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A few thoughts on Pope Francis’ remarks on the centenary of codified canon law

October 10, 2017

Two brief articles by Cindy Wooden in Crux and America report on Pope Francis’ recent comments on the 100th anniversary of codified canon law in the Church. The comments seem pretty unremarkable.

Per Francis, canon law should promote “collegiality; synodality in the governance of the church; valuing particular churches; the responsibility of all the Christian faithful in the mission of the church; ecumenism; mercy and closeness as the primary pastoral principle; individual, collective and institutional religious freedom; a healthy and positive secularism; (and) healthy collaboration between the church and civil society in its various expressions.”

To the extent that the pope’s legal to-do list addresses things that law can-do, I suggest that canon law already does it. For example, collegiality is reflected in dozens of canons reaching to the highest levels of Church governance (see 1983 CIC 336); the responsibilities of the Christian faithful in the mission of the Church are spread throughout the Code, notably in Canons 208-231; ecumenism is already a hierarchic duty under Canon 755; and cooperation between Church and State is set out, simply and without fanfare, in Canon 22. One might, of course, want to modify how Church law regulates such matters but any suggestion that canon law does not already address such things would be mistaken.

As for the law’s promoting, say, “positive secularism”, the pope would need to spell out how, for example, one legislates things like “closeness” and, assuming that was possible, whether these are the sorts of things one should use the power of law on.

Those points being noted, however, one papal remark did strike me as odd. According to Francis, “after the Second Vatican Council [the Church] marked the passage from an ecclesiology modeled on canon law to a canon law conforming to ecclesiology”. As phrased, this comment can leave the wrong impression. Two wrong impressions, in fact.

Ecclesiology (itself a modern word, but denoting the study of the Church qua the Church and the application of such studies in her life) predates the emergence of canonistics and the first formal treatises on ecclesiology (e.g., Giles of Rome De potestate ecclesiastica, early 14th century) predate the rise of codified canon law by some 600 years. It is not right to assert that canon law—however much its practical clarity might have sharpened the theologians’ speculative discussions over the centuries—dictated ecclesiology. 

Even the Pio-Benedictine Code of 1917, which certainly reflected the pyramidal ecclesiology operative in the Church at the beginning of the 20th century—itself a legacy left to the Church in part by the First Vatican Council, sadly suspended after it ratified Pastor Aeternus (on papal primacy) but before it could turn to the Schema constitutionis dogmaticae secundae de Ecclesia Christi (with, e.g., its more complete description of episcopal power)—is, I suggest, a model of how canon law does not get ahead of theology.

Unless one wants to claim that Cdl. Gasparri, architect of the 1917 Code, should have anticipated by nearly 50 years the developments regarding episcopal power in the Church that were made during the Second Vatican Council and should have written those developments into a Code then governing a Church that had not yet thought those things through for herself, it does not seem fair either to describe pre-Conciliar ecclesiology as having been the ward of canon law or post-Conciliar canon law as having only recently discovered ecclesiology.

That demur aside, the pope’s comments on canon law seem pretty straightforward to me.

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