Dr. Edward Peters 

To work for the proper implementation of canon law is to play an extraordinarily

constructive role in continuing the redemptive mission of Christ. Pope John Paul II







1983 Code



1917 Code


 Liber Extra



 Eastern Code


1152 x 864


10 jan 2013

Review of Russell Shaw, Understanding Your Rights (Servant, 1994) 226 pp.

Edward Peters, Review of R. Shaw, Understanding Your Rights (1994), in Southern Cross (6 Oct 1994) 39.



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Russell Shaw might blush at what I'm about to say, but I think of him in rather the same way that I think of G. K. Chesterton: I can trust what he writes, and recommend it before I  read even a single word. Having now read Understanding Your Rights, I do warmly recommend it even though in a few places I disagree with some of Shaw's points.


One cannot be very active for very long in Catholic life without having at least heard of Russell Shaw. In fact, if you don’t count bishops and some of the major Catholic politicians and academics, Russell Shaw probably scores highest in basic name recognition among all lay Catholics in the U.S. That’s good for us: How else can people benefit from this fount of common sense if they haven’t even heard of it?


At the same time, there is some confusion as to who Shaw is, a la “I’ve heard of him, but just what does he do?”  Newspaper columnist? Spokesman for the U.S. bishops? Some higher up in the national Knights of Columbus? All of these guesses, and several others besides, are correct and illustrative of a 40-year career spent in service to, and observation of, the Church. In brief, Shaw was experiencing and studying the development of ecclesiastical rights and responsibilities many years before "rights" was hijacked into a code word for the disregard of ecclesial authority or “responsibilities” became a talismanic excuse for accepting mediocrity in ministry.


Neither a canon nor civil lawyer, Shaw rescues the concepts of rights and responsibilities from a premature reduction to merely legal categories, by restating the crucial philosophic understandings necessary for their mutual growth. He goes four or five chapters into a 10 chapter book before really getting down to commenting on specific ecclesiastical rights and duties. He correctly leads his readers first through an orientation to ecclesiology in general and a theology of the laity in particular, and then moves through a discussion of the role of law in any society (ecclesial or secular). Only then does Shaw begin to examine the central expressions of canonical rights and duties found in Book II of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.


Even at that, though, Shaw does not dwell exclusively on the Code, for his wide experience in Church work has shown him the critical importance of moving from texts (however strong or weak) to real life. Shaw concludes his study with practical examinations of four situations that can affect laity deeply: the right to be heard; parental rights in education; the role of parish vitality as distinguished from parish activity.


Finally he examines the full concept of vocation as it applies to the vast majority of Catholics who aren’t clergy or religious, and points out some keys to reforming the methods of vocational formation that, he believes, will contribute to a healthier development of rights and responsibilities. But now, at the risk of spending a disproportionate amount of space in this review on my few disagreements with Shaw, let me mention a few caveats.


As mentioned above, Shaw is not a canon lawyer and, occasionally (very occasionally), that is a handicap. For example, after rightly warning against the infiltration of a litigious attitude into Church circles, Shaw writes (p. 85),"It is not far-fetched, for example, to imagine a group of disgruntled parishioners…trying to haul their pastor before the diocesan tribunal to settle an argument over how to spend parish funds.”


Well, okay, what's so automatically bad about that?


Granted, nearly every lawsuit, whether canonical or civil, means that at least one side in the dispute was deficient in justice (sometimes, both sides failed), and granted that canon law weighs in heavily, and very appropriately, on the side of pastors in matters of administration, does Shaw really mean to suggest that there could be no circumstances under which a pastor, in disregard of canon law and/or diocesan policy and/or the rights of his parishioners, might so misuse parish funds as to render unthinkable the idea that his people can, and should, seek justice against that action?


There is an attitude among laity that fighting City Hall is nothing compared to fighting the Chancery. But that attitude only provokes lay apathy, antagonism, or civil lawsuits. Doesn't Shaw's loaded phrasing of the question ("disgruntled" parishioners, "hauling" their pastor, to settle mere "arguments”) contribute to a climate that suppresses some of the very rights and responsibilities that he has gone so far to promote?


That I am not picking one sentence out of context is, I think, demonstrated by a later more serious misstatement, one that, I suggest, directly contributes to the sense of frustration so many faithful experience in dealing with ecclesiastical bureaucracy. Shaw writes, “There is no mechanism—no system, no established procedure—for resolving (ecclesiastical disputes)” (p. 186). That is simply wrong.


There are over 250 canons in Book VII of the 1983 Code directing the world’s oldest continuously functioning judicial and administrative system. Canon 1491 declares that virtually "every right whatsoever is safe­guarded" by a procedure. By civil standards, that's an unparalleled commitment to the protection of rights even to the point of fashioning procedures in midstream if necessary!


The fact that many existing canonical procedures are cumbersome and that they do require top-quality advice with much patience does not mean that the procedures do not exist. Indeed, that diocesan tribunals hear nothing but marriage cases and that administrative recourse is used almost elusively by priests angry at bishops is simply more evidence of the very clericalism that Shaw himself has done so much, perhaps more than any other writer today, to uncover and correct.


There. I've spent five paragraphs disagreeing with Shaw on something he only mentions a couple times. In so doing, I have risked losing sight of the tremendous good that can be accomplished if Shaw's book is given a wide and careful reading by Catholics interested in becoming better Catholics. Spend several hours learning what this book teaches, and then a couple of minutes correcting what it misstates. You and the Church will be better off with your time thus well-spent. +++