Since priest assignments were announced this spring, I have been asked many times by parishioners, students, family, and friends, “Why are you studying Canon Law?” Fr. Peter Chineke and I will both begin programs of study in Canon Law this fall, with Fr. Peter studying full-time at Catholic University in D.C., while I will be studying online through St. Paul University in Ottawa in a part-time capacity.
First, I’ll address the question, “What is Canon Law?” Canon Law is a collection of laws of the Catholic Church; the current edition was promulgated by the pope in 1983. Every society or group has laws, rules, and regulations; the Catholic Church is no exception in this regard. It may be surprising that the Church’s laws are relatively simple compared to other bodies of law! There are 1752 “canons” (a word that comes from a Greek word for law) in my Canon Law book. Pope Francis has updated some laws recently, so I will need to purchase an updated edition soon. Sometimes the Catholic Church is criticized for having too many rules, but in reality, the Church’s legal system is extremely simple compared to our state or national laws. Consider that the Catholic Church has over a billion members, and one small book contains the laws that help to keep the Church functioning smoothly!
I often refer to the final Canon of the Code, which reminds us all why Canon Law exists in the first place. In part, this Canon reads, “having before one’s eyes the salvation of souls, which is always the supreme law of the Church.” Over 2000 years, the Church has a lot of experiences in her collective memory, and the Church has made certain rules to better foster encounters with God, which bring about the salvation of souls! When I was in the seminary, one of our favorite professors was our Canon Law teacher. Just like any legal study, Canon Law can sometimes be known for being boring or tedious. However, our professor, Msgr. Ramacciotti, was a very engaging and hilarious teacher. He would come up with funny and memorable examples, and we discussed a lot of hypothetical marriages between “Joe Catholic” and “Mary Methodist.” There was once a big lecture at the seminary by a visiting bishop, and the topic was Canon Law. Msgr. Ramacciotti introduced the lecture and questioned how anybody could think Canon Law was boring. Citing the final canon of the code, he asked us, “why do you think the salvation of souls is boring?!”
A practical reason that Bishop Paprocki has asked Fr. Peter and me to study Canon Law is that our diocese will eventually need more canon lawyers. Currently, there are four priests in our diocese who practice Canon Law. Two of these priests finished their studies relatively recently, while two of them may be described as more “experienced”! I have heard from canon lawyers that much of their time is spent investigating marriage cases. You may have heard about declarations of nullity in the Catholic Church, when a Church tribunal declares that a supposed marriage was actually invalid from the beginning, thus freeing the person to enter a true marriage with somebody else. Although marriage law is only one small part of Canon Law, it demands a lot of attention because of the current state of marriage in our culture, and the practicality that many Catholics in our diocese are married or have been legally divorced.
Some parts of Canon Law apply to all Catholics, while other sections may apply only to those in religious vows, clergy, or those accused of canonical crimes (Ouch!). One of my favorite sections of Canon Law when I was in the seminary was the section on the College of Cardinals and how they relate to the pope. The whole world watches the Vatican when the Cardinals convene to elect a pope, and Canon Law directs a lot of what goes on during that time.
Canon Law can actually be some interesting reading. I would encourage you to read some of the laws regarding the sacraments, especially the Eucharist! Go to your search engine and look up “Canon 897, Code of Canon Law,” and that is the beginning of the section on the Eucharist. Unlike some legal systems, Canon Law is easily understood, and not much technical training is required to benefit from reading parts of it. I know this topic is not of interest to everyone, but to those who have read this article, thank you! Please say a prayer that Fr. Peter and I will be good students in Canon Law, to help in our local church’s goal of working for the salvation of souls.