Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Is the Code of Canon Law "divinely inspired"?

No, but I see why some people might think it is.

Canon law is truly a "sacred discipline" because it operates in direct service to sacred things. When John Paul II promulgated the 1983 Code, he used a document entitled The Laws of Sacred Discipline; likewise when he set out the Eastern Code, he used a document entitled Sacred Canons. Nevertheless, neither document claims that these Codes of Canon Law, or individual canons therein, are "divinely inspired".

We use the term "divinely inspired" to describe, for example, the text of Sacred Scripture, or maybe certain pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils or popes. But if we want "divinely inspired" to convey something special in those crucial contexts, I think we should refrain from using it to describe many other things that popes and bishops do in the exercise of their ecclesiastical duties.

Frankly, it would be difficult to find the "divine inspiration" behind, say, Canon 1630 (setting 15 days as the period of time to lodge appeals) or Canon 307 (noting that a person may be concurrently enrolled in multiple associations of the faithful). Such canons are reasonable and represent directives made by the pope as ruler of the Church, but that does make them or the Code that contains them "divinely inspired".

A few canons, to be sure, uphold propositions that may be considered divinely inspired, such as Canon 1024 (restricting holy orders to baptized males) or Canon 924 (specifying bread and wine as the matter for the Eucharist). But even here, the canonical norms themselves are not described as "divinely inspired". For remember, regular folks can make these assertions too; they might even do so in the exercise of ecclesiastical offices, but that would not make them "divinely inspired".

Canons come and canons go. 1917 CIC 796 discouraged the same individual from serving as someone's sponsor at baptism and at confirmation; 1983 CIC 893 encourages this double service. Which norm is divinely inspired? Indeed, whole Codes come and go. The 1983 Code replaced the 1917 Code. Was the 1917 Code "divinely inspired" for 65 years, only to be divinely de-inspired in 1983? If these questions sound silly (and they should) it's because the basic notion that Codes of Canon Law are "divinely inspired" is a misnomer to begin with.

I can list at least half a dozen good, even compelling, reasons to enforce and obey the canons of the 1983 Code of Canon Law; but one of those reasons won't be that the Code is "divinely inspired". Claiming divine inspiration for the Code overstates the case, and when it is shown to be an overstatement, that only gives a pretext to those already looking for excuses to disregard the legitimate demands of Church law.