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New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law Hardcover – May, 2000
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Clearly an invaluable tool. -- The Jurist
Invaluable to understanding any number of Church issues. This volume is an essential reference work. -- Liturgical Ministry
The commentary is not so much valuable as indispensable. -- Ecclesiastical Law Journal
This commentary should be in the library of every major religious institute in the English-speaking world. -- Review for Religious
Well-bound, beautifully produced, and easy to consult. --Theological Studies
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Pope John Paul II, in his Papal Allocutions to the Roman Rota, has emphasized repeatedly that "In effect, juridical-canonical work is pastoral by its very nature." In 1985, The Canon Law Society of America produced the first Commentary on the current Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983. This was an extremely brave undertaking for any group. Nothing went before and the responsibility of producing such a maiden work was huge. That first edition became an indispensable tool to canonists universally. It provoked thought and discussion beyond any expectation. This is not a second edition. It is a whole new work with mostly new authors. In the spirit of the instruction of Pope John Paul II, this Commentary brings a veritiable treasure trove of priceless experience and thought. The many contributors to this Commentary include university professors, Tribuanl professionals, administrators of religious institutes, and parish priests. In the years since the 1983 Code was promulgated, there has certainly been change. There have been many documents and official interpretations. The Pontifical Council on the Interpretation of Legislative Texts has issued dozens of authoritative interpretations of the canons. There have been numerous decisions by ecclesial Tribunals all over the world, which have contributed to the meaning of particular canons. In addition there were such important documents as the 1988 Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia; the 1990 Ritual for the Celebration of Marriage; the 1993 Directory on Ecumenism; the 1996 Apostolic Constitution on Papal Elections; the 1998 Motu Propio on Episcopal Conferences; and the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. In addition to their consideration of these new documents and decisions, the contributors here bring many varied, lived experiences. And the life experiences of some of these authors is awesome. Two of the authors, also contributors to the first Commnetary, were Professors James H. Provost and Bertram F. Griffin. Both of these men were renowned canonists and their contributions are the last great works we have from these men before their deaths. Their work here proves how greatly they are missed. Contributor Lawrence G. Wrenn has long been an expert on American Catholic jurisprudential thought on marriage annulment. As usual, he excels here.
On the other end of the spectrum, this Commentary shows the depth of some new canonists. Barbara Anne Cusack, Diane L. Barr, John M. Huels, OSM, Rose M. McDermott, SSJ, Robert Geisinger, SJ, and Craig A. Cox, among many others, show that there is still much coming to provoke both thought and canonical action in the Church. The format of this book has each contributor presenting a canon, the state of related issue, and then, his or her own view in the ongoing debates. A commentary is not an authoritative text in the way the Pope is infalible. It is never meant to be. A reader of this type of text is of such a caliber intellectually that any explanation in a vacuum would make the work useless, even insulting. The intended reader is the challenged reader. Challenged to read, to think and to act, with the truest sense of justice, and on the most pastoral path of Christianity.
The Code is in reality a highly complex document, and requires very careful interpretation as the authors and editors of this excellent volume indicate. While the Code, like any properly drafted law, is thankfully sufficiently clear, and also thankfully the basic legislative norms are presented in a coherent and rigorous form as a Code (deriving from the Roman legal tradition of codification), many canons are still ambiguous and require interpretation. To give two simple examples - consider Canon 915, refusing Communion to 'grave and manifest sinners', and Canon 751 relating to apostasy and heresy. The Canons have often been used to exclude the divorced and remarried from communion (because remarriage is considered adultery) and heresy and apostasy seem self-explanatory. Yet even these canons require careful comment and analysis. There are those who have applied Canon 915, not just to divorce and remarriage, but who have tried to get Catholic Democrats who are 'pro-choice' excommunicated, and more recently, to deny the sacraments to people who are alleged to support gay marriage or even those who are alleged to be 'dissenters' from the church and who should either be excommunicated by the Ordinary (Bishop) or are excommunicated by virtue of the fact they disagree with some teaching proposed as being infallible by the church and hence they should also leave. (I've had this used against me and also seen it used against others on several occasions). Further, apostasy, schism and heresy are not as plain-cut as some would make it to be. Are you a heretic if you stop believing in God or deny the Trinity or the Nicene Creed? What about if you can't in good conscience agree with the church's teaching on contraception, masturbation, remarriage and divorce or homosexuality? What about if you are divorced and remarried and try to work with your pastor towards re-integration into the church according to the new guidelines for accompaniment as set out by Pope Francis? Are you and your pastor excommunicated then for being 'heretics' or 'apostates?' Are you a heretic then who should be excommunicated or regard him/herself as such? Are you excommunicated if you read a book by someone such as Elizabeth Johnson, Thomas Merton, or someone else who was investigated or censured by the CDF or a doctrinal committee? Are you a schismatic if you are Eastern Orthodox or Protestant? What about if you leave the church to become an Anglican or Lutheran?
As can be seen, the blind and heavy-handed application of the Code provisions (as with any law) without careful interpretation quickly leads to serious problems. It would be as if a non-lawyer took it up themselves to represent you in court with no knowledge of the area - for good reason, just about every state restricts the practice of law to those who are only suitably trained and qualified, and imposes heavy penalties on self-appointed 'experts' who try and take it upon themselves to practice an art with no training. Unfortunately, the church, its pastors and some canon lawyers have not emphasized enough the need to carefully interpret the law of the church before using it as a sledgehammer to attack others and potentially ruin someone's faith (a point I've seen made in a number of articles by experts in canon law).
A further problem though with the present Code is that arguably it does not adequately deal with the problems around child sex abuse. As commissions and inquiries into the matter have found, along even with canon lawyers themselves, is that the law as presently given does not adequately deal with problems relating to properly handle claims or accusations of sexual abuse, the right to natural justice and a fair defence and hearing/trial, and to balance the need for confidentiality, secrecy and to one's good reputation without protecting the guilty. Some issues pertain to the confessional and the seal of confession (a delicate and complicated matter) and also to the way Bishops and the church have handled cases of abuse in the past, where abusers were sent to 'therapy' or moved on to another parish, rather than subject to canonical penalties and removed from the clerical state or excommunicated. If someone is 'excommunicated' for disagreeing with the church's stance on birth control or for getting divorced and remarrying without an annulment and banned from the sacraments of the church, yet a child-raping priest can get on a therapy program and be absolved from his sin and goes on to continue abusing children (as was documented in the Australian Royal Commission), something is very seriously wrong with the law. Clearly some principles such as the seal of confession need to be protected, but as many have rightly said, 'Not at the price of our kids.'
The Code of Canon law hence needs future revisions and also the clergy and laity need to be much better informed about exactly what the law says and also that like any law, it needs to be carefully interpreted and applied with discretion and equity. It surprises me that someone like St Thomas More is a patron saint for lawyers and politicians, yet some Catholics all to often use the law to try and smash someone's weak faith to shards by claiming (often hysterically) the person they are criticising is 'bad', 'disloyal', 'a dissenter,' 'excommunicated' 'a heretic', 'barred from the sacraments' and so on because of some canon or for following their conscience in some manner. If St Thomas More said he would rather be damned than compromise his upright conscience even when the law of the land demanded fidelity to a law he regarded as unjust, what can be said to the Catholic who today who may be in a situation that is similar but is confronted by a bitter and angry heresy hunter, cleric, or self-righteous 'Magister' whose 'education' is reading an article on the EWTN website or Wikipedia for five minutes and is determined to impose the letter of the law to the last small full stop, regardless of where they are? All too often I've seen what St Benedict called the 'bad zeal' of some Catholics that is clearly aimed to crush people and hound the imperfect out so the church can be left for the self-righteous and their comfort. Sadly, the canon law has all too often been a tool that has aided the oppressor, the fanatic, and for the zealot, rather than for the weak, the vulnerable and the marginalised, who Christ said we are bound to go and bind up their wounds, heal them, and set them back on the road again. Hopefully a more clear and better interpreted Code will achieve that in future.
The new Commentary does an admirable job of presenting the most accurate English translation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, as well as providing commentary on that Code that reflects accurately the pastoral nature of Church law. Beyond this, the commentary is very practical in its approach.
The articles in the Commentary are written by the leading canonists in America. These commentators are exemplars of real faithfulness to the Church, as well as writing from extensive knowledge of their topics. As a practical resource for ministry in the Catholic Church, you will find nothing better at present.
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