Looking at the Code of Canon Law Print
Bishop Morlino's Column
Written by Bishop Robert C. Morlino   
Thursday, Dec. 25, 2008 -- 1:00 AM

under the gospel bookMany of you know that my current priority focus is on our Diocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, of which I’ve now taken on personally the role of Director.

There has been little doubt for me, since even before I was ordained a priest, that we have, as a Catholic Church, been seriously lacking in our understanding of and teaching about the faith, for some time. With a string of recent events, it has been made even more clear than before that many of our truly faithful people are overdue for receiving a continually better catechesis than has been previously offered them. There is much work to be done in this area as a whole, and we priests and religious have a good many lay men and women ready and willing to collaborate in this area — though we need more!

At the risk, however, of getting bogged down in the many areas of evangelization and catechesis on which we can work, I would like to focus on a piece of Catechesis for which many people have recently called and written me to beg: that being a teaching on the Code of Canon Law. I’m not going to pretend to explain everything about the Code, but I will try to answer a few of the common questions I hear being asked. This may be enough for many, and for others it may be an opening for you to seek out more information.

To be honest, there are men and women within the Church who spend lifetimes working in this area and studying the subject and I, myself, certainly have not completed doctoral studies on the matter. But, the Law of the Church does have an effect on the life of every Catholic, whether they realize it or not, and so it wouldn’t hurt for me to say a few words in regard to it.

What is the Code of Canon Law?

The first question which arises is basic enough: just what is the Code of Canon Law? The Code of Canon Law is, very basically, the formally collected (codified) rule by which the Church here on earth is to function, ensuring justice and protecting the rights of all within the Church. This codification of the way in which the Church should function and handle the various issues which arise as a result of our being a Church made up of human beings, was underway as soon as Christ Himself left the Church in the hands of Peter and the Apostles — as Scripture very clearly indicates.

As the Church grew and spread through the world, references to the gathering of sacred canons of the Church began to pop up in official documents. On July 21 of 429, Pope Celestine warned in a letter to bishops that “no priest is permitted to be ignorant of the sacred canons.” At the fourth Council of Toledo in 633, the Council Fathers declared that, “Priests are to know the sacred Scripture and the canons.” Those are just a few of the better known, early references to the canons of the Church.

And why did these “canons” come about? Thankfully, as Catholics, we believe that when Jesus Christ left this earth, he did not leave us alone in the world. Instead, we believe that he left us with the Church, which, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, granted to St. Peter and the Apostles, was endowed with the wisdom and authority to maintain Christ’s own true teaching.

Thanks to that tremendous gift, each of us can rely upon the teaching of the Church, as passed down through Scripture and tradition and as taught by the Holy Father and the bishops with him. A part of that teaching takes the form of rather practical measures (which is what “canon” loosely means — a measure) by which the Church is governed. These practical measures ensure that justice remains at all times within the Church and that the rights of all the faithful are protected.

Such concepts as “authority,” “governing,” and “law” may not fit with the concept some have of the Church, but they have been and continue to be necessary and unchanging realities of our Catholic faith.

How does this fit in with faith, love?

Some wonder, though, how does this concept of law and authority fit with the ideas of the Church as a home of faith and love? It fits perfectly. In his promulgation of our current Code of Canon Law, Pope John Paul the Great responded to this concern quite well.

He wrote, “that the Code is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace, charisms, and especially charity in the life of the Church and of the faithful. On the contrary, [the Code of Canon Law’s] purpose is rather to create such an order in the ecclesial society that, while assigning the primacy to love, grace, and charisms, it at the same time renders their organic development easer in the life of both the ecclesial society and the individual persons who belong to it.”

The law of the Church is meant to make clear a path for us to grow in faith, in love, in grace, and in our individual charisms. It allows all the faithful to flourish, knowing that they will be treated with justice and that their rights as members of the Christian family are protected.

Yet, some still have asked, isn’t this simply some medieval way of looking at our Church? In the sense that the Church has been bound by sacred canons since Christ founded it, yes, Canon Law is medieval — just as it is ancient and modern, and everything in between. The current iteration of the Code, however, was begun as a reform of the Code of 1917 by our Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1959 and it was worked upon, painstakingly, until its completion in 1983. The current Code was written with our current culture very much in mind, but aware that the truths of the faith do not change in their essence.

Why do we need Canon Law?

I’ve also received questions asking, why do we need a written law for the Church; can’t I just follow my conscience? Certainly, each of us has an obligation to follow our consciences — our well-formed consciences — in matters of moral judgment. And, in the same way, each of us has the obligation to ensure that our consciences are well formed.

How do we form our consciences? The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear that the first and most important tool is the Word of God, “the light for our path.” We must take to heart the authentic interpretation of Holy Scripture and examine our own consciences regularly according to the Word of God.

And in forming our consciences, the Catechism continues, “we are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others, and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.” If the authoritative teaching of the Church helps us to form our consciences, how could that authoritative teaching ever run contrary to a well-formed conscience? The authoritative teaching of the Church is true, and conscience always seeks the Truth — conscience is never the source of the truth.

This leads to a very specific question, which I have also received of late: what is a canonical crime and how do I know if/what happens if I commit one? Well, if we believe in the authority of the Church, as we’ve discussed above, and if we believe that there are sacred canons, sacred laws which exist to maintain order within the Church, then a violation of one of those sacred laws is properly considered a canonical crime.

The second part of that question is a bit more complicated. Since much of the Code of Canon Law is in existence to maintain the order of the Church, to ensure justice, and to guarantee the rights of those in the Church, most of our lay faithful don’t come into contact with the details of Canon Law; hopefully, they simply enjoy the benefits — a functioning parish, the presence of a validly ordained priest, and validly celebrated sacraments, etc.

In fact, more often than not, only those Catholics who undertake the process of seeking a marriage annulment have any direct encounter with the Code of Canon Law itself.

With that in mind, most Catholics do not need to worry about committing a canonical crime in their day-to-day lives, because that is unlikely.

Yet, there are some occasions when serious matters arise, and at that point it is the responsibility of the Pope or the bishop to make people aware of the law and warn them if they are in danger of breaking it. That bears repeating, it is the responsibility of the pope or the bishop to make known the danger of committing a canonical crime.  Just as it is the duty of one responsible for the care of children to warn them if they are in physical danger, so too is it my duty, as the one responsible for the spiritual care of my people, to warn them if they are in spiritual danger.

Why does the bishop have the right?

Yet, in a very direct way, I’ve been recently asked the question: what gives you, Bishop Morlino, the right to tell me what a canonical crime is or is not? Each week when we make our profession of faith in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, we profess our belief that the Church has that right.

And by being missioned — as unworthy as I am — to be the Apostle of this Church of Madison, I’ve been entrusted locally with that right. More than a right, however, my telling the faithful of the Diocese of Madison what is lawful and what is not, according to the canons of the Church, is my very serious responsibility.

In professing our faith in the Church, each Catholic consents to obey the law of the Church and the rightful authority of the Church to interpret and to carry out that law. So long as the bishop remains faithful to the law of the Church, as it is written, the only thing that can negate the authority which the bishop has is the individual Catholic’s decision that they no longer accept the teaching of the Church.

In other words, so long as an individual believes that Christ instituted the Church and endowed the Apostles with the authority (and duty) to teach, sanctify, and govern, he or she is bound to obey that authority. If an individual no longer believes that, that individual should honestly recognize that their faith is not the Catholic Faith.

Reason for catechesis

I am grateful for all of the questions I’ve received of late because they reinforce for me my conviction that there are many good Catholics who desire a greater understanding of their faith. That, ultimately, is the reason for my taking the time to write this column and to explain, in a very brief way, a bit about what the Church teaches about the Code of Canon Law, and it is ultimately the reason for my turning my focus to evangelization and catechesis in the diocese.

Each of us, myself included, should always be seeking out the truth of what the Church teaches and what we profess to believe, so that we might have, as St. Anselm encourages, faith seeking understanding. And, at the same time, we should also be praying for an increase in faith, which is truly a gift from God. Let us pray as does the man in the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, “Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief!”

Thanks very much for reading this. God bless you! Praised be Jesus Christ!