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What is canon law (and why does it matter)?


It may seem like a bunch of rules, but it is geared towards helping others toward salvation.

For many people “law” tends to be a bad word when it comes to religion. To our modern ears it sounds oppressive and domineering, and makes the teenager inside of us instantly want to rebel. We might be tempted to say, “Is the Church trying to turn us into robots with all these man-made rules?”

Before we make any instant judgements, let’s take a look at what “canon law” refers to in the Catholic Church.

Father James Goodwin gives a perfect summary of what canon law is and why it is not something negative, but a basic part of any healthy organization.

“Put simply, canon law is how the Church organizes and governs herself. The word ‘canon’ basically means rule. There are about 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, and the Church administrates a large collection of institutions. Therefore, the Church needs an organizational structure to carry out its office of governance and its saving mission. Every society needs laws — and so does the Church. There is an old saying: ubi societas ibi lex (‘where there is a society there is law’). Imagine driving on the highway where there are no rules of the road? It would ultimately lead to disaster.”

It is not an easy task helping others toward salvation, and the those within the Church need boundaries and rules that govern exactly how their ministry should be enacted. This has been the case since the very beginning. In the Acts of the Apostles there were many disputes that had to be resolved and rules that would guide the Church in her apostolic ministry. The most basic example of this was the procedure the early Church developed when deciding who to replace Judas (see Acts 1:15-26).

Over the centuries many more laws were created through various councils, but it wasn’t until 1917 that there was a single collection. Up until 1917 there were many rules governing the Church, but no single place to examine them and make sure they were not conflicting with each other. This Code was revised in 1983 and continues to govern the Church to the present day.

It includes many different items, such as rules that govern the administration of the sacraments, the celebration of the liturgy, teaching the faith and appointment of clergy members. It is important to remember that these laws exist to serve the divine law, the 10 Commandments and the teachings of Christ. Canon law is not opposed to what God has given us, but is meant to help us in concrete situations to follow God’s law.

As an example of how canon law helps the Church to remain faithful to Christ, here are the some of the official duties of a parish priest.

Can. 528 §1. A pastor is obliged to make provision so that the word of God is proclaimed in its entirety to those living in the parish; for this reason, he is to take care that the lay members of the Christian faithful are instructed in the truths of the faith, especially by giving a homily on Sundays and holy days of obligation and by offering catechetical instruction. He is to foster works through which the spirit of the gospel is promoted, even in what pertains to social justice. He is to have particular care for the Catholic education of children and youth. He is to make every effort, even with the collaboration of the Christian faithful, so that the message of the gospel comes also to those who have ceased the practice of their religion or do not profess the true faith.

Can. 529 §1. In order to fulfill his office diligently, a pastor is to strive to know the faithful entrusted to his care.

Therefore he is to visit families, sharing especially in the cares, anxieties, and griefs of the faithful, strengthening them in the Lord, and prudently correcting them if they are failing in certain areas. With generous love he is to help the sick, particularly those close to death, by refreshing them solicitously with the sacraments and commending their souls to God; with particular diligence he is to seek out the poor, the afflicted, the lonely, those exiled from their country, and similarly those weighed down by special difficulties. He is to work so that spouses and parents are supported in fulfilling their proper duties and is to foster growth of Christian life in the family.

Does that sound like something “bad”? This section of canon law basically wants to make sure that pastors are doing what they are supposed to be doing. While some might argue that you should just tell priests to follow Christ’s Gospel and everything else will fall into place, canon law makes everything more concrete and gives examples that priests can live by.

Suffice to say canon law is not something to be avoided, but embraced and seen as an aid to ministry, guiding the Church in the important work of salvation.

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