Friday, June 21, 2002

Canon Law

One of the things that concerns me lately is the sudden surge of interest in canon law among laity. It fills me with a certain trepidation. Catholics aren't really people of the law, we are more people of the parable. We know that we have a right to admonish our bishops, not because Canon xyz establishes that right, but because St. Catherine of Sienna admonished the Pope.

The idea of Catholics using secular courts against the Church was unthinkable only a generation ago. Problems were settled 'in house.' Today, in the current climate of suspicion, this sounds vaguely threatening. It is no more threatening than the idea that family squabbles should be settled in the home. People didn't sue their families either. The very idea of using the legal system in this manner offends a Catholic sense of community.

Today, people would argue that justice wasn't served in such 'secrecy'. In some cases, it clearly wasn't. In other cases, perhaps the majority of cases, it may have been better served by the very personalist approach that is now under attack. Any system of justice can be subject to abuse. Dorothy Sayers makes the argument that "all legality, if erected into an absolute value, contains within itself the seeds of judgement and catastrophe...Law like every other product of human activity, shares the integral human imperfection: it is, in the old Calvinistic phrase, 'of the nature of sin.'"

To me, it is sad enough to see Catholics suing the Church in the secular courts, the idea that they may begin a legalistic attack in the courts of canon law is appalling. The quoting of canons is a bit like the chapter and verse quoting of Scripture. Such quoting infringes on the sense of Scripture by abstracting it from the fabric of life.

Historically, Catholics are not so much people of the book as they are people of the Word. Scripture is something we hear and speak, not necessarily something that we read and write. We know that 'those who mourn will be comforted' but most of us would be hard pressed to tell you exactly which chapter and which verse gives us these assurances. We tend to trust that God will remember His promises. We don't anticipate having to direct His attention to the actual written words.

We also tend to trust the words of the Church. We know that our priests will hold our confessions in sacred secrecy even to death. For the average Catholic, this is not a Canon Law. It is a fact of life. It is demonstrated in the lives of our priests who have gone to their deaths in fidelity to the Word.

Canon law is a rule for regulating Catholic life. It is discreet in the sense that Catholics live without any conscious awareness of it. To use it as a weapon in an ideological battle would be an abuse of both our law and our custom... Or so I would think.

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