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John Paul the Lawgiver

April 2, 2005

One hundred-and-seventeen cardinals are preparing to enter the next papal conclave, and doubtless each one is thinking to himself: “There are at least one hundred and sixteen men more worthy than I am to become the next pope.” But inevitably, one of those men must be wrong. And in relatively little time, we will know who he is.

Who would want to fill the shoes of Pope John Paul II? Theologian, philosopher, apologist, political scientist, priest and bishop, and most of all, pastor to the world, John Paul II has been all of these things. Here, though, I wish to underscore just one (somewhat overlooked) aspect of this incredible man: John Paul the Lawgiver.

Pope John Paul II was not a jurist-pope in the tradition of Innocent III, Benedict XIV, or even Pius XII. And yet he wielded immense influence over modern ecclesiastical legislation. He promulgated (and often directly contributed to the very drafting of):
the 1983 Code of Canon Law (governing the entire Roman Church);
the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (the first complete Eastern Code);
and the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus (governing the Vatican’s own extensive operations).
As the authority behind these documents alone, Pope John Paul II would have left his mark as a very influential legislator. He has provided the raw materials for canonical explorations and applications for decades, if not for centuries. But to them, one must add (oh!, where to start?):
ap. con. Divinus perfectionis (greatly streamlining the beatification and canonization process);
ap. con. Ex corde Ecclesiae (strengthening official supervision over Catholic higher education);
ap. con. Ad tuendam fidem (among other things, setting a pattern for reform of the 1983 Code itself);
and ap. con. Universi Dominici (wisely governing the election of his own successor).
Even this extremely short list does not do justice to his very significant use of canon law in his many teaching documents (one need only start looking at footnotes in his encyclicals and at the appendices to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to get a sense of how much John Paul II strove to alert Catholics to the legal aspects of so many of his statements). His annual addresses to the Roman Rota are of immense importance for the development of sound matrimonial jurisprudence in the Church. Even the strengthening of educational requirements for future canon lawyers occurred on his watch (Novo Codice). Perhaps now it is clearer why canonists usually refer to the pope simply as “the Legislator”!

As John Paul himself observed: “To work for the proper implementation of [canon law] is to work for the up-building of the Church herself. It is to work for the salvation of the world. It is to play an extraordinarily constructive role in continuing the redemptive mission of Christ himself.” I suggest that we as Catholics owe a debt of gratitude to this pope for helping to lift canon law from the antinomian nadir it suffered in those first years of post-conciliar confusion; moreover, we as canonists have a special obligation to continue to apply the Church’s laws in accord with the mind of the Church, a mind—and a mine!—that Pope John Paul II has helped tremendously to open up for Catholics in the new millennium. +++

Recent Books by Dr. Peters:

Incrementa in Progressu: A Legislative History of the 1983 Code (2005)
Annulments and the Catholic Church: Straight Answers to Tough Questions (2004)
The 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law (2001)

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