Law in the Life of the Church
A New and Renewed Law
The first Sunday of Advent, 27 November 1983, sees a new Code of Canon Law come into effect in the Catholic Church.
Any community needs an accepted code of behaviour if it is to function and achieve its goals. For the Catholic Church, a community of almost 750 million people around the world, the rules that serve this purpose are called the Code of Canon Law. The laws, or canons, in the Code are based on the Church's understanding of the Scriptures and the Church's teachings.
From 1962 to 1965 bishops and theologians from around the world met in the Second Vatican Council. The result of these meetings was a renewed understanding of the Church, its teachings and their application in our times. When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, he also called for a revision and updating of the Church's Code of Canon Law which had not been totally revised since it was issued in 1917.
As the Second Vatican Council introduced many changes within the Church, the work on revision of the Code was delayed until the Council was completed. This enabled the Code reform to incorporate the spirit of the Council and its directives.
Over the past 17 years numerous consultations have been held. Bishops, theologians and Canon lawyers have now completed their work and the Church has a unified body of law.
A New People in Christ
One of the basic points of revision of the Code is the underlying spirit of the Second Vatican Council. The 1917 Code had been drawn up in a time when centralisation of authority was at a peak in both civil society and the Church. The revision of the Code is based on the model of the Church that was renewed in the Second Vatican Council, namely that of communion, a community, the People of God gathered together as one in Christ.
One practical application of this in the new Code will mean many decisions will be taken at a regional or local level instead of having all of them made at a central point. In New Zealand our Bishops will consult on the detail of many practical matters, within a framework that is the same for the Church everywhere. They have arranged for steps to be taken to implement the revised Code, which will be done with as much participation and consultation of the faithful as possible. They have set up a Canon Law Commission to promote understanding and education in the New Code and to assist the whole Catholic community in the considered application of its provisions.
Rights and Obligations in the New Code
Through Baptism a person becomes a member of the Church, the family of God. With Baptism come the rights and the responsibility to take part in the life of the Church. The law protects the rights of all the faithful: to take an active part in parish life and activities to hear the Word of God to help spread the Word of God (e.g. catechists, ministry of instruction) to worship God to participate actively in liturgical celebrations to be of service to one's brothers and sisters in the parish/diocesan family (e.g. works of mercy, working for justice, helping in administration) to engage in various human and social service activities of the parish/diocese to share in the saving mission of the Church to share in concerns affecting the welfare of the parish and diocese (e.g. parish council, parish or diocesan organisations).
The seven sacraments are the centre of the life of the Church. In keeping with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the Revised Code continues the emphasis on the simpler and the more pastorally-oriented celebration of the sacraments, with all having an active part.
The Council emphasised the need for education and preparation of the faithful for the reception of the sacraments. The Revised Code urges bishops and the bishops' conferences to encourage this preparation and to provide materials and guidelines for it. Examples are the greater involvement of the parents in their children's Baptism and the first reception of Communion.
Great emphasis is placed on preparation for marriage as distinct from preparation for a wedding. Four steps are outlined; preaching and catechetics about marriage; preparation of the couple (e.g. marriage courses); a meaningful liturgical celebration of the marriage itself; and the follow-up to assist the couple in wedded life.
Marriage is understood as a partnership of the whole life of a man and a woman. There is a change in the evaluation of the very essence of marriage. Emphasis is placed on the whole person and not just the reproductive functions. The object of marriage is mutual self-giving and not just merely the right to intercourse. The Church has not changed its teaching on the indissolubility of the sacramental marriage. The revised law reflects the Church's deeper understanding of what marriage is in all its dimensions.
Law Calls for Change
The work of revising the Code has taken 17 years and involved consultations in most countries. Implementation of the Code, if it is to influence deeply the life and thinking of the members of the Church, will be a gradual process. Bishops, priests, religious and laity through a variety of structures will need to adapt the universal law of the Code to local and particular needs.
The Revised Code is very different from the 1917 Code. Many of the changes implementing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council have already been introduced over the years since the Council ended. This does not diminish the importance of the revisions of the Code. The major accomplishment is not that it creates totally new law, but rather that it codifies the laws of the Church including the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The most basic change is a change in spirit or mentality. This touches the way a local community will assume responsibility for its life and development. It also means continuing the movement begun in the Second Vatican Council, from a Church centred on hierarchy to one founded on a communion of believers, from a Church of uniformity to a Church of unity in pluralism, from a Church identified with structures to a Church centred on the human person's dignity as an adopted child of God. Such a change is sometimes difficult and even painful. It requires prayer and an openness to seek God's will and the good of others.
"The reality of the Church, at the same time visible and invisible, one and multiple, provides the perspective of sacred law within the Church. This is a perspective which transcends the merely historical, human reality which it confirms and strengthens. The Law is already there, it cannot help but exist. Law is not thought of as a foreign body, a useless superstructure, or a residue of presumed temporal claims. Law is innate to the life of the Church, it is extremely useful to the Church, it is a means, a help and, in matters of justice, a protection.
The new Law is not explained by the mere consideration that it is many years since the old Code of 1917. The principal reason is that law has its place in the Church, has the right of citizenship in it. The time lapse, however, is a valid reason, as since that time, so much has happened and changed within and outside the Church. Particularly the Second Vatican Council, which introduced new emphases and approaches in many areas of Church life and its relationship with others. There is a roader and clear cut emphasis on pastoral activity, in which the laity also have a part. The legitimate place due to the Church is confirmed and justified in the measure in which it conforms to and reflects the new spiritual and pastoral climates; in furthering the cause of justice, the Law must always be more and better inspired by the Law and Commandment of Charity, being enlivened and vitalised by it." (Pope John Paul II in presenting the new Code, 3rd February 1983).