Papal Address to Roman Rota

“Christian Maturity Leads One to an Ever Greater Love of the Law”

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 23, 2012 ( Here is a translation of an address Benedict XVI gave Saturday to members of the Roman Rota.

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Dear members of the Roman Rota!

It is a joy for me to receive you today in our annual meeting on the occasion of the beginning of the judicial year. I offer my greeting to the College of Prelate Auditors, beginning with the dean, Monsignor Antoni Stankiewicz, whom I thank for his words. A cordial greeting also to the other officials, to the lawyers, to the other collaborators and to everyone present. In this context I renew my esteem for the delicate and valuable ministry that you undertake in the Church; it is a task that requires an ever renewed commitment insofar as it impacts the “salus animarum” (the salvation of the souls) of the People of God.

In this year’s gathering I would like to begin with a reference to an important ecclesial event that we will enter upon in a few months; I am speaking of the “Year of Faith,” which, following in the footsteps of my venerable predecessor, the Servant of God Paul VI, I wish to call for the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. That great pontiff, as I wrote in my letter of indiction, first established such a period of reflection “fully conscious of the grave difficulties of the time, especially with regard to the profession of the true faith and its correct interpretation.”[1]

Acknowledging a similar exigency, passing to the ambit that touches more directly on your service to the Church, today I would like to consider a primary aspect of the judicial office, namely, the interpretation of canonical law with respect to its application.[2] The connection with the topic that I have mentioned — the right interpretation of faith — is not to be reduced to a mere semantic agreement given that canon law has in the truths of faith its foundation and its meaning, and that the “lex agendi” (rule of acting) cannot but reflect the “lex credendi” (rule of believing). The question of the interpretation of canon law, moreover, constitutes quite a vast and complex matter, and because of this I will limit myself to a few observations.

First of all, the hermeneutics of canon law is tightly connected to the very conception of the law of the Church.

If we tend to identify canon law with the system of canon laws, the knowledge of what is juridical in the Church would consist essentially in understanding the legal texts set down. At first glance this approach would seem to turn the law into something merely human. But the impoverishment of this view is obvious: with the practical overlooking of natural law and divine positive law and the vital relationship of every right with the communion and mission of the church, the work of the interpreter is deprived of living contact with ecclesial reality.

In recent times some currents of thought have warned against excessive attachment to the Church’s laws, beginning with the Codices, regarding it as a manifestation of legalism. Consequently, there have been proposals for hermeneutic approaches that are more in keeping with the theological bases and also the pastoral intention of the canonical norm, leading to juridical creativity in which the individual situation becomes the decisive factor for grasping the authentic meaning of the legal precept in the concrete case. Mercy, equity and “oikonomia,” which is so dear to Eastern tradition, are some of the concepts that one has recourse to in such an interpretive approach. It is worth noting immediately that this position does not overcome the positivism that it denounces, limiting itself to replacing the one positivism with another in which the human interpretive work comes to prominence as the protagonist in determining what is lawful. There is a lack of a sense of an objective law to be discovered since it is subjected to considerations that pretend to be theological and pastoral, but that are, in the end, exposed to the danger of arbitrariness. Thus legal hermeneutics is rendered vacuous: at bottom there is no interest in understanding the law’s disposition from the moment that it can be dynamically adapted to any situation, even one opposed to the law’s letter. Certainly there is in this case a reference to vital phenomena but their intrinsic juridical dimension is not understood.

There is another route, one in which the adequate understanding of canon law opens the way to an interpretive effort that inserts itself into the pursuit of the truth about law and justice in the Church. As I wished to explain at my country’s Federal Parliament, in the Reichstag in Berlin,[3] true law is inseparable from justice. Obviously the principle also holds for canon law in the sense that it cannot be shut up in a merely human normative system but must be connected to a just order of the Church in which a superior law reigns. In this perspective human law loses the primacy that it wants to give itself since law is no longer simply identified with it. But human law is, nevertheless, valued inasmuch as it is an expression of justice, first of all to the extent that it follows divine law but also in that it is a legitimate determination of human law.

In this way a legal hermeneutics that is authentically juridical is made possible in the sense that, when it puts itself in harmony with the proper meaning of the law, it can pose the crucial question about what is just in each case. It is important to note that, in this regard, to grasp the proper meaning of the law it is always necessary to look to the reality that is subject to its discipline and to do this not only when the law expresses what is largely a matter of something declared by divine law but also when it introduces that which is the product of human rules. These also must be interpreted in the light of what is regulated, which always contains a core of natural and divine positive law with which every norm must be in harmony to be rational and truly lawful.

In this realistic perspective, the interpretive work, which is occasionally arduous, acquires a meaning and a direction. The use of the interpretive methods foreseen by the Code of Canon Law in canon 17, beginning with “the proper meaning of the words considered in their text and context,” is no longer a mere logical exercise. It is a matter of a task that is enlivened by an authentic contact with the whole reality of the Church, that seeks to penetrate the true meaning of the letter of the law. Something occurs that is similar to what I have said about the interior process of St. Augustine in biblical hermeneutics: “transcending the letter made the letter itself credible.”[4] Thus we confirm that even in legal hermeneutics the juridical truth to be loved, sought and served provides the authentic horizon.

It follows that interpretation of canon law must occur in the Church. It is not a question of a mere external, environmental circumstance: it is a return to the very “humus” of canon law and the realities it regulates. The dictum “sentire cum Ecclesiae” (thinking or feeling with the Church) is also relevant to disciplinary matters by reason of the doctrinal foundations that are always present and at work in the Church’s legal norms. In this way, there must also be applied to canon law that hermeneutic of renewal in continuity, of which I spoke in reference to Vatican II,[5] which is so closely connected to current canonical legislation. Christian maturity leads one to an ever greater love of the law and a desire that it be faithfully applied.

These basic attitudes apply to all categories of interpretation: from scientific research on canon law, to the work of legal workers in judicial or administrative matters, to the daily pursuit of just solutions in the life of the faithful and of communities. We must have a spirit of docility to accept the laws, seeking to study the Church’s legal tradition with honesty and dedication so as to be able to identify with it and with the juridical regulations coming
from bishops (pastori), especially the pontifical laws and magisterium on canonical questions, which is binding of itself in what it teaches about law.[6] Only in this way can the cases be discerned in which the concrete circumstances demand an equitable solution to achieve the justice that the general human norm was unable to foresee; and only in this way too can we be capable of manifesting in a spirit of communion what can serve to improve the legislative asset.

These reflections acquire a peculiar relevance in the sphere of the laws regarding the constitutive act of matrimony and its consummation and the reception of sacred orders, and to those pertaining to the respective processes. Here the harmony with the true meaning of the Church’s law becomes a question of broad and profound practical importance in the life of persons and communities and requires special attention. In particular all those legally binding means must be applied that aim at securing that unity of interpretation and application of laws that is required by justice: the pontifical magisterium specifically concerns this area, above all the papal allocutions to the Roman Rota; the jurisprudence of the Roman Rota, about whose relevance I have already had a chance to speak to you;[7] and the norms and declarations of the other dicasteries of the Roman Curia. Such hermeneutic unity in what is essential does not in any way render superfluous the functions of local tribunals, which are the first called to respond to the complex real situations that arise in every cultural context. Each one of them, in fact, must proceed with a sense of genuine reverence for the truths about the law, seeking to practice the communion in discipline as an essential aspect of the Church’s unity in an exemplary way when they apply judicial and administrative principles.

Coming to the conclusion of this moment of encounter and reflection, I would like to recall the recent innovation — to which Monsignor Stankiewicz referred — in virtue of which the competency over procedures of dispensation from marriages that are ratified but not consummated and the cases of the nullity of sacred ordination have been transferred to this Apostolic Tribunal.[8] I am certain that there will be a generous response to this new ecclesial task.

In encouraging your precious work, which requires faithful, daily and committed effort, I entrust you to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Speculum iustitiae” (Mirror of Justice) and I gladly impart to you the apostolic blessing.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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[1] Motu proprio “Porta fidei,” October 11, 2011, 5: “L’Osservatore Romano,” October 17-18, 2011, p. 4.
[2] Cf. canon 16, § 3 CIC; canon 1498, § 3 CCEO.
[3] Cf. Speech at Federal Parliament in the Reichstag Building, September 22, 2011: “L’Osservatore Romano,” September 24, 2011, pp. 6-7.

[4] Cf. Post-synodal Exhortation “Verbum Domini,” September 30, 2010, 38: AAS 102 (2010), p. 718, n. 38.
[5] Cf. Speech to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005: AAS 98 (2006), pp. 40-53.
[6] Cf. John Paul II, Allocution to the Roman Rota, January 29, 2005, 6: AAS 97 (2005), pp. 165-166.

[7] Cf. Allocution to the Roman Rota, January 26, 2008: AAS 100 (2008), pp. 84-88.
[8] Cf. Motu proprio “Quaerit semper,” August 30, 2011: “L’Osservatore Romano,” September 28, 2011, p. 7.

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