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Why there isn’t more on-line canonical commentary

March 19, 2012

From time to time I see the following thought expressed on Catholic websites or in their comboxes: “I appreciate Dr. Peters’ views on canon law, I really do. But he’s just one canon lawyer. I’d like to hear the views of some other canonists from time to time.” Thoughtful remark, that.

In days of yore (and I mean, way yore) it was not unusual for canonists to debate topics before the public (or at any rate, before folks who weren’t working dawn to dusk just to put food on the table). Occasionally, some of these debates turned rambunctious (John the Monk’s 1301 lecture on the Sixth Book of Decretals was said to have caused a riot in Paris). In any event, public canonical debates served to remind those outside of strictly ecclesiastical circles that canon law was a vibrant legal system and that it dealt with real, if sometimes controverted, issues in the Church. It still is, and it still does.

As a canonist, I hear from other canonists about canonical issues all the time, so I don’t experience the dearth of public commentary on canon law topics quite as the public would, but some thoughts occur to me as to why there is, in fact, so little popular, let alone well-informed, debate about canon law these days, especially on-line. Three factors figure prominently, I think.

First, canon law is many things, but one of the main things it is, is no place for guessing. While the Code is largely effective at offering concrete direction to Catholics regarding their rights and duties in the Church, answering controverted questions about matters not immediately answered in the Code or in a commentary or two usually requires, besides graduate training, some fairly advanced scholarly resources (e.g., lots of old books in Latin and professional journals from around the world). Because canonists, like other good lawyers, don’t like to guess at answers, their discussions and debates about canonical controversies indeed take place, but inter peritos.

Second, many fine canonists, the kinds of men and women I turn to for insight on canonical matters, currently hold governing offices in the Church. As a practical matter, such offices prevent them from expressing personal views on various issues that might someday come before them officially. I was a diocesan canonist for more than a decade; now I teach in a seminary. As an academic I have considerably more freedom to opine on matters canonical (responsibly, I trust) than I ever enjoyed as a diocesan staffer.

Third, keeping in mind that canon lawyers make up only a tiny fraction of the number of Catholics in society, and discounting many fine canonists who hold positions of authority in the Church that curb their freedom to comment, and discounting others who don’t have easy access to the latest tools in canonistics, one is left with precious few folks situated to offer public commentary on things canonic at all.

And what of those few? Well, perhaps not all of them have the compulsion to educate (as I do, since that day in first grade when I impatiently took over the reading class) nor might they have a willingness to take a good share of slings and arrows for their efforts (as I do, within reason.)* Instead, these other canonists, I suspect, simply do their good quietly rather than take time to do it publicly.

Proverbs XV reminds us that there is wisdom in the counsel of many. So does Canon 19. I’ve been blogging on canonical topics for just shy of ten years, and I’ve had the field pretty much to myself, but other canonists don’t need my permission to start a blog, and more than one of them has received encouragement from me to join the work. So, we’ll see what might happen.

Of course, I don’t promise we won’t start a riot. + + +

* I’ll never forget Cdl. Burke’s quip to a beginning canon law student who asked the prelate for some words of advice: “Well, the first thing I would say is, canon law is not for the faint of heart!”

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