What is Canon Law?

You sometimes refer to Canon Law in your responses
to questions, what is Canon Law?

Every organization has need of rules and regulations regarding its governance and operations.  The local women’s club, the men’s club, the flower club, the bowling club, the Mickey Mouse Club, etc, all have rules regarding how they operate, how to settle disputes, whom is in charge.  Over the centuries, Popes and Councils have made decrees as to how things are to be done, or what the church believes that were seen as binding on all the faithful.  This collection of rules, decrees and regulations issued by the Church are called Canon Law; “canon” meaning “norm” or “standard”.

The most recent compilation and issuance of the law was called for by Pope John XXIII and finally completed under Pope John Paul II.  There are really two sets of Canon Law, one for the Eastern Churches, and one for the Latin Church.  The code of Canon Law for the Latin branch of the Catholic Church is comprised of 1752 Canons.  The purpose or supreme law of all Canon Law is referred to in the last of the Canons, “the salvation of souls”.  Considering the age of the Church and its multicultural nature, 1752 is not a lot of statutes.  The statutes cover everything from who can be ordained and what a marriage is, to the hierarchical structure of the church, as well as the obligations and rights of the lay faithful.  Canon Laws are not the only rules however that the Church has.  For example there are norms or rules for celebrating the Eucharist, which are not a part of Canon Law There are various decrees by the popes that have the weight of law.  In addition, there are laws, decrees or norms at the diocesan level issued by the local Bishop.

As with any organization there is a need to have those who specialize in the “rules”, such as one who is familiar with Robert’s Rules for organizational meetings.  The specialist in the Catholic Church is called a Canon Lawyer.  There are typically two levels for such lawyers, the J.C.L. is the equivalent of a Master’s degree, and the J.C.D. is a Doctorate.  The primary work for such lawyers is to assist the bishop in the proper governance of the diocese.  They are also the ones who typically staff the Tribunal where issues of Church law are decided in the diocese.  While officially they can weigh in on many issues, including private squabbles, most people are only familiar with them as the judicators regarding the validity of a marriage after someone has obtained a civil divorce.  The current head of our Diocesan Tribunal is typically called a Judicial Vicar.  The JCL and JCD are not limited to priest or deacons, as many dioceses have had a lay person, some who had both a civil law degree, JD, and a canon law degree, JCD.

Author: yuengerwv

Retired Catholic Priest

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