and submission to this authority always remain as irreplaceably necessary elements willed by the Divine Founder of the Catholic Church. In the Church freedom and authority are not terms of opposition, but rather values complementing one another. Their mutual cooperation promotes the growth of the community and at the same time the capacity for initiative and enrichment of its single members. In calling attention to the principle of authority and to the necessity for a juridic order, nothing is being taken away from the value of freedom or from the esteem in which it ought to be held. This recalling to authority rather serves to stress the need for a secure and efficacious safeguarding of the goods which all have a right to posses, including the basic one of exercising freedom itself. Only a social system that is well ordered can guarantee liberty adequately. As a matter of fact, what would freedom be worth to an individual if it were not protected by wise and suitable norms?"" (PO RC 555.01)
As a global community of Catholics, we benefit from having 2000 years of legal thought to guide us. It's a subject worth studying!

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