Catholicism All-in-One For Dummies
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For Roman Catholics, canon law is another term for Church or ecclesiastical law. The word canon comes from the Greek word kanon, which is a "measuring reed." When used to describe a body of laws and procedures for adjudication, canon law refers specifically to the regulations applying to all the Catholic faithful, both clergy and laity alike, all over the world.

Unlike Divine Positive Law (commands directly from God as found in divine revelation) and Natural Moral Law (ethical mandates known by anyone and everyone who is rational), canon law is considered "human law" just as is civil law in secular society. As such, canon law can and has changed over the centuries, while Divine Positive Law and Natural Moral Law are eternally the same and binding at all times on all people. Before Pope John Paul II, the last time the entire Code of Canon Law had been revamped was in 1917 — so by 1983, it was necessary to overhaul the system once again.

Identifying the changes

In 1959, Pope John XXIII (1958–1963) announced his desire to revise the Code of Canon Law, which had become slightly archaic in only 40 years. Before beginning the work of updating the laws of the Church, the pope saw the need to first summon and convene an ecumenical council. The Second Vatican Council met from 1962 through 1965 and issued 16 documents.

It would take three more popes and another 20 years before the Code of Canon Law would finally be revised. After John XXIII came Paul VI (1963–1978), then John Paul I, who reigned for only a month and was succeeded by John Paul II in 1978.

Because reforms of Vatican II were well under way (including performing services in the common language of the congregation, ecumenical dialogue, and involvement of the laity) the canon laws of the Church needed to reflect not only the legal realities but the philosophy and theology that were behind them. The spirit of the law and the letter of the law needed to coincide and be known and applied by everyone.

Here's a summary of the changes made to the Code of Canon Law by the Second Vatican Council:

  • A reduction in the number of laws: There are 1,752 canons in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, compared to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which had 2,414 canons.
  • A shift in the "spirit" of the law: Whereas both codes are legalistic in the sense that they contain official and binding legislation on the Universal Church, in the revised (1983) code, the purpose of Church law keeps coming across again and again. It is best summarized in the last canon (canon 1752), which has a concluding phrase: "salute animarum . . . in Ecclesia . . . suprema semper lex . . ." (the salvation of souls is always the supreme law in the Church).
  • An enhancement of theological context: Both the 1917 and the 1983 codes contain a lot of legal jargon and stuff that concerns canon lawyers more than the average Catholic in the pew. Nonetheless, the revised code gives theological context within legal parameters, unlike the older code before it.
  • A reaffirmation of the equality of all Christians: Though still very much a hierarchy — with the pope as supreme head, the bishop as leader of the diocese, and the pastor as leader of the parish — the 1983 Code of Canon Law affirms the union of exercising jurisdiction with the ordained ministry (bishop, priest, and deacon). At the same time, however, the revised code also reiterates Vatican II, Lumen Gentium #32 in canon 208, when it declares the equality of all the Christian faithful by virtue of their Baptism.

Holy Orders do make a man a cleric and, as such, he can exercise ecclesiastical authority and jurisdiction, but the dignity and importance of a person derives not from his vocation, but from his (or her) Baptism, which makes that person a child of God. This principle of radical equality means that each and every single individual in the Church — pope, layperson, ordained, married, single, consecrated religious — has the same destiny and same opportunity. All the baptized — not just the priests and nuns — are called to holiness. Although the ordained have authority in the Church, they do not have a monopoly on grace and sanctity, which is equally given to all the baptized.

Considering similarities and differences

The 1983 Code of Canon Law reflects the mind of Vatican II in that the essentials and substance of the faith have been retained, while the way in which they are explained, communicated, and experienced have been adapted to modern times. Just as the Second Vatican Council did not deny or modify any dogmas or doctrines, or deviate from previous councils and popes on substantive elements of faith and morals, so, too, the revised code did not change the mechanism of ecclesiastical law. Roman law and not English common law, remains the foundation of the canonical system (specifically, the search for truth and the decision made by a judge rather than a jury).

At the same time, the adversarial goal of protecting and balancing rights emerges in the 1983 Code of Canon Law when the rights and obligations of all the Christian faithful, as well as specific rights of the laity and of the clergy, are spelled out and a means to defend, protect, and remedy their violation is guaranteed in law.

Structural similarities and differences between the 1917 and 1983 codes are as follows:

  • Both introduce themselves with general norms and principles in section one.
  • Section two of the revised code is titled "The People of God," which is directly taken from Vatican II. The former code called that section "On Persons."
  • The new code starts with a list (bill) of rights of all the Christian faithful, which one receives by virtue of Baptism (see the nearby sidebar, "The rights and obligations of all the Christian faithful"), and then delineates further into subsections on the laity, the clergy, the religious, and so on. The 1917 Code of Canon Law dealt with the laity last; the 1983 Code of Law deals with them first.

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