Canon law is dinner-party talk once more. In households up and down the country, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, the canonical form of marriage fleetingly became topic du jour following the marriage of Boris Johnson to Carrie Symonds. It seems the nation is ablaze with barrack-room canon lawyers. This new conversation around canon law is one that, with all its seemingly technical difficulties, might well delight Father Ladislas Orsy, the great canon lawyer who turns 100 on 30 July.
The times when canon law rises to the level of public debate are also times when the connection between canon law and theology can become clearer, and it is at the intersection of the two that the US-based Hungarian Orsy has been a pioneer. A veteran participant of Vatican II, which hugely influenced his work, Orsy has devoted a lifetime to the examination of the integral relationship between canon law and theology without losing site of their unique roles. Orsy emphasises the new attitude of mind that came out of Vatican II, urging canon lawyers and others to do likewise by raising new questions with “the courage to accept fresh answers”.
Orsy was born in Egres but raised in Szekesfehervar, Hungary’s original capital. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1943 and was ordained in Leuven, Belgium, in 1951. He earned his doctorate in canon law at the Gregorian University, a degree in civil law at Oxford University and did his graduate theological studies at Leuven University. He taught at the Greg before arriving in the United States in 1966 to teach at Fordham University, the Catholic University of America and – since 1994 – Georgetown University, where he remains a visiting professor of law.
Orsy says he got into canon law because he was asked. He was already undertaking legal studies in Hungary, and the Jesuits needed to train lawyers and people to teach so they asked him if he would take on the job. Orsy went on to build a body of work comprising nine books and hundreds of articles on theology and canon law, including Marriage in Canon Law, The Church: Learning and Teaching and as recently as last year, Discernment: Theology and Practice, Communal and Personal.
Discussing Pope Francis and current church controversies, Orsy observes: “There is a lot of talk about his pontificate and substantial issues.” However, he believes the deeper questions beg for answers, “How far do we respect the permanent tradition? What belongs to the core? Ought that not to be sorted out? The foundational issues have not changed. We need to examine every issue separately.”
He reminds us that the church has had crisis and scandal from the beginning. “The cock crowed three times as Peter denied his Lord, who was also sold for profit by Judas. Human problems are what they are. The history of the church is about ordinary people. There is no point where we did not have scandals – they were there in the beginning.”
Which explains why Orsy remains optimistic, because “behind all the declines and scandals, there is always something that is alive.” He elaborates: “We have this dialectic all the time, we should never have a perfect church. I believe human imperfection will always be present in the church. We are the church of sinners. The church is very human. Structural change is helpful to a point, but only up to a point. We should listen to the Gospel and remember we are a church of saints.”
Paying tribute to Orsy’s legacy, Professor Rik Torfs, Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law at Leuven University, tells me that Orsy “knows what the difficult points are and understands it is not just the beauty of the canon law text but also the reality of its implementation. A true canon lawyer can live with the dark side of the church – if not, you have to resign right away. If you cannot live with negative points, scandals, mistakes, errors and crimes, then it is better to do something else.”
In these times of great cultural change, leavened by social media, Orsy believes a central problem is paucity in conversation, “Very few people are dialoguing. They are busy with everyday life, working and shopping. Dialogue in a beautiful world means conversation. They are not so interested in these questions like me or you are. There are people like you and I, but the rest are just trying to make a living. When the time comes, they try to solve the puzzle. We are surrounded by the puzzle.” Scandals and declines emphasise the dysfunction, making our culture more puzzling.
Torfs calls the problem one of “postponed sorrow”. He says: “People are angry with the church over sexual abuse scandals or for their grandmother not being free to do as she may have wished in the church 70 years ago. This is very true in strong Catholic cultures like Flanders, where I am from, and Ireland, where you are, but it is difficult to engage in a true conversation about what really is important in the message of the church in these circumstances, and this comes close to what Orsy is saying.”
In this puzzle, we are richer for Orsy’s rigour and creativity, and his greatest legacy could well be the agenda he has set out in his work for canon law. Orsy concludes that the world is “a mixed band of God’s creatures. God created a jungle – if people today had created the world they would have created geometric squares.” As to the church, he adds: “It is God’s church, He will take care of it.”
Dr David Cowan is a lecturer in law at the National University of Ireland Maynooth
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