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meaning of canon law
Question from Christian Daru on 12/8/2008:

What exactly is canon law and what is the code of canon law? Also, what exactly is the magisterium?

Answer by Rev. Mark J. Gantley, JCL on 2/13/2009:

All societies need rules and regulations, including religious organizations.

Law is essential to our Christian religion. One cannot imagine Christianity without legal terminology. For example, testament, justification, redemption, adoption, advocate, and heirs are all legal terms and concepts.

Law in general shares in the sacramental nature of the Church, in that it helps to mediate Christ's presence in the world. In this sense, law is incarnational; it is both spiritual and external, human and divine.

The exercise of canon law continues the authoritative role of Christ himself, who preached love but also laid down binding practical and moral norms. Canon law involves divine authority exercised in a human way by the pope and bishops of the Church, the successors to St. Peter and the apostles respectively.

Canon law (Church law) is distinct from secular law, although has borrowed from many different legal systems over the centuries and is not limited to any one legal system. The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls, and this guiding principle must be applied to the interpretation and application of all canon law. Canon law does draw from divine positive law (Revelation) and the natural law, and it is judged by theology. That is, canon law is part of the governing function of the Church, which is subordinate to the teaching and sanctifying functions of the Church.

Canon law is voluntary and is based on faith. However, canon law is not the direct means of salvation as it is not divine law (although at times it may include elements of divine law.) Instead, it is the law of the community of the Church. It is meant to be a tool of service to the Church and to Christian and human values.

Canon law is necessary for good order within the Church. We have seen, with such problems as the sexual abuse crisis, what results when canon law is ignored. Canonical norms give reliable procedures with predictable outcomes. As a result, it affords stability. Canon law also defines and protects the institutions and externals of the Church.

Canon law is also meant to enables people to use their charisms easier and participate in their own way in the three-fold functions of Christ (priest, prophet, king), such as through associations of the Christian faithful and by defining their individual rights and obligations. For all members of the Church, it is meant to encourage the activity of the Spirit and fruitful pastoral action. It is meant to balance the rights and obligations of individuals with the common good of the community.

Canon law also has a didactic function. It reminds the community of its own values, norms and standards. It teaches what should be done and explains why.

Canon law is also meant to safeguard spiritual values. It is meant to safeguard the sacraments and maintains their priority in the life of the Church. It is meant to safeguard the Word of God and helps its effective spread. It is meant to define, protect and promote the communion of the Church.

Last but certainly not least, canon law defines and protects rights and responsibilities of all people, according to their status in the Church. Law is intrinsic to Christian relationships within the Church. For example, canon law defines the sacraments, which are essential to defining our Christian relationships. It is meant to facilitate peace, justice, equity and fairness among all members of the Church. Remember that the Latin title for the Code of Canon Law is Codex Iuris Canonici. While we ordinarily translate this, "Code of Canon Law," it could be more literally translated, "Code of Canonical Rights." An even more complete title might be, "Code of Canonical Rights and Obligations." If all people respect the rights of others in the Church and fulfill their obligations, according to their station in the Church, then the Church would function smoothly and without difficulty.

Canon law includes all law of the Church -- from the pope, from individual bishops, from the bishops of a province or country. There are two codes of canon law -- the Code of Canon Law of the Latin Church (which applies to the majority of Catholics) and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (which applies to all of Eastern Catholic Churches). The codes include the basic framework of the Church's law.

The primary tasks of the pope and the bishops are to teach, sanctify (make holy), and govern. Teaching is the foundation since it leads to sanctification. (The governing function serves the teaching and sanctifying functions.) The magisterium is the official teaching office of the Church. It consists of the pope and the bishops. (Priests are not part of the magisterium but teach as co-workers with the pope and the bishops.) Canon law is promulgated by the pope and bishops using their legislative authority, part of their governing authority. The magisterium, on the other hand, is the teaching authority of the pope and bishops.

The primary of St. Peter is based on a few principal Scripture passages (Matthew 16:17-20; Luke 22:31-32; John 1:42, 20:23, 21:15-17; 1 Thessalonians. 2:13). St. Peter started as leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, then spent time in Antioch, then he went on to Rome where he was martyred.

Jesus obviously would not have intended the authority he gave to St. Peter and the apostles to end with the death of the apostles. This is why we believe that the authority of St. Peter and the apostles continues in the Church today through the pope and the bishops. As successor of St. Peter, the pope is the head of the college of bishops, and the college cannot act without its head. Because of the authority that Jesus gave the apostles, we believe that the Church hierarchy possesses the charism of truth.


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