In Defense of Canon Law


On January 25, the Church commemorated 36 years since Pope St. John Paul II promulgated the 1983 Code of Canon Law. For many, a newly minted Code of ecclesiastical laws seemed anachronistic. The “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council hoped to remedy against the ritualistic legalism of the past. But as John Paul II insisted in his apostolic constitution Sacrae disciplinae legis, law is not inimical to the Gospel, but an instrument for its completion.

Indeed, the 1983 Code of Canon Law does not merely succeed the Second Vatican Council in time; it orders ecclesiastical discipline in light of the Council’s ecclesiology. Yet antinomian (that is, anti-legal) presumptions lead some to associate fidelity to ecclesiastical laws with a lack of pastoral charity. But as every canon lawyer knows, the law oftentimes is the most “pastoral” instrument for those who govern the Church. The law safeguards justice in the face of inequity and abuses of power; it instructs the faithful on proper moral action; and it leads Catholics more securely toward their sanctification through the proper celebration of the sacraments.

Even penal laws in the Church serve the interests of all. The penalty of excommunication, for instance, is called “medicinal” in order to instruct an offender of his wrongdoing and bring him to reconciliation with the Church. In the final analysis, the final canon of the 1983 Code summarizes the telos of all ecclesiastical discipline: “the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church” (can. 1752 CIC).