Back in my seminary days, one of our priest-professors called canon law our most practically useful field of study. The Code of Canon Law regulates the workings of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church in every diocese from Aachen to Zrenjanin. The Code does not contain absolutely every Church rule (for instance, liturgical rubrics or policies enacted by bishops’ conferences) but it is a rich resource. To pique your interest in its seven “books” & 1,752 canons, I here present to you some of the intriguing implications & amusing applications of Church law:
BOOK I: General Norms
203 canons about the general application of Church law (#1-203)
- The 1983 Code of Canon Law swiftly replaced the 1917 Code eighteen years after Vatican II ended.
(Canon 6§1: “When this Code takes force, the following are abrogated: the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917….”)
- The 1983 Code preserved existing treaties. Thus, by international law, Vatican City may float a papal navy.
(Lateran Treaty of 1929, Barcelona Declaration of 1921, & Canon 3: “The canons of the Code neither abrogate nor derogate from the agreements entered into by the Apostolic See with nations or other political societies. These agreements therefore continue in force exactly as at present, notwithstanding contrary prescripts of this Code.”)
- Your housepets are not bound by canonical law to keep the Lenten fasts.
(Canon 11: “Merely ecclesiastical laws bind those who have been baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it, possess the efficient use of reason, and, unless the law expressly provides otherwise, have completed seven years of age.”)
BOOK II: The People of God
543 canons on the rights and obligations of laypeople and clergy, and the hierarchical organization of the Church (#204-746)
- A priest is forbidden from becoming a U.S. Congressman.
(Canon 285§3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.”)
- The pope can unmake a cardinal, designate him to be his papal successor, or ask him to go to a small Pacific island.
(Canon 333§1-3: “By virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff … possesses power over the universal Church…. No appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.” & Canon 335: “When the Roman See is vacant or entirely impeded, nothing is to be altered in the governance of the universal Church; the special laws issued for these circumstances, however, are to be observed.”)
- If a bishop plays hooky from his diocese for more than six months, his archbishop is to tattle on him to the pope.
(Canon 395§4: “If a bishop has been illegitimately absent from the diocese for more than six months, the metropolitan is to inform the Apostolic See of his absence…”)
- The 666th canon cautions that means of social communication may be harmful to one’s vocation & dangerous to chastity.
(Canon 666: “In the use of means of social communication, necessary discretion is to be observed and those things are to be avoided which are harmful to one’s vocation and dangerous to the chastity of a consecrated person.”)
BOOK III: The Teaching Function of the Church
87 canons about Christian ministry, missionary activity, education, and social communication (#747-833)
- A priest is not required to preach a homily at Mass if no one else is there (besides the Holy Trinity & the saints, of course.)
(Canon 767§2-3: “A homily must be given at all Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation which are celebrated with a congregation…. It is strongly recommended that if there is a sufficient congregation, a homily is to be given even at Masses celebrated during the week….”)
- Catholic schools must be careful to be at least as good as the public schools.
(Canon 806§2: “Directors of Catholic schools are to take care under the watchfulness of the local ordinary that the instruction which is given in them is at least as academically distinguished as that in the other schools of the area.”)
BOOK IV: The Sanctifying Function of the Church
420 canons on the Sacraments and other acts of worship, places of worship, and feast days (#834-1253)
- To be capable of being baptized, Superman must be “not yet baptized” and “a person.”
(Canon 864: “Every person not yet baptized and only such a person is capable of baptism.”)
- Despite Francis Ford Coppola, the Church permits each baptized person only one “godfather.”
(Canon 873: “There is to be only one male sponsor or one female sponsor or one of each [for baptism].”)
- It is canonically A-OK for Father to enjoy a coffee & a tasty jelly doughnut between his Sunday morning Masses. So chill.
(Canon 919§2: “A priest who celebrates the Most Holy Eucharist two or three times on the same day can take something before the second or third celebration even if there is less than one hour between them.”)
- Confessions are not to be heard in open hot-air balloon baskets except with a just cause.
(Canon 964§3: “Confessions are not to be heard outside a confessional without a just cause.”)
- Cardinals can hear confessions in Arizona, St. Louis, or whatever they happen to land.
(Canon 967§1: “In addition to the Roman Pontiff, cardinals have the faculty of hearing the confessions of the Christian faithful everywhere in the world by the law itself….”)
- You may not hire someone else to pray your penance from the Sacrament of Confession for you.
(Canon 981: “The confessor is to impose salutary and suitable penances in accord with the quality and number of sins, taking into account the condition of the penitent. The penitent is obliged to fulfill these personally.”)
- There are three degrees of Holy Orders: deacons, priests, & bishops. Three. Not two. Not four. Five is right out.
(Canon 1009§1: “The orders are the episcopate, the presbyterate, and the diaconate.”)
- Smitten with a special someone? Remember: you may not murder your spouse or theirs in order to marry that person.
(Canon 1090§1: “Anyone who with a view to entering marriage with a certain person has brought about the death of that person’s spouse or of one’s own spouse invalidly attempts this marriage.”)
- A marriage may be contracted through an interpreter but the pastor must be sure the interpreter is trustworthy.
(Canon 1106: “A marriage can be contracted through an interpreter; the pastor is not to assist at it, however, unless he is certain of the trustworthiness of the interpreter.”)
- A church’s name cannot be changed once it has been dedicated. So choose wisely, foreseeing all possibly-regrettable nicknames.
(Canon 1218: “Each church is to have its own title which cannot be changed after the church has been dedicated.”)
- During times of sacred celebrations, entry into a Catholic church is guaranteed to be free or your money back.
(Canon 1221: “Entry to a church is to be free and gratuitous during the time of sacred celebrations.”)
- A dead body may not be buried beneath an altar but a saint’s body can—because the latter is a relic.
(Canons 1239§2: “A body is not to be buried beneath an altar; otherwise, it is not permitted to celebrate Mass on the altar.” & Canon 1237§2: “The ancient tradition of placing relics of martyrs or other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved, according to the norms given in the liturgical books.”)
BOOK V: The Temporal Goods of the Church
57 canons concerning ownership, contracts, and wills (#1254-1310)
- Any donation expressly given for the installation of pink and green shag carpeting can only be used for that purpose.
(Canon 1267§3: “Offerings given by the faithful for a certain purpose can be applied only for that same purpose.”)
BOOK VI: Sanctions in the Church
89 canons about crimes and their punishment (#1311-1399)
- Don’t slug-bug Pope Francis while riding in the popemobile — you’ll be instantly excommunicated.
(Canon 1370§1: “A person who uses physical force against the Roman Pontiff incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See…”)
BOOK VII: Processes
353 canons about Church trials and tribunals (#1400-1752)
- Canon law court judges cannot accept free sports tickets while presiding at trial, not even to Cleveland Browns games.
(Canon 1456: “The judge and all officials of the tribunal are prohibited from accepting any gifts on the occasion of their acting in a trial.”)
- The last canon treats of the transferring of pastors and notes that the supreme law in the Church is the salvation of souls.
(Canon 1752: “In cases of transfer the prescripts of canon 1747 are to be applied, canonical equity is to be observed, and the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.”)