Canon Law

Surprised by Canon Law: Why Laypeople Should Understand This Sacred Science

by Pete Vere, JCL

Because of the rising number of annulments, the recent sexual misconduct crisis among the clergy, and the growing scandal caused by pro-abortion politicians who receive Holy Communion, laypeople are increasingly becoming aware of the importance canon law plays within the life of the Church. In fact, coming across references to canon law is no longer uncommon for most Catholic laity.

Yet as Fr. Peter Stravinskas recently observed, “For the average, even well-informed Catholic, sometimes even for clergy, canon law can be seen as ‘an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. That need not be the case...” As both a practicing Catholic layman and a doctoral student of this sacred science, I agree with Fr. Stravinskas. Canon law need not – and should not – be unaccessible to the average Catholic layperson.

Every organization, whether secular or religious, requires its own laws and customs to maintain some semblance of order. Within the Catholic Church, the internal legal system that governs its day-to-day workings is known as canon law. The word “canon” comes from an old Greek word kanon, which means “reed”. In the ancient world, a reed was used as a measuring device and hence came to symbolize the authority to set standards, that is, to rule.

One finds two Latin words for law: lex and ius. Whereas lex refers to an individual law, ius signifies an entire system of law or the subject of law in the abstract. When the Church employs the term canon law, she is referring to Latin word ius. Thus Code of Canon Law is an English translation of the Latin title Codex Iuris Canonici.

Yet does not Sacred Scripture and Tradition suffice for Catholics? Do we really need a Code of Canon Law to compliment the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church? In answering these questions, let us recall that the Church is no mere teaching institution. By our baptism, Christ calls upon us to live according to His teaching.

If we are to avoid the chaos of Protestantism, in which each individual interprets Holy Scripture to his or her own end, we Catholics must follow Christ’s teaching in a manner that is orderly, practical and correct. This is known as orthopraxis, meaning the right practice of the Christian faith. Orthopraxis goes hand-in-hand with orthodoxy, which means the correct Christian beliefs concerning faith and morals.

Thus we see the necessity of canon law. Christ did not abandon the visible Church after His Ascension into Heaven – rather He left us with St. Peter and the Apostles to govern in His name. While theology teaches us that the Pope and the College of Bishops are the successors of St. Peter and the Apostles, it has little to say about how these successors are chosen. Rather, this is left to canon law. In the early Church, the local community elected its bishop. The Pope was whoever the Church in Rome elected as their bishop.

Thus canon law helps the Church establish practical customs, rules and regulations through which the faith was put into practice. For this reason, canon law evolved with the Church throughout the centuries. As the Church grew, the duty of electing one’s bishop shifted from the entire community to the local clergy. This practice then evolved into the portion of canon law that now governs the election of the Roman Pontiff by the College of Cardinals.

Additionally, canon law evolved from various sets of rules and regulations into the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern (Catholic) Churches that are in force today. Divided into seven books, the current Code of Canon Law, which governs the Latin Catholic Church, touches upon more than simply the election of bishops. It covers everything from the proper conduct of priests and seminarians to whether members of a Catholic lay organization such as the Order of Alhambra can meet in the parish hall.

The Code of Canon Law is divided into seven books, the first of which is “General Norms”. This book covers the basic canonical principles that underlie canon law as a science. For example, canon 18 states: “Laws which prescribe a penalty, or restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception to the law, are to be interpreted strictly.” In other words, laws that would either punish or restrict the rights of individuals should be interpreted in a manner that restricts these laws to as few situations as possible.

The second book of the code is entitled “The People of God”. This book covers how the Church is structured and governed. It lists everything from the duties of the Roman Pontiff and the Diocesan Bishops in communion with him, to the foundation of lay organizations. It also contains most of the rights of individual clergy, religious and laity.

Book III, “The Teaching Office of the Church”, covers everything from catechesis to the establishment of Catholic universities. Book IV, “The Sanctifying Office of the Church,” covers the seven sacraments, sacramentals and the Church’s basic law concerning prayer. Book V brings us to temporal goods, otherwise known as the Church’s material possessions.

Finally, canon law also establishes the Church’s tribunal system in Book VII of the code. When a violation of canon law takes place, a Catholic may appeal to the local diocesan tribunal in order to vindicate his or her canonical rights. Most marriage annulments or serious accusations of priestly misconduct will come before this tribunal system. Yet, canon law also establishes alternative procedures in some cases where specific circumstances arise. Nevertheless, this is an area of canon law that continues to evolve.

In the end, however, there is nothing to fear from canon law. For it is a practical science designed to assist the Church as she goes about her daily ministry of bringing souls closer to Christ. As stated in the last canon of the Code of Canon Law, “...the salvation of souls is the supreme law.”


Pete Vere
The Catholic Legate
September 30, 2006

This article originally appeared in Challenge Magazine.