Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Cracking the Code: Rights in the Church? You Bet. the Code of Canon Law Outlines Dozens. We Just Need to Learn to Exercise Them, This Canon Lawyers Says

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Cracking the Code: Rights in the Church? You Bet. the Code of Canon Law Outlines Dozens. We Just Need to Learn to Exercise Them, This Canon Lawyers Says

Article excerpt


An interview with Father Ladislas Orsy, S.J.

Though some may think of canon law as the "dark side of the Good News" or a labyrinth of rules that affects laypeople only when they want to get married or have a child baptized, Ladislas Orsy, who has taught canon law in Rome and the United States and written more than 200 articles on the subject, knows better. "In every ordered community you need a center that receives inspiration and gives direction to others."

The problem today, and perhaps a reason canon law seems so removed from the lives of ordinary Catholics, Orsy says, is the top-down functioning of the church. "St. Paul doesn't address any of his great letters to the leaders of the community but to the community as a whole. Now almost every encyclical is addressed to the bishops so they can implement it."

At the same time, Orsy sees canon law as a resource for lay participation in the church, rooted in the rights and duties to proclaim the gospel all the baptized share.

"There is absolutely no reason why, for example, a layperson could not be a member of a Roman congregation," he says. "You could still safeguard the primacy of the pope, but much of the creativity could come from regular people. You could do the same in any diocese."

Most Catholics know the church has a Code of Canon Law, but why does the church have law in the first place?

You have to begin by talking about the nature of church itself. Because the church is a human community, there is a human need for rules and regulations.

At the same time the human community that is the church has been formed by God's grace. We believe that the apostles received a mandate that the other disciples did not receive, and within the apostolic college Peter received a mandate that other apostles did not. This divine ordering is incorporated into the church.

But the Christian community has never been conceived as a community of perfect persons. It is a community of human beings with serious limitations, a community for sinners. That's another reason why we have some kind of law, because failing human beings need direction.

Is law in the Christian community different from law in other human communities?

I think the law of the church is essentially different from what we call civil law because the ultimate purpose of the church is to save people. Christ brought us redemption, and the laws of the church must serve this particular purpose.

I firmly believe that one of the factors that must influence both the creation and the interpretation of canon law is that ultimately it is for redeeming people. That's why it ought to be more flexible than civil law. It ought to care more for individuals, not just for the good of the community, because ultimately Christianity is for the redemption of individuals.

But canon law actually does more than that: It also frees the Holy Spirit to work in the community. That sounds funny, of course, because who are we to give freedom to the Spirit of God? But that is the laws' purpose: to make it possible for the people to receive the gifts of the Spirit and to make sure the Spirit can freely dispense those gifts.

But law can indeed impede the work of the Spirit. For example, since the 16th century, there have been very strict regulations of liturgical laws. If the Holy Spirit wanted to inspire a beautiful new hymn in the Middle Ages, the Spirit would be helpless, because there was simply no room for it. No one could ever approve it because it was forbidden.

Where do you find canon law, and what does it cover?

Most of the church's law is collected in the current Code of Canon Law, which was issued in 1983 and applies to the Western church. (The Eastern churches have their own code.) Church law can also be found in other sources, like the documents of councils, papal statements, the liturgical books, and decrees of local bishops and national bishops' conferences. …

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