Demystifying Canon Law

Author: ZENIT


Demystifying Canon Law

Part 1

Interview With Author Pete Vere

By Carrie Gress


Canon law is more than just regulations, but is active living out of our Catholic tradition, says author Pete Vere.

Vere co-authored with Michael Trueman "Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Laypeople Ask About Canon Law," and "Surprised by Canon Law, Volume 2: More Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law," both published by Servant Books.

In Part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, Vere discusses the role canon law plays in the life of the average Catholic as well as in the difficult issues of giving Communion to pro-abortion politicians and the sexual abuse scandals.

Part 2 of this interview will be appear Wednesday.

Q: What inspired you to write "Surprised by Canon Law, Volumes I and II"? From your research and the reaction you have had from readers, how does canon law affect the life of the average Catholic in the pew?

Vere: Canon law affects every aspect our daily life as Catholics — such as when we can receive the holy Eucharist, to how we receive absolution through the sacrament of confession, to who can be a godparent. Canon law isn't just dry rules and regulations — it's a living part of the Church's sacred Tradition.

Over the past decade we have seen how canon law functions throughout many extraordinary events in the life of the Church. Some of these events have been painful, such as the sexual misconduct crisis among clergy and the need to confront Catholic politicians who undermine the sanctity of life and marriage. Other events have been a cause for joy and celebration among the universal Church. These include the election of Pope Benedict, the reconciliation of Catholic traditionalists in Campos, Brazil, and the canonizations of Sts. Faustina, Padre Pio, Josemaría Escrivá and the Fatima children.

When writing as Catholics, one hopes and prays that one's inspiration is drawn from the Holy Spirit, although we write as his imperfect human instruments. Most often, God speaks to us through the Church and other people. In the case of "Surprised by Canon Law, Volume I" the inspiration came through the Second Vatican Council, the post-conciliar apologetics movement, and most importantly, the people of God who we served through tribunal ministry.

Canon law does not exist for its own sake. Rather, it exists as the handmaiden of theology, to assist in the salvation of souls by helping to provide order within the Christian life. Thus the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church.

One of the great blessings of the Second Vatican Council is that it opened up the sacred sciences to the laity, as part of the Council's universal call to holiness. Simply put, all Catholics are called to grow in holiness and knowledge of the faith. Consequently, the Second Vatican Council challenged all Catholics to become more knowledgeable about their faith.

Whereas the post-conciliar era saw the Church make sacred Scripture and the various theological disciplines more accessible to the laity, we were a little slower off the mark in doing so with canon law. In fact, while writing the first volume of "Surprised by Canon Law," Michael and I worried that this attempt to make canon law accessible to the laity would be met with suspicion by our peers in the canonical world — especially as Michael and I were still young to the profession, and our presentation style borrowed heavily from the new apologetics and evangelization movement.

Our concerns could not have been more unfounded. I am still stunned by the prayers, encouragement and support we received from fellow canonists, representing all areas of canonical ministry.

And it was with their prayers and encouragement that we undertook to write "Surprised by Canon Law, Volume II," which answers questions on issues that have piqued the interest of laity since the publication of the first volume.

The topics include: the canonization of saints, papal election, the sexual misconduct crisis, the Eastern Catholic Churches, possible actions to remedy Catholic politicians who dissent from the Church's moral teaching, ecumenism, the rise of new religious orders and movements, and several other topics.

Q: Let's talk about some of those issues. Many Catholics aren't sure what to think about high-profile Catholic politicians who support abortion or same-sex marriage, and then continue to receive holy Communion. What does canon law have to say about this?

Vere: Canon 915 is clear: Those "who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy Communion."

The question then becomes whether Canon 915 ought to be applied to pro-abortion politicians who claim to be Catholic. The growing consensus among pastors and canonists is yes. This is especially the case since 2004, when Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis came out strongly in favor of this pastoral remedy, and he received the backing of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Nevertheless, Archbishop Burke gave it much careful thought and prayer before going public. This is as it should be, something I say as someone who had been publicly arguing for the application of canon 915 prior to Archbishop Burke exercising his leadership on the issue as both a bishop and a canonist.

Partaking in holy Communion is our most sacred action as Catholics. Denying a Catholic this sacrament is very serious, and should only be done where all other pastoral options have been exhausted. It sends a strong message to deny someone holy Communion, but given that abortion is the wanton destruction of innocent life in the womb, such a serious message is indeed necessary. The same is true with the natural and sacramental definition of marriage, which is the basic building block of society and the natural order.

Thus imposing Canon 915 becomes necessary when a Catholic politician is at odds with the Church's moral teaching and refuses pastoral correction. And yes, from Archbishop Burke to Bishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, I know of no pastor who has denied holy Communion without first attempting to correct the politician in private and giving the politician the opportunity to mend his or her ways.

Q: Another painful issue for Catholics over the past five years has been the sexual misconduct crisis. What do you say about the Church's handling of these cases in light of canon law?

Vere: It is a tragedy whenever a young person is abused, especially when this abuse is perpetuated by one who has been set aside to care for Christ's faithful. Past action, or lack thereof, to address these situations, did not utilize the canon law legal remedies. It was not a failure of the Church's law, which, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983, contained a canon to punish clerics who sexually abused minors; it was a failure of leadership to utilize these laws.

In my opinion, canon law was erroneously seen as overly complex, lending to being easily overturned on appeal by the priest, and advocating a too-harsh penalty, rather than providing a pastoral and charitable remedy. "How can we preach forgiveness if we remove Father X from active ministry because of one mistake?" was the common objection. Additionally, advice from the psychological community erred on the side of patient reform and secular legal counsel usually sought out-of-court settlements and party confidentiality.

Nonetheless, the wheels of change were already in motion before the cases in Boston were brought to light. In 2001, the Holy See had reserved to itself the right to consider such cases of clergy sexual abuse. In a motu proprio called "Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela" there appeared a section stating that in instances where a cleric commits a sexual offense against a minor, the case must be brought to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after a preliminary investigation is carried out by the local bishop. Prior to this, cases could have been considered locally.

"Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela," in part, then informed the U.S. bishops' 2002 deliberations at their meeting in Dallas concerning the creation of the U.S. Charter and Norms for the Protection of Children and Young People. These national norms where subsequently approved by the Holy See and continue to have force today.

The U.S. Charter and Norms have dramatically changed the way clergy sexual abuse cases are handled. Besides the change in competency, procedure, and removal from ministry, dioceses have a full compliment of screening and training programs. The U.S. episcopal conference's National Review Board continues its work of auditing the programs, making recommendations as to best practices and compliance.

At the end of the day, the overarching change relates to perspective — that clergy and laity are now actively seeking ways to protect children and young people from those who would want to harm them. In many ways, Church leaders and personnel have adopted the protective instinct that a parent has for his or her own child.

Part 2 Interview With Author Pete Vere

By Carrie Gress


In response to the growing tide of new movements in the Church, Canon law does not dictate the form they will take, but arises in response to the Holy Spirit, says author Pete Vere.

Vere co-authored with Michael Trueman "Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Laypeople Ask About Canon Law," and "Surprised by Canon Law, Volume 2: More Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law," both published by Servant Books.

In Part 2 of this interview with ZENIT, Vere discusses the role canon law plays in understanding the canonization process and the growth of new movements in the Church.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday.

Q: Your book answers a number of questions about the canonization process. Could you give us a brief overview of this process, especially as we wait for people like Blessed Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II to finish these processes?

Vere: Allow me to begin with some good news: Every one of us is eligible to become a saint. In fact, this is the reason for which God created us — to join him in heaven for all of eternity. Thus we should always ask ourselves whether our actions and words will bring us closer to God.

Having said that, only a handful of us will be canonized saints by the Church. The canonization process is rather rigorous, which insures its integrity. I myself was surprised to learn just how rigorous the process is, and am grateful to Michael — who has experience with the process — for tackling the canonization chapter.

Having said that, the process for canonization is not found in the Code of Canon Law, but in a document promulgated by Pope John Paul II called "Divinus Perfectionis Magister" (Divine Teacher and Model of Perfection).

It begins when a Catholic is believed by the faithful to have lived a life of exemplary holiness. From here, Michael summarizes the process as follows: "death of the individual; presentation of the cause — the person is called a servant of God; declaration of venerability — the person is called venerable; declaration of beatification — the person is declared blessed; and canonization — the person is declared a saint."

Of course, Michael goes into a lot more detail in the book, answering questions about each stage of the process. For example, canon 368 tasks the diocesan bishop with the responsibility of presenting a cause for canonization.

All of the candidate's writings must be carefully scrutinized before the Church declares the candidate venerable. Beatification and canonization must each be supported by a miracle. The final act of canonization constitutes an infallible statement that the individual is in heaven with Our Lord.

As the book explains in more detail, the process calls upon several experts — theologians, pastors, laity, medical doctors, etc. — depending upon the stage of the canonization process.

Q: A number of new religious orders and movements have arisen since the Second Vatican Council. What are some of the differences between institutes of consecrated life as envisioned by the Code of Canon Law, especially something like consecrated virgins who only recently have returned to the life of the Church?

Vere: As the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit is infinite. This means there are infinite possibilities of how he can inspire the Catholic faithful to serve the Church. The code presents a number of possibilities, of which we touch upon several in "Surprised by Canon Law, Volume II."

For instance, institutes of consecrated life fall into three broad categories: religious orders, societies of apostolic life and secular institutes. Most of us are familiar with religious orders like the Benedictines or the Franciscans, where Catholics live and pray in common, and all their material goods are held in common by the community.

Societies of apostolic life are similar, in that the members live together to fulfill a common purpose. However, like secular priests, the members of a society of apostolic life can own personal property. One of the fastest-growing societies of apostolic life in the Church right now is the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which was founded in 1988 to help fulfill the pastoral needs of traditionally minded Catholics.

With secular institutes, the members live within society and may have secular occupations as well. Their function is to provide 'spiritual leaven' within the world.

An institute may be clerical, if its membership is predominately clergy, or lay, if the membership is mostly made up of religious brothers and sisters. Contemplative institutes spend more time in prayer, like the Carthusians, whereas active institutes, like St. Martha in the Gospels, or Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, focus on temporal works of charity.

The combinations are endless, and this is before one takes into account personal prelatures like Opus Dei, consecrated virgins, hermits, and many other possibilities recognized by the code. And of course we don't know what the Holy Spirit will inspire in the future.

Each of these possibilities fulfills a need within the Church. Throughout the Church's history, these forms have arisen in response to special challenges faced by the Church. For example, the early monasteries arose to bring order and community life to the countless hermits hiding in the desert. The Franciscans arose from the need for the Church to evangelize. The Jesuits from the need for the Church to respond to the division within Christendom caused by the Protestant Reformation. Many of today's new religious movements have arisen as a response to the secularist malaise and spiritual lukewarmness that has infected formerly Christian lands. They have answered Pope John Paul II's call for a new evangelization — one that evangelizes from within.

The Code does not so much envision what type of form these movements will take — as canon law, like the new movements, arises in response to the Holy Spirit. Rather, the Code attempts to provide some order and guidance for when these new movements arise, so that they may serve the Church and the good of souls to their full potential.

Q: Many Catholics don't know that Eastern Churches have their own Code of Canon Law. What sort of differences are there between the two codes?

Vere: Many of the individual canons are similar, or in some cases even the same, but there are some significant differences. For example, for a marriage to be valid under the Eastern code, the couple must receive the blessing of the priest. This excludes deacons from presiding over marriages except in an emergency. On the other hand, nothing in the Latin code stops the deacon from acting as a qualified witness.

Another key difference, which again concerns marriage, is that a godparent cannot marry a godchild in the East. So a fiancée could not sponsor a non-Catholic fiancée into the Church under the Eastern Code, whereas there is no such prohibition in the West. There are also a few structural differences — the Latin Code is divided into seven books, whereas the Eastern Code is divided into 30 titles. And, of course, the terminology often differs between the two codes to account for the different spiritual patrimonies.

That being said, the most profound difference, in my opinion, is the treatment of our Eastern Catholic Churches. Notice I said "Churches" and not "Rites." To me this denotes a profound shift in ecclesiology, that is, the Church's theology of what it is to be a Church. This is important because how one understands the Church as an entity will affect how one interprets the Church's law.

The Latin Code, promulgated in 1983, still treated our Eastern Catholic brethren as members of rites. In other words, Eastern Catholics were seen as an extension of the Latin Catholic Church, but with slightly different liturgies and customs, and in some parts of the world, their own hierarchy.

By using the expression "Churches sui iuris" in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (CCEO), that is to say Churches of their own authority, the 1990 Eastern code recognized that Eastern Catholics belonged to their own Churches, each with its own distinctive spiritual patrimony, that exist in full communion with Rome and the Latin Church. Together, these Churches make up the universal Church.

And in the end, this is why Michael and I felt it important to include a chapter about the CCEO in "Surprised by Canon Law Volume II." Although our spiritual patrimonies may differ somewhat between Churches "sui iuris," we exist in full communion with each other, sharing the same mission, which is the salvation and sanctification of souls.

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