Code of Canon Law, 20 Years On

President of Legislative-Text Council Views the Link with Vatican II

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 27, 2003 ( Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law, a legislative body that defined the directions of the Second Vatican Council.

Last Friday, John Paul II received the participants of the Academic Day organized by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, with the theme «20 Years of Canonical Experience.»

The objective of the new «Corpus Iuris Canonici» was «to put at the disposition of pastors and all the faithful a clear normative instrument that would contain the essential aspects of the juridical order,» the Pope said in his audience.

Church law is not a mere ensemble of legislative texts, he noted.

«The canonical norms, in fact, refer to a reality that transcends them,» the Holy Father said. «Such reality is not just made up of historical and contingent data, but also includes essential and permanent aspects in which divine law is made concrete.»

In this interview with Vatican Radio, Archbishop Julián Herranz, president of the legislative-text council, explains one of the less known aspects of the code — the area dedicated to the mission of the laity.

Q: John Paul II insists on the current value of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in the face of the challenges of the third millennium. What is the relation of the Code of Canon Law and the council?

Archbishop Herranz: It is a relation of absolute complementarity. When announcing the council on Jan. 25, 1959, John XXIII said that the reform of the code’s ecclesiastical legislation would be the crowning of the council — thus making it obvious that, as the code is the disciplinary application of the council, all the validity that the conciliar documents have, the code also has for evangelization in the third millennium.

Q: In his teaching, the Pope makes reference to the canonical normative. Can you recall some particular expression of his that summarizes the meaning and value of law in the life of the Church?

Archbishop Herranz: Yes. In his teaching, he has often expressed two considerations, which I think can be summarized thus: Law in the Church is of divine origin, because Jesus founded the Church not only as a spiritual community of faith, hope and charity, but also as a juridically structured society, organically structured in a hierarchical way.

All societies need laws, and canonical legislation is also the legislation of justice within the people of God.

The second consideration that the Pope frequently recalls is that law is not just a means for the exercise of authority; it is also a means to make explicit and operative laws and duties of all the faithful in the Church. This is very important, because the new code has posited — also in view of the doctrine of Vatican II — a series of rights and duties.

For example, there is the fundamental right of the faithful to receive from the ecclesiastical hierarchy, from the authority of the Church, spiritual goods of the Church, in the first place the sacraments.

The faithful have the right, when they wish to go to confession, to reconcile themselves with God and with the Church, to find a confessor. The ecclesiastical authority has the duty to give the necessary norms so that there will be confessors in all the parishes, in all places open to public worship.

Q: What solutions has ecclesiastical justice suggested for the delicate question of North American priests accused of pederasty?

Archbishop Herranz: It has simply limited itself to a reminder that in the universal law of the Church, means already exist for the just solution.

This just solution means that the rights of all, the rights — obviously in the first place — of the victims must be safeguarded; in the second place, the rights of pastors of the communities that are affected by these terrible crimes, but also the rights of those who are accused of being guilty.

What follows? Something fundamental must be carried out — and this canon law does very well — in all juridical ordering that belongs to the civilization of law. Three things: first, that the veracity of events be proved, because the accusations can also be false; to verify the culpability of the persons; and ensure the right to defense through a just prosecution. These things are already in the procedural law of the Church and there is also a sanction against this horrendous type of crime, which is the most serious sanction that can be imposed on a cleric: resignation from the clerical state.

It is not about a norm that the Holy See or the Church has prepared now; it is found in the code promulgated in 1983 — which we now recall — and it was also found in all the preceding legislation of the Church. For centuries that Church was never tolerant of these situations.

And I would like to add something: These crimes, which are so much discussed in the media, refer to a minimal percentage — minimal! — of priests. You have referred to the United States: It does not reach 1%. However, for months the image of the Church and of the Catholic priesthood have been sullied, perhaps because it suits someone to make the magisterium of the Catholic Church lose moral credibility.

Q: The recent document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the participation of the laity in public life contains a new problem, not regulated by the code.

Archbishop Herranz: No. The code has regulated it with the sober style, proper to juridical legislation. But I would like to read a canon that contains all this. It is Canon 227: «To lay members of Christ’s faithful belongs the right to have acknowledged as theirs that freedom in secular affairs which is common to all citizens. In using this freedom, however, they are to ensure that their actions are permeated with the spirit of the Gospel, and they are to heed the teaching of the Church proposed by the magisterium ….»

Q: The participation of the laity in the life of the Church was one of the crucial points of the discussion and the decisions of Vatican II. Has the code responded adequately to conciliar expectations?

Archbishop Herranz: Without a doubt, in a very varied way. From the enunciation found in «Lumen Gentium,» the principle is that an essential equality exists in the Church as regards dignity and action; it means that all the faithful have the right and duty to participate actively in the life and mission of the Church.

When there is talk — and there has been much talk lately — of the universal call to holiness and to the apostolate, it is nothing other than making explicit in doctrinal terms what is a reality, also canonical.

Many canons can be found that speak of rights — fundamental duties of all the faithful, of all the baptized, and in addition to the specific rights and duties according to the canonical condition, according to the sacrament that has been received, whether ordination or marriage. …

Specific duties and rights stem from these sacraments. And among these there are many on how the faithful may participate in the mission of the Church, both in the structures of the ecclesiastical organization as well as outside, in the structures of the temporal order, because the secular is an essential component of the apostolic mission and also of the spirituality of the lay person.

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