Interpretation of Canon Law

To understand canon law and to be able to interpret it one needs to understand the purpose of law in the Church, its nature, its characteristics, its scope and the principles of interpretation of canon law. In recent years some have argued that canon law is opposed to the gospel. Others have argued that law really is inapplicable to a community of love such as the Church or that coercion (the essence of law) is unsuitable to direct the life of a Christian or of the Christian community.

In 1983 Pope John Paul II promulgated the revised Code of Canon Law by means of the apostolic constitution, Sacrae disciplinae leges. In that document he refuted both of these theories. He pointed out that Christ Himself said He had come to fulfill and not destroy the law, that even the charismatic community needs the order which law brings, and that Saint Paul was an outspoken exponent of Church discipline. In short, the community of love, peace and charity is not replaced but rather is facilitated by order. Indeed, as Saint Thomas reminds us, the peace so widely sought after nowadays is the "tranquility of order."

If law is necessary even for the People of God (the Church), what is it? Again, Saint Thomas is illuminating. He tells us that law is "a regulation in accordance with reason promulgated by the head of the community for the sake of the common good." A law, then, is first of all a command. It is not mere advice. It springs from a person with legislative authority.

By the universal law of the Church legislative authority is enjoyed by the supreme authority in the Church, by the diocesan bishop and by particular (i.e., provincial and plenary) councils. Episcopal conferences are pastoral (c. 447), not legislative bodies. They do possess certain limited legislative authority but it exists only in certain specified cases as set forth by law (c. 455). Put somewhat differently, episcopal conferences are legislators of limited jurisdiction. To legislate validly they must affirmatively show the source of their authority to legislate. And, in any case, the legislation of an inferior legislator (such as an episcopal conference or diocesan bishop) may not contravene the legislation of a superior legislator, such as the Holy See.