Essential Role of Canon Law in the Life of the Church

Author: Pope Paul VI


Pope Paul VI

On May 25th the Holy Father received in special audience those who took part. in the Second International Congress of Canonists which was held in Rome under the direction of the Pontifical Commission for the revision of the Code of Canon Law and presided over by His Eminence Cardinal Pericle Felici, President of the Commission. The following is the text of the Holy Father's address.

You eminent men of learning in the juridical sciences, We are pleased to greet you here in the city of Rome, which is universally recognized as the home and cradle of Law. But for you, Canonists, We have a special greeting. Your presence here today gives expression to the sentiments that bind you to the Church in the person of the Successor of Peter. We are sincerely .and gratefully appreciative of your presence here and of Your manifestation of filial and devoted affection.

Our meeting is set in the context of the International Congress of Canonists which was arranged for the 50th anniversary of the coming into force of the Code of Canon Law. The Congress conducted its business in the language of the Church; and it was held at a time when the work of the Commission appointed by Us for the revision of the Code was in full swing.

Law in human and Christian life

This happy coincidence provides Us with the opportunity to speak to you at some length and to outline certain considerations which constitute the object of your studies: the Sacrorum Canonum disciplina.

Illustrious and dear Sons, no one is more competent than you to assess correctly the function of law in the life of man as a member of human society. The sum total of juridical relations is inseparably linked to the excellence and dignity of the human person. Such is the finality willed by the Creator. For law is naught else but the secure defence that lawfully and authoritatively orders and promotes the common good, while at the same time guaranteeing and protecting against all interference the inviolable autonomy of the individual. It is within the scope or terms of that autonomy that each human being can effectively and responsibly achieve the perfection of his personality. In this context We are pleased to recall the 20th anniversary of that solemn declaration which expressed this function of law with a more mature and clearer awareness. We refer to the General Declaration of the Rights of Man, approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations at Paris on December 10th, 1948.

If we further consider man as a Christian, as a member of the People of God in the life of the Church, we see that the function of law is not foreign to the mystery of salvation, nor does it stop short on the threshold. For whatever concerns the human person finds its place in the divine plan of salvation. Consequently, the economy of salvation embraces—together with the human person and precisely because of it—the whole heritage of law, for this latter is bound up inextricably with justice and with the human person.

For this reason law is not merely a crucial element in the essential structure of the community, but it also protects and safeguards the dignity of the Christian inasmuch as he is constituted in the likeness of Christ and a son of God. It is law which gives to the ecclesial community the basic texture of those relationships which produces the vigorous flowering of :the Christian life throughout the whole range of its powers until it attains "to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Eph. 4, 13). It is the seed-bed from which charity buds forth and blossoms in the Church—that love which, like the leaven in the Gospel, permeates everything, vitalizes and sanctifies it, summarizes and synthesizes all things in Christ. Finally, it is on this groundwork of juridical structures that the force and efficacy of the pastoral office is based. Not that the pastoral office is to be regarded as a juridical relationship, nor can it be reduced to such. But in practice it will be exercised with unstinted solicitude and, conversely, be accepted with trusting docility to the extent that it is soundly supported by the juridical structure.

The reform of Canon Law

In the ecclesial Community law cannot exist as such in the abstract and be vitally operative apart from the positive legal enactments that define and determine it in the concrete. For positive law, insofar as it is demanded by the very nature of Law (Ius), is not heterogeneous to the framework of the Church, as though it were a foreign body forcibly introduced into its make-up. On the contrary, Canon Law is called upon to play an essential role in the life of the Church. Its function is to sustain, defend and protect the common drive towards an ever more complete fulfillment of the Christian life.

Since progress in the Christian life has need of the pastoral ministry, it follows that the special scope of ecclesiastical legislation is to meet adequately the various and complex needs of pastoral action by providing a sound criterion of well-ordered practical efficiency.

If it is to discharge this task effectively, positive canonical legislation cannot remain static and unchangeable. While its essential purpose ever remains unchanged, it must from time to time at certain stages of historical development be redrafted and formulated in new terms to meet the needs of the time. Indeed the immense mass of texts and documents which make up the Fontes Iuris Canonici, to which canonists prefer to direct their attention and scientific interest, is not, as might appear at a superficial or prejudiced glance, a formless agglomerate of sedimentary stratification. Rather, when viewed in its proper perspective, it indicates and bears witness to the constant effort of the Church to adapt its legislation to the different historical periods and contexts, ever ready to further the progressive development of the Church of God. For Canon Law does not hinder but stimulates, does not repress, but exalts and preserves the perennial growth of the true Christian life under the unfailing influence of the Holy Spirit.

Consequently, the current revision of canon law is not a priori aimed at drafting a theoretical codification which is concerned only to meet the needs of the internal logical arrangement of the system. Nor will it be a radical reform, replacing the present legislation with completely new and different laws. But the reform will take as its basis the existing legislation. It will eliminate whatever is superfluous or no longer operative; it will fill in lacunae to meet new needs; it will re-arrange the whole body of laws more consistently; and it will make the true and genuine nature of canon law and of its function more manifest and more readily recognizable.

To this end the Commission set up by Us is toiling assiduously. It has already produced many results. The study groups have formulated the draft-texts of many canons—about 6.00—and these will be submitted to the cardinals for examination, and then circulated to the bishops. The Commission of Cardinals will meet in the near future to determine the systematic arrangement of the new code. But there still remains much to be done!

We now appeal to you, dear and distinguished Sons, that your valuable contribution to this arduous and weighty task may not fail. Your labours and studies, your scientific investigations will greatly assist the Church which, in the present reform of her legislation, has no other intention than to support and protect by her laws the new and sincere impulse towards the renewal of the Christian life which the Second Vatican Council hoped for and promoted.

The study of Canon Law

It must, nevertheless, be added that the advantages envisaged in the reform of canon law will not be effectively secured unless, and to the extent, that the laws are observed in practice by the People of God. For however relevant or well-drafted ecclesiastical legislation may be, if it should be disregarded in practice, or should be challenged or rejected, it will unfortunately remain barren and useless, and deprived of all profit and efficacy. Hence it follows that the drive towards reform, unsupported by the practical observance of the laws, will be weakened and short-lived, and it will certainly be less genuine and assured.

And in this very matter, alas, there are not lacking reasons for perplexity and apprehension. It is well known today that there exists a rather widespread attitude of scepticism, of indifference, of resistance to and even of scorn for ecclesiastical legislation and for all that it stands for or of which it is the vehicle. This attitude reveals itself in divers ways. It may be seen, for example, in the emphasis which is sometimes placed on the charismatic nature of the Church and of those who arbitrarily claim this charism for themselves—and all this in the context. of the Church as a society. It is manifested also in the rabid cult of personal independence which tends to deny every kind of imposed limit, and to reject every authority however legitimate.

Well then, to correct similar distortions, to dispel prejudices, to remove ambiguities and misunderstandings, the true nature of canon law and of ecclesiastical legislation must be made crystal-clear. Hence the urgent need, which will not brook delay, to further the study of canon law. This is the precise and inescapable task of the entire Church which must be faced at all levels of instruction and Christian formation, and in every facet of ecclesiastical society. But in a very special way, this duty devolves upon those who are the key-points of the machinery employed by the Church to achieve this end—that is to say, the ecclesiastical Universities, the Faculties, and the academic Institutes of Canon Law.

Young people, both priests and laity, and especially priests, must be encouraged to take up the study of canon law in ever greater numbers from all parts of the world. Moreover, use must be made of all the technical and educational aids to help the professors to carry out their work efficiently. Many of you here present are actually engaged in the study of law at the academic level in Faculties and Universities. Your work—already so valuable in the field of scientific research, as We have already mentioned, inasmuch as it is a contribution to the revision of the codification of the law—is rendered all the more valuable by reason of your mission to teach and to spread the science of law.

The service you thus render to the Church is endued with an importance that is truly useful. For it We have nothing but praise and encouragement which We would like to express to you in the words formerly used by that distinguished and amiable Master of Law, Ivo of Chartes: "Quicumque ergo ecclesiasticus doctor ecclesiasticas regulas ita interpretatur aut moderatur, ut ad regnum charitatis cuncta quae docuerit vel exposuerit, referat, nec peccat, nec errat; cum salutis proximorum consulens, ad finem sacris institutionibus debitum pervenire intendat" (Prol. in Decretum: M. L. 161, 47-48).

From your schools and from your writings, by the use of adequate and efficient educational methods, your students will obtain the true meaning of the Law of the Church. Under your guidance and direction priests and laity will receive their formation. Enriched by the science of law and with their convictions firmly rooted in exhaustive study, they will then be qualified to spread ever more widely among the People of God the knowledge of the laws of the Church, to inculcate respect for them, and to secure their trustful and cheerful acceptance. You shall, of course, devote particular care to those who will, in their turn, be called upon to join your ranks, to continue and expand the mission of the Masters of Law, and also to those who will be entrusted with offices of responsibility and of government in the Church.

Wise and diligent Sons so dear to Us, press on with your good work with steadfastness, with generosity and courage! The vital interests of the Church require it, and today the Church herself demands it of you in a voice of renewed and, shall We say, of heart-broken insistence. To Our sincere praise, to Our fervent encouragement, and to Our renewed appeal We now add our Apostolic Blessing, entreating for all of you here present an abundance of graces and heavenly consolations.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 June 1968, page 1

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069