What is Canon Law?
© Copyright 2009, T. Stanfill Benns (This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.)
“From the earliest times, the determinations of the Church received the name of Canons, that is, directory rules in matters of faith and conduct…A tendency afterwards appeared to restrict the term Canon to matters of discipline, and to give the name of Dogma to decisions bearing on faith. But the Council of Trent confirmed the ancient use of the word, calling its determinations ‘canons,’ whether they bore on points of belief or were directed to the reformation of discipline. Canon Law is the assemblage of rules or laws relating to faith, morals and discipline, prescribed or propounded by ecclesiastical authority…’Or laws’ [means] binding laws, liable to be enforced by penalties; ‘propounded’ [means] some of these rules belong to the natural or Divine law, and as such are not originally proposed by the Church but are proposed and explained by Her,” (“A Cabinet of Catholic Information,” various editors).
Concerning the divisions of Canon Law, Rev. Charles Augustine writes: “By reason of its origin, Canon Law is either human or Divine. Divine is that part of it which owes its origin to Christ or the Apostles, in as far as the latter enacted laws by divine inspiration (which is not, however, to be identified with Scripture inspiration) or promulgated them as divine norms, e.g., the hierarchy, the matter and form of the Sacraments (James 5: 14), the privilegium Paulinum. Human is that portion of Canon Law which has merely human authority for its existence; thus the Apostolic decrees (Acts XV) are of human authority though established by the Apostles; purely human laws too are those passed by councils, popes and bishops, unless, indeed, they are implicitly contained in revelation, or are merely declarations, specifications or modifications of divine or natural law. In the latter case, they belong to the class of divine laws,” (“A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law,” Vol. I).
Rev. Nicolas Neuberger, in his Commentary on Canon 6 has cited the Church’s laws concerning discipline as negatively infallible, meaning that they cannot work to the harm of souls or the destruction of the divine principle of perpetuity and infallibility on which the Church is built. Volume V (v), of the Catholic Encyclopedia, under ‘Discipline’ states that it is the unanimous opinion of the theologians that discipline enjoys a negative, indirect infallibility, i.e., the Church can prescribe nothing that would be contrary to the natural or Divine law, nor prohibit anything that the natural or Divine law would exact.’ Pope Pius IX declared the unanimous opinion of theologians to be infallible, and hence anything determined by them unanimously must be firmly believed. (DZ 1683) Furthermore, we have the words of Pope Pius IX, in his Encyclical “Quartus Supra,” where he teaches: “… discipline is often so closely united to dogma, it has such an influence on its preservation and on its purity, that the sacred Councils have not hesitated in many cases to pronounce anathemas against those guilty of disciplinary violations and separated them from communion with the Church.” Leo XIII states in his encyclical “Sapientiae Christianae”: ‘In setting how far the limits of obedience extend, let no one imagine that the authority of the sacred pastors, and above all of the Roman Pontiff, need be obeyed only insofar as it is concerned with dogma, the obstinate denial of which entails the guilt of heresy …. Christian men must be willing to be ruled and governed by the authority and direction of… (in the first place) the Apostolic See… When the Church speaks, even when She does not speak with all the weight of Her infallible utterance, She does so invariably to give us safe guidance… a Catholic is practically secure in listening to the voice of those whom God has set to rule the Church,’” (see DZ 1673 and 1792).
The constitutions and Decrees of the Holy Pontiffs are most especially embodied in Canon Law, according to Volume IX (iii) of the Catholic Encyclopedia. Concerning Canon Law’s constitution, Rev. Francis J. Schaeffer writes in this volume: “The ultimate source of Canon Law is God, whose will is manifested either by the very nature of things (natural Divine law) or by Revelation (positive Divine law) …To attain its sublime end, the Church, endowed by its Founder with legislative power, makes laws in conformity with natural and Divine law. The sources or authors of this positive ecclesiastical law are essentially the episcopate and its head, the pope, the successors of the Apostolic College and its divinely appointed head, St. Peter. They are, properly speaking, the active sources of Canon Law. Their activity is exercised in its most solemn form by the ecumenical councils…(these) councils, especially…Trent, hold an exceptional place in ecclesiastical law… The sovereign pontiff is the most fruitful source of Canon Law: …From the earliest ages the letters of the Roman Pontiffs constitute, with the canons of the Councils, the principal element of Canon Law; … they are everywhere relied upon and collected, and the ancient canonical compilations contain a large number of these precious decretals.” If we wish to know the will of God, and the mind of the Church as it has been consistently expressed throughout the ages, we need only look as far as Canon Law.
There can be no question of Christ’s will for His Church in this matter of obedience, then. Each day Catholics pray the “Our Father,” and beseech “Thy will be done on earth…” They have little if any idea of how this might be accomplished. All they understand is that God’s will is something that simply ‘happens’. The Great Apostasy has ‘happened’; and the shepherd has been struck as well as the flock dispersed, and they are all quite resigned to all this. Unfortunately they understand only half of the formula used to determine God’s will, and as we might expect it is the less important half, and that very aspect most likely to incline to Quietism. St. Cyprian, Father of the Church, gave us a general indication of God’s will when he wrote: ‘The Will of God is what Christ has done and taught.” Rev. Adolphe Tanquerey, that great master of the spiritual life, wrote: “Now to conform our wills to that of God is assuredly to cease to do evil, and to learn to do good. Is not this the meaning of that oft repeated text: ‘For obedience is better than sacrifices,’ (1 Kings XV, 22; Osee VI, 6; Matt IX, 3 also XII, 7). In the New Law, Our Lord declares from the very moment of His entry into the world that it is with obedience that He will replace the sacrifices of the Ancient Law: ‘Holocausts for sin did not please Thee. Then I said: Behold I come … that I should do Thy will, O God.’ (Hebrews X, 6-7; Phil 11,8; Phil, IV,3)
“And in truth, it is by obedience unto the immolation of self that He has redeemed us: ‘He was made obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.’ (John IV,34) In the same way, it is through obedience and through the acceptance of God-ordained trials in union with Christ that we shall atone for our sins and cleanse our soul.” (“The Spiritual Life,” pages 240-241). We must remember these words well. Christ forever gave us perfect example in these matters by fulfilling every point of His Father’s will. He enjoined our imitation of Him in this practice of perfection when he told us: “For whosoever shall do the will of My Father that is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother … not everyone that saith to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the Kingdom .. but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter … heaven.” (Matt XII, 50; Matt VII, 21)
St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church, explains further that there are two parts to the will of God; the will of signification and the will of good-pleasure. St. Francis lists the following four parts belonging to God’s will of signification as the commandments of God and of His Church, the evangelical counsels, divine inspiration, (and those duties peculiar to our chosen vocation)…”, (‘Holy Abandonment’, Rt. Rev. Dom Vital Lehody O.C.R., page 9). Commenting further, St. Francis writes: “Obedience to the Commandments, both divine and ecclesiastical, is of obligation for all, because there is question here of the absolute will of God who has made submission to these ordinances a condition of salvation.” (Ibid.,). Rev. Lehody writes: “…Rules are ordinarily the chief means at our disposal for the purification of our souls. Obedience detaches and purifies us continually by the thousand renunciations it imposes, and still more by its demand for the mortification of our judgment and self-will… the signified will must be considered the fixed and regular path amidst the accidental and variable events of life, the tasks of our days and of every instant.” (“Holy Abandonment,” pages 18 and 22) St. Francis relates that God’s will of good-pleasure can be found, “…in everything that befalls us: in sickness, in death, in affliction, in consolation, in adversity and prosperity … in all unforseen circumstances.” (Ibid. page 11)
If we hasten to fulfill all the laws of God because we wish to be obedient to Him, even though we have no superiors, how can He possibly be said to fault us? St. Bonaventure writes: “All religious perfection equals martyrdom in merit,” (“Holy Abandonment,” page 18) And St. Bernard teaches that neither zeal for good works, nor the sweetness of divine contemplation, nor the tears of penitence would have been acceptable to Him apart from obedience. (Ibid. page 21) He also calls obedience without delay… the first degree of humility…” (“The Book of Catholic Quotations,” page 642) And it is useless to say that having no superiors, we are excused, for the laws of numerous popes and councils throughout Church history continue to remain at our disposal in the form of Canon Law. The ancient canons throughout history have been carefully collected and preserved, save the deletions of those laws no longer of any application during the codification begun under the reign of Pope St. Pius X. We would do well to remember the words of Pius XII in his encyclical, “Mortalium Animos”: “…No one is in this Church, no one perseveres, unless he acknowledges and obediently accepts the power and authority of Peter and his legitimate successors.”
Likewise we read in the Vatican Council documents: ‘…the faithful…are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, not only in those things which pertain to faith and morals, but also those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church, so that the Church of Christ, protected not only by the Roman Pontiff, but by the unity of communion as well as the profession of the same faith, is one flock under one highest shepherd. This is the doctrine of Catholic truth from which no one can deviate and keep his faith and salvation,’” (DZ 1827).
Here, then, is the final answer to all those who dare to assail Canon Law. They cannot understand that it is not inequitable LAWS that bind us, but the failure to obey these laws and make them known to those who are in ignorance concerning them. Obeying the law is nothing more than the will of God; and all canon laws are presumed still binding under scholastic theology unless certainly proven to have ceased altogether. Since the laws governing discipline cannot work to the detriment of the faithful or the destruction of the Church, we know that “He who walks with the law walks safely.” The Popes, saints, and theologians quoted here clearly teach that in order to aspire to salvation, we must obey the Divine and ecclesiastical laws found embodied in Canon Law, for it is the direct signification of God’s will. And Christ has promised us that he who does God’s will shall enter heaven.