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In defense of the 'doctors of the law'

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 28, 2016

Back in 1983, when the new Code of Canon Law was promulgated, I picked up a copy. This was my first real encounter with Church law, and as I leafed through the book I was struck by how often the canons obviously reflected the fruit of painful experience. 

That's how laws commonly come into being, actually, in the Church as in the secular world. Legislators identify a problem or an abuse, propose a solution, and write it into law. If the solution is effective the problem is eased; if not, future legislators will probably take another stab at it. Thus law can be the codification of common sense: practical problems are recognized and remedies applied-- often after a painful process of trail and error. 

Quite a bit of the Church's pastoral wisdom falls into this category: not necessarily lofty theology, but the fruit of experience. Wise pastors find a good way to address a knotty problem, suggest the same solution to others, and eventually the Church in her wisdom declares that everyone should follow that same path.

Activists are impatient with rules. They have plans and they want results! If their plan of action is stymied by existing law, their first instinct is to cast the law aside-- especially if they cannot see why the law is necessary. But if they do not understand the purpose of the law, that does not mean that the law has no purpose. Quite possibly the legislator understood something that the activist has not yet grasped. It's even possible that the law was written after the failure of a plan like the one the activist now has in mind. 

Obviously there are times when a law should be amended, or abolished, or even defied. But before setting the law aside, one should understand why it was written, and what are the likely consequences of changing it. Church law, developed and refined over the centuries, represents a storehouse of wisdom about human nature and human frailty. The canons are there for a reason. Should some canons be changed? No doubt. But they should not be ignored.

With his repeated criticisms of "the doctors of the law," Pope Francis has sometimes conveyed the impression that there is an inherent conflict between those who enforce the law and those who dispense mercy-- between canon law and pastoral practice. Not so. It is a fundamental principle of Church law that the welfare of souls is the supreme law, so that every canon should be interpreted from the perspective of a conscientious pastor, caring for his flock. The Code is designed to help pastors: to guide them, not to limit them. Canon law is not a set of arbitrary rules that competent pastors can safely disregard. Quite the contrary: canon law is the accumulated, codified wisdom of generations of pastors who have already wrestled with problems and learned what works. If you reject the value of the Code, you are rejecting the wisdom of pastors. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 28, 2016 11:50 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Phil! Introduction to the Code by St. John Paul says "As a matter of fact, the Code of Canon Law is extremely necessary for the Church. Since the Church is organized as a social and visible structure, it must also have norms: in order that its hierarchical and organic structure be visible; in order that the exercise of the functions divinely entrusted to it, especially that of sacred power and of the administration of the sacraments, may be adequately organized..." etc. Worth reading.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 28, 2016 11:19 PM ET USA

    "Church law, developed and refined over the centuries, represents a storehouse of wisdom about human nature and human frailty." What traditional Catholics feared early on, in a word was ignorance- ignorance among the faithful- both pastors and laity. Ignorance can lead to rejection of wisdom- even among the well-intentioned. Photo-op replaces canon; slogan replaces axiom. Doubt replaces confidence. Church Law serves as "connective tissue" that fortifies us as believers and doers in Christ.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Apr. 28, 2016 4:54 PM ET USA

    The best treatment of this I know of is in an essay in G.K. Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”. The principle being if you don't see why a fence is there and so want to tear it down, Chesterton won't let you. If, after understanding why it was put up, you still want to tear it down, maybe you can.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Apr. 28, 2016 4:48 PM ET USA

    Good points, Phil. And as Catholics we might ask, as regards Canon Law, doesn't it make sense to see in it 2000 years of truthful, fruitful guidance by the Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised us in John 16:13?