Canon law has never been ‘the frame of reference’ for the Church

Cardinal Wuerl’s recent comment about canon law confirms the stranglehold that antinomian attitudes have secured over ecclesiastical thought in the space of one lifetime

When prelates of the erudition and experience of a Donald Cdl. Wuerl (Washington DC) can say things like this, the rest of us can be in no doubt as to just how deeply and widely a fundamental misunderstanding of law in the Catholic Church has taken hold. Speaking about the future of the Church, Wuerl, who is recognized as one of Pope Francis’ most esteemed advisors, said that, in the wake of the 2015 Synod and the Francis’ papacy, “The frame of reference now is no longer the Code of Canon Law. The frame of reference is now going to be, ‘What does the Gospel really say here?’”

I hardly know where to start, but here goes.

The “frame of reference” for the mission of the Catholic Church has never, ever been the Code of Canon Law, and no canon lawyer I know of has ever, ever claimed otherwise. The “frame of reference” for the Catholic Church has always been, and has only been, Christ the Lord. For the cardinal archbishop of a major Western capital to talk as if the Code of Canon Law, for so much as one second, ever fancied itself as the “frame of reference” for the Catholic Church—well, it confirms the stranglehold that antinomian attitudes have secured over ecclesiastical thought in the space of one lifetime, to the point that today, many in the highest circles of ecclesiastical leadership can scarcely even talk about canon law without caricaturing it. But if Wuerl avoids offering some of the more insulting depictions of canon law and canon lawyers being tossed around recently, he nevertheless sees canon law largely as an obstacle to the saving truths proclaimed by Jesus and he gives urbane cover to others who find certain Gospel truths, as enunciated in concise legal terminology, too inconvenient.

Twice, maybe three times, in her history, the Catholic Church has suffered though waves of antinomianism. Each time, of course, law—as natural to human society as a skeleton is to the human body—eventually regained its place in ecclesial life, but only after much needless waste. Our current wave of disdain for canon law started in the early 1960s, it grew enormously throughout that decade and into the 1970s (fed in part by the disastrously long period that the Church went effectively without canon law and aggravated by similar anti-order shocks to civil society), it seemed to recede a bit in the 1980s and 1990s, only to erupt again in the wake of the clergy sex abuse disasters ten or fifteen years ago. Today, whether because Francis actually dislikes canon law or because he is simply uninterested in it, the aging antinomians of the 1960s and 1970s see an opening to resume their attacks on law and lawyers in the Church, and they are seizing that opportunity.

I am not going to use a blog post to try to educate antinomians (whether they are “hard core” canon law haters, or, as I rather think Wuerl to be, gentler “Amator Si, Legislator No” types) as to the many and vital connections between Catholic doctrine and canon law, though I have raised such issues several times, say, here and here. Rather, I’ll just say this: canon law has always seen itself in service to the Church, huge tracts of canon law rest directly on biblical foundations and doctrinal assertions made by the Magisterium over the centuries, canon law is always in need of reform (just ask any canon lawyer), and finally, that some people railing against canon law need to ask themselves whether it is law they don’t like, or the truths such laws defend.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 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.