Decoding Canon Law for Lay Catholics

Pete Vere Answers the Faithful’s Most Common Questions

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OTTAWA, NOV. 7, 2004 ( Due to the recent controversy of pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving Communion, a lay canon lawyer has seen the faithful awaken to the importance of canon law.

Pete Vere, who co-authored «Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law» (Servant Books) with fellow canonist Michael Trueman, is pursuing a doctorate in canon law at Saint Paul University and has worked with the tribunal ministry for the last three years.

He shared with ZENIT how canon law plays a role in Catholics’ everyday lives.

Q: When do most Catholics come into contact with canon law and the Church’s tribunals?

Vere: Divorce is the primary reason most Catholics approach a Church tribunal. Either the individual wishes to attempt another marriage, or the individual wishes to put a broken marriage behind him or her. Thus the individual will petition the tribunal for a declaration of nullity.

In popular parlance, we call this an «annulment.» Nevertheless, the Church does not actually nullify the marriage — that is, take a marriage and erase it. Rather, the Church declares the marriage null.

In other words, after a careful investigation the Church determines that something essential to marriage was missing in the relationship from the beginning. Hence, despite the external appearance of the marriage and the good faith of at least one party, a marriage never existed, as the Church understands marriage.

The practical consequences of this declaration is that the individual is free to attempt another marriage within the Church.

In the past couple of years, sad to say, sexual misconduct among the clergy has become the second most common reason why Catholics in North America approach the Church’s tribunal. Additionally, the grave scandal caused by pro-abortion Catholic politicians has also awakened many lay Catholics to the importance of canon law.

Q: How does this internal legal system govern the Church’s day-to-day workings?

Vere: Canon law touches upon every aspect of the Catholic faith. It touches upon the Church’s teaching function, such as catechesis, preaching and Catholic education.

It touches upon the Church’s governing function, from papal elections to whether the rosary guild can meet in the local parish. And it touches upon the Church’s sanctifying function, such as the administration of the sacraments and the blessing of pious objects.

Thus, most Catholics encounter canon law without ever coming into contact with the Church’s tribunal. Take baptism for example, since baptism incorporates one into the Body of Christ. Canon law governs whose consent is needed to receive baptism — namely, that of the parents in the case of children and infants, and that of the individual for those who are older.

Canon law also governs who can act as a sponsor or godparent to the baptism. The individual should be a baptized and confirmed Catholic who regularly practices his or her faith. Thus a Protestant may act as a witness to the baptism, but not as a godparent or sponsor.

What’s interesting is the exception canon law makes for members of Eastern non-Catholic churches. Given our common heritage as liturgical and sacramental Christians, canon law permits an Eastern Orthodox to act as a godparent at a Catholic baptism if the other godparent is Catholic.

Q: What are the most common questions Catholics have about canon law?

Vere: The most common question is definitely the following: «Are my children considered illegitimate if I receive an annulment?»

Understandably, people are most sensitive when it comes to their children. Thus, my co-author, Michael Trueman, and I answer this question last in «Surprised by Canon Law» for precisely this reason. We wanted the answer to this question to be readily accessible whenever our readers encounter a misconception concerning this issue.

Of course, the answer is no. A declaration of nullity declares one’s marriage invalid, not one’s children. Thus, Canon 1137 recognizes the legitimacy of children born to a putative marriage. A putative marriage is a marriage attempted in good faith by at least one of the parties, but that later receives a declaration of nullity from the Church.

Q: What are the basics of the code that Catholics need to know on a daily basis?

Vere: There are several of basics, both in terms of canonical rights and canonical responsibilities.

Yet Canon 213 provides a nice summary, stating: «The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments.» In other words, all Catholics have the right to sound teaching and the means with which to grow in holiness.

This is the major point Michael and I wanted to share in our book. The Code of Canon Law is not some dry juridical text that is far removed from the everyday concerns of Catholics. Rather, it is an exciting outgrowth of the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness and evangelization.

Thus all canons, or individual laws, subordinate themselves to the last canon in the code. This canon reiterates the ancient canonical principle that «the salvation of souls is the supreme law.»

Q: What does canon law have to say about pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving Communion?

Vere: Quite a bit. Unfortunately, canonists are just as divided as bishops and the lay faithful when it comes to this question. Hence the debate continues. Often, the division seems to be along the lines of age.

My own position is fairly well known: We should show compassion to the mothers who abort their children and excommunicate the politicians. For this reason I support stronger efforts to have pro-abortion Catholic politicians excommunicated or denied holy Communion. So, too, do many young canonists with whom I have spoken.

Canon 1398 is clear: «A person who actually procures an abortion incurs an automatic excommunication,» the canon states. Abortion is intrinsically evil as an act, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly teaches in paragraph 2271 that abortion «is gravely contrary to the moral law» and an «abominable crime.»

My experience in ministry has taught me that most women who abort their child act under some sort of emotional, mental or psychological duress. I seldom come across an abortion that is freely chosen — that is, chosen without coercion from some outside individual or organization.

Thus, the diminishing and excusing factors outlined in canons 1323 and 1324 apply to most women who procure an abortion. In other words, the act is sinful but the women are spared the penalty of excommunication.

Yet, these women are not canonists. Alone and ashamed, the perception of excommunication only further drives them away from the Church. What they need is Christ’s healing touch in the confessional, as well as sustained pastoral support from pro-life organizations such as Project Rachel.

Christ took the same approach with the woman caught in adultery: He did not excuse the sin, but he did not turn away the sinner. He invited her to repentance and forgiveness.

My feelings differ towards those who profit — whether financially or politically — from abortion. This is where the Church ought to direct her censures. We need to get tough with Catholic politicians, doctors, pregnancy counselors, nurses and lawyers who continue to support and protect the abortion industry.

With regard to doctors and nurses, the second paragraph of Canon 1329 already provides for their automatic excommunication as accomplices who, «without their assistance, the crime would not have been committed …»

The canonical situation is more complex when it comes to Catholic politicians. They do not dir
ectly participate in abortion. They draft, legislate and protect laws that permit this evil. Therefore the automatic excommunication envisioned by canons 1329 and 1398 would not apply to them since, in keeping with Canon 18, «Laws which prescribe a penalty […] are to be interpreted restrictively.»

Nevertheless, canon law provides other means to punish pro-abortion Catholic politicians. At the very minimum, the Church can and should prohibit pro-abortion lawyers and politicians from receiving holy Communion. Some canonists oppose this type of sanction, pointing out that Canon 912 upholds in the strongest of terms the right of a Catholic to receive holy Communion.

Nevertheless, the second paragraph of Canon 223 states: «Ecclesiastical authority is entitled to regulate, in view of the common good, the exercise of rights which are proper to Christ’s faithful.»

One is hard pressed to see how permitting pro-abortion Catholic politicians to go unchallenged contributes to the common good — either of the Church or of society as a whole. Rather, abortion destroys the common good in that it destroys the right to life. This is the right upon which all other rights — as well as the common good — are based.

Thus, I’m a strong proponent of making use of Canon 915 in this case. This canon states: «Those […] who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy Communion.»

Q: Given the extension of the state into more and more areas, plus the tendency to litigate, do you see the possibility of more conflicts between canon law and civil law, such as with the sexual abuse matters? What happens when canon law and civil law are at odds?

Vere: It can be difficult. While I am not a civil lawyer, my father is. He is also a permanent deacon and is often asked to provide legal counsel when sexual misconduct among clergy comes to light. So we compare notes whenever he needs a canon law perspective or I need the perspective of a civil lawyer.

Canon law and civil law are two different legal systems. Each follows its own set of legal principles, and sometimes these principles conflict.

This is especially the case here in Canada and United States where we follow a legal system based upon the British common law. Thus the need for a book like «Surprised by Canon Law» that introduces the reader to how canon law functions.

For example, precedents from a higher court play an important role in our civil jurisprudence, but are less important in canon law. Prescription, or statutes of limitation, are also more important in canon law.

What concerns me the most, however, are recent attempts by the state to encroach upon the inviolability of the seal of confession. For example, I know of at least one recent case in which a priest from New England spent a month in jail. The court found him guilty of obstruction of justice after he refused to divulge what he heard in the confessional.

Divulging the contents of a penitent’s confession is one of the most serious crimes a priest can commit. Canon 1388 automatically excommunicates a priest who directly violates the seal. So while the state has now judged this priest a criminal, as a canon lawyer I admire him for his heroism. He remained faithful to the Church’s canonical and sacramental tradition despite legal persecution from the state.

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