Be merciful to canon lawyers: they are the Church’s civil servants

'The truth of law illuminates the mercy of God' (CNS)

Canon law, and canon lawyers, often get a bad press. Last week, Pope Francis decried “doctors of the law” who try to limit the merciful love of God through some kind of moral absolutism. While the comment was rightly aimed at those who prize condemnation as an end in itself, it has been flung in the face of many canonists who are doing their best to see the Holy Father’s much-needed reforms of the marriage tribunal system implemented, and implemented well, and it stung.

Canon lawyers are like the civil servants of the Church; we are not called to have agendas or opinions of our own, rather we are supposed to get on with ensuring the legal system of the Church serves its members and the Holy Father. To this end, we have always before us the text of the final canon in the Code of Canon Law, which serves as our guiding principle: salus animarum suprema lex.

The salvation of souls is indeed the supreme law of the Church, but it is an often misunderstood principle. It is a recognition that the law, including the Divinely Revealed and Natural Laws over which the Church has no power, serves to articulate how the Church and Christian society are called to exist. This existence is, as the documents of Vatican II remind us, at times dualistic – the Church is communion and hierarchy, spirit and structure, divine and human. And this existence has a purpose: the salvation of mankind.

That the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church does not mean that the function of the law is to effect that salvation itself. It is often, wrongly, invoked as justification for the removal or changing of any law which places people outside of full participation in the life of the Church. A perfect example of this is the ongoing furore over the canonical restrictions of those who can receive Communion.

Canon 915 states that “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted, after the imposition or declaration of the penalty, and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”

Let’s leave aside the first part of the canon, regarding the excommunicated and interdicted and the imposition or declaration of penalties, which is an enormous canonical bucket of spiders, and focus on the second part, concerning those obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin. This is, rightly, interpreted to include those who have entered a second, merely civil, marriage and who have not undertaken to live in a state of perfect continence.

The line of argumentation to which canonists are often subjected runs thus: if people in a second civil marriage are legally prohibited from receiving Communion, and the reception of Communion is manifestly beneficial to the salvation of souls, and the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church, ergo the salvation of souls is served best by the removal of this legal restriction, thus allowing those in most need of the healing power of the sacrament to access it. This is nonsense.

As any theologian or biblical scholar would happily explain at great length, salvation does not come through the Law, still less the Code of Canon Law. Removing the legal restrictions on those who can receive certain sacraments does not change their existential state of grace or sin, it simply deprives them of a useful tool for understanding the reality of their situation.

Many of the misunderstandings around the concept of law in the Church, especially Divine Law, stem from our modern secular understanding of what law is and is for. In the civil sphere, laws are merely the tools employed by peoples or governments to construct the society they wish to see. The law of society is a creature of those to whom it applies, but, as the psalmist reminds us, the law of God is truth. The truth of law illuminates the mercy of God.

Faithfully articulating and underscoring that truth does not limit the mercy of God, on the contrary: trying to downplay or sanitise the truth only obscures the true scope of God’s mercy. Illuminating it, in its fullness, and marking the path towards accepting it, is the function of law in the Church.