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A few thoughts on Pope Francis’ remarks on the centenary of codified canon law

It is not right to assert that canon law—however much its practical clarity might have sharpened the theologians’ speculative discussions over the centuries—dictated ecclesiology.

Pope Francis prepares to greet bishops during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 4. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Two brief articles by Cindy Wooden in Crux and America report on Pope Francis’ recent comments on the 100th anniversary of codified canon law in the Church. The comments seem pretty unremarkable.

Per Francis, canon law should promote “collegiality; synodality in the governance of the church; valuing particular churches; the responsibility of all the Christian faithful in the mission of the church; ecumenism; mercy and closeness as the primary pastoral principle; individual, collective and institutional religious freedom; a healthy and positive secularism; (and) healthy collaboration between the church and civil society in its various expressions.”

To the extent that the pope’s legal to-do list addresses things that lawcan-do, I suggest that canon law already does it. For example, collegiality is reflected in dozens of canons reaching to the highest levels of Church governance (see 1983 CIC 336); the responsibilities of the Christian faithful in the mission of the Church are spread throughout the Code, notably in Canons 208-231; ecumenism is already a hierarchic duty under Canon 755; and cooperation between Church and State is set out, simply and without fanfare, in Canon 22. One might, of course, want to modify how Church law regulates such matters but any suggestion that canon law does not already address such things would be mistaken.

As for the law’s promoting, say, “positive secularism”, the pope would need to spell out how, for example, one legislates things like “closeness” and, assuming that was possible, whether these are the sorts of things one should use the power of law on.

Those points being noted, however, one papal remark did strike me as odd. According to Francis, “after the Second Vatican Council [the Church] marked the passage from an ecclesiology modeled on canon law to a canon law conforming to ecclesiology”. As phrased, this comment can leave the wrong impression. Two wrong impressions, in fact.

Ecclesiology (itself a modern word, but denoting the study of the Church qua the Church and the application of such studies in her life) predates the emergence of canonistics and the first formal treatises on ecclesiology (e.g., Giles of Rome De potestate ecclesiastica, early 14th century) predate the rise of codified canon law by some 600 years. It is not right to assert that canon law—however much its practical clarity might have sharpened the theologians’ speculative discussions over the centuries—dictated ecclesiology.

Even the Pio-Benedictine Code of 1917, which certainly reflected the pyramidal ecclesiology operative in the Church at the beginning of the 20th century—itself a legacy left to the Church in part by the First Vatican Council, sadly suspended after it ratified Pastor Aeternus (on papal primacy) but before it could turn to the Schema constitutionis dogmaticae secundae de Ecclesia Christi (with, e.g., its more complete description of episcopal power)—is, I suggest, a model of how canon law does not get ahead of theology.

Unless one wants to claim that Cdl. Gasparri, architect of the 1917 Code, should have anticipated by nearly 50 years the developments regarding episcopal power in the Church that were made during the Second Vatican Council and should have written those developments into a Code then governing a Church that had not yet thought those things through for herself, it does not seem fair either to describe pre-Conciliar ecclesiology as having been the ward of canon law or post-Conciliar canon law as having only recently discovered ecclesiology.

That demur aside, the pope’s comments on canon law seem pretty straightforward to me.

(This post originally appeared on the “In the Light of the Law” blog and is reposted here by kind permission of Dr. Peters.)

About Edward N. Peters 82 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.

11 Comments

  1. Simple and straight words from Francis…..isn’t that what Christ wants from His shepherd?

    Why the continuing need for these columns if Francis is a true shepherd?

  2. As a doctor of canon law and civil law with over 40 years of practice, I could concur with the view of Professor Peters that “the pope’s comments on canon law seem pretty straightforward” only if I were to bracket the context and ignore everything that Pope Bergoglio has said and done in the last four-and-a-half years, even prescinding from the virtually daily insults and contempt he and his intimate advisors pour on “doctors of the law” and his position, oft-stated in manifold forms, that moral and canonical laws are “stones to throw at people’s lives.” Pope Bergoglio is in point of fact a material antinomian in the proper and exact sense of that term as “one who holds that under the Gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation” and thus believes that “there are no moral laws God expects Christians to obey.” Just this week in a public address at a conference hosted at Boston College, Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the editor of the journal Civiltà Cattolica which is approved by the Vatican, one of the Pope’s closest advisors, and a recognized spokesman for the Pope, stated: “[T]he pope realizes that one can no longer speak of an abstract category of persons and . . . [a] praxis of integration in a rule that is absolutely to be followed in every instance.” Spadaro himself had written his own nominalistic Twitter message on that same day where he says: “Ogni caso è singolare. Non si può dare regola generale che li abbracci tutti né costruire casistica del discernimento #AmorisLaetitia.” (“Every case is unique. One cannot grant a general rule which embraces all of them, nor construct casuistry of discernment.”) What is “pretty straightforward” I would submit is that if every case is judged separately and there is no moral law, then there is no truth, no Church, and no canon law.

    • Esquire, to say there is “no general rule which can embrace every person in every circumstance ,” is not the same as saying there is no moral law. Nice summary theatrics though – kudos to you.
      As an aside, the way you address the pontiff is derogatory and betrays a sentiment that’s clearly clouding the unbiased judgement I would expect of someone in jurisprudence. Then again, I would expect a lot more actual quotes of Pope Francis from someone in jurisprudence, who intended to cast such a huge net of derision on the Vicar of Christ.

      • you are wrong. There is no insult here. THat’s emotionalism. The Pope is deadly and gravely wrong. What should the Cardinals and the rest of us do? Nothing? ignore this ‘new teaching’..2000 yr teaching? What would we say for ourselves. YOu might like this Pope, he’s kindly and left leaning, but he is making a serious mistake.. won’t go away. He and Spadaro have made of morality a ‘political’ choice, decision.. has no sense in theology, canon law, sacred tradition.. must be corrected!

      • Jramza, your reply is seriously deficient in a number of respects, which I can only address here briefly and in order.

        First, I must point out that your flippant use of “Esquire” as a mode of personal address is rude, derogatory, and ignorant. In its original and still current usage in English law and common custom, the term signifies a title of dignity for a man indicating a rank above a gentleman and below a knight; in the United States the term has come to be used indifferently to designate any person, whether male or female, who may be licensed to practice civil law. In neither instance is the term “Esquire” a recognized and acceptable substitute for the address of a person by his or her given name, prefaced as appropriate by “Mr.,” “Mrs./Ms.,” or “Dr.”. Moreover, in neither instance in the matter at hand, is the term “Esquire” descriptive of either my personal status or my professional activity.

        Second, your claim that “Esquire, to say there is ‘no general rule which can embrace every person in every circumstance’ is not the same as saying there is no moral law” is false and a misrepresentation of my comment. It is completely plain from my published comment above that I made no such equivalency. It is rather you yourself who now attempt to put it forward in your reply, albeit in a fractious and hostile spirit.

        Third, you claim that “the way you address the pontiff is derogatory”. Again, it is completely plain from my published comment that I did not “address the pontiff” at all. I did, however, refer twice to that prelate whom you casually identify as “the pontiff” by his proper and commonly used papal title of “Pope” and his proper patronymic, both of which are routinely and respectfully employed as such in mass media, professional, and religious publications throughout the world. If any designation is derogatory, it would seem to be your off-hand use of “the pontiff,” lacking as it does accurate and proper capitalization and without specific or reverent identification of “the Roman Pontiff” or “the Holy Roman Pontiff”. Your further claim that this somehow “betrays a sentiment that’s clearly clouding the unbiased judgement I would expect of someone in jurisprudence” is not merely baseless but rash and calumnious.

        Fourth, you state that you “would expect a lot more actual quotes of Pope Francis from someone in jurisprudence, who intended to cast such a huge net of derision on the Vicar of Christ.” In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Bergoglio offered four principles that have guided his thought. The first such principle is: “Time is greater than space.” Since the space of this comment box is far less than the amount of time that you apparently have at leisure, I will oblige your request by directing you to the Declaration of Fidelity to the Church’s Unchangeable Teaching on Marriage and to Her Uninterrupted Discipline (http://www.filialappeal.org/full) and English text of Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis (http://www.correctiofilialis.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Correctio-filialis_English_1.pdf) where you will find abundant “actual quotes of Pope Francis” and their careful examination by experienced theologians, philosophers, and canonists.

  3. “. It is not right to assert that canon law—however much its practical clarity might have sharpened the theologians’ speculative discussions over the centuries—dictated ecclesiology.”

    I disagree. A fine example is the formal canonical process for an annulment. Pope Francis has suggested that perhaps we can also have a less formal process for annulments, that is instituted on a more local level. After suggesting that, everyone accused him of changing the very sacrament of marriage. And yet he made no reference to marriage or the permanence of marriage, only to annulments. So closely is the process of an annulment tied to canon law, and canon law to the sacrament of marriage, that even theologians are unable to separate them.

    • Jramza, your observations seem to be directed to the double “motu proprio” that Pope Bergoglio promulgated as Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (“The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge”), which reforms the annulment process for the Western Church, and
      Mitis et Misericors Iesus (“Gentle and Merciful Jesus”), which reforms the annulment process for the Eastern Catholic churches. The former rewrote twenty-one canons (canons 1671-1691) in the Western Code of Canon Law and went far beyond having “a less formal process for annulments.” The double “motu proprio” has serious flaws and problems that do indeed pertain to the dogma of the indissolubility of marriage (https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/vatican-prelates-quietly-circulate-dossier-raising-concern-over-popes-annul).

  4. There is no rationale left to the claim that the Pontiff’s policy is consistent with Apostolic Tradition. It’s thematic not doctrinal, fostering “ecumenism; mercy and closeness as the primary pastoral principle, a healthy and positive secularism; (and) healthy collaboration between the church and civil society in its various expressions”. That is if we believe that the Logos revealed to Man in the Gospels is the living expression of permanent Truth. The Logos is understood by Augustine and Aquinas and accepted by the Church as the spoken Word of God. This Word is not an exterior word as used by Man. Rather it is interior within the Trinity. The Incarnate Word is spoken to Man in order for Man’s comprehension of God. Man believes the Word Made Flesh not because reason confirms this. Rather we believe in the Word because God has spoken. “What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe ‘because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived’” (CCC 156). Logos is the Ratio [the interior act of the intellect in understanding things outside itself] expressed to Man as the living Word of God. Thus the Logos becomes intelligible to Man and to wit susceptible to reason and reasonable to believe. Now truths revealed by God such as marital indissolubility are not proved by reason rather they are apprehended by the intellect. All moral precepts revealed to Man by God possess this intelligibility. Aquinas defines these first principles of human behavior as unerring, as when their terms are immediately understood, because the predicate is part of the definition” (ST 1a 17, AD 2). Moral truths necessary for salvation are necessarily protected by the canons. The Pontiff and his supporters present us with a choice of a different set of moral guidelines confluent in nature than those revealed by Christ and defined by their exclusive practical implementation by canon law.

    • Peter Morello: There is no rationale left to the claim that the Pontiff’s policy is consistent with Apostolic Tradition.

      Me: And that about sums up this Papacy in a nutshell.

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