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Canon law might not be ideal, but it is certainly more than ‘an’ ideal

September 3, 2019

John Allen, amid some interesting thoughts on the recent batch of cardinals soon to be created by Pope Francis, makes a couple of observations on things canonical that deserve a brief response.

The 120 papal elector limit established by Pope Paul VI (not “informally” as suggested by Allen, see ap. con. Romano Pontifici 33) and renewed by Pope John Paul II (per ap. con. Universi Dominici 33), who often disregarded the limit, is about to be ignored by Francis. I agree with Allen that it’s time to abrogate that law but not because the limit itself is a bad idea but because legislating such a limit is bad idea. Popes should not pretend to bind themselves to laws that they are free to, and do, disregard because their disregard of law gives bad example to the faith community about the place of law in the Church—a bad example that Allen (along with many others) gives voice to.

Papal disregard of canon law is, per Allen, “a good reminder of the way law tends to work in Catholicism – often more of an ideal, really, than an actual expectation.” Balderdash.

Law in the Church is, among other things, an ordinance of reason, that is, canon law is an ordering, an establishment, a rule, and not simply an “ideal”, an inspiring goal, or a nice idea.

Granted the mechanisms for the enforcement of law in the Church often differ from those applied in secular law and such differences can sometimes make canon law appear to be something more akin to a list of “ideals” or suggestions, but that understanding fosters a very wrong conclusion about the nature of law in the Church. Add to the confusion based on appearances the scandal of canon law being disregarded or patently violated by some in Church governance over recent decades and, yes, I can see why Allen can echo what so many in Church life seem to think, namely, that Church law isn’t really law.

But they are wrong in assuming that canon law is not really law. Worse, the importance of law in the Church, the goods to be achieved by understanding those laws, and the benefits of applying good law correctly are being lost to the community for which canon law has been, and is, so carefully organized.

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