Sharing the Law of the Church

By Nancy Haught
The Oregonian [Oregon]
October 14, 2003

Conventions come and go in the Rose City, and some raise more questions than consciousness. But a gathering this week of about 450 canon lawyers of the Catholic Church might do both.

The Canon Law Society of America is holding its 2003 convention at the DoubleTree Hotel at Lloyd Center through noon Thursday. The agenda includes sexual-abuse investigations and the laws that govern the selection of bishops.

Canon law is the codified system that binds the Roman Catholic Church. With its roots dating back to ancient Roman law, it is similar to codes that govern German and French citizens and very different from the common law system that governs Americans. The exception is Louisiana, which bases its state laws on canon law and, for example, calls its counties "parishes."

The Oregonian asked the Rev. Patrick S. Brennan, the judicial vicar, or chief judge, of the Archdiocese of Portland, about canon law and its relevance to the 350,000 Catholics living in Western Oregon. His answers are edited for clarity and space considerations.

What is canon law?

It's a codified system, which differs from the common-law system most Americans know. Canon law tends to speak in broad principles, and it demands interpretation. Common law tries to cover every base with no loopholes, no dispensations.

What is a canon lawyer?

A canon lawyer knows this codified system and assists the bishop in interpreting the law in particular cases. A canon lawyer may be a man or a woman, a priest or a layperson. Most of them deal with the annulment process, which is where most people rub shoulders with canon law.

What, in the Catholic context, is an annulment?

An annulment is the recognition that something essential was lacking from a marriage so that another marriage is possible. If something essential is missing, then a marriage is not valid. In the Catholic context, an annulment doesn't annul anything; it simply recognizes that a bond of marriage never happened.

In what other ways does canon law affect a member of the Catholic Church?

Canon law defines the rights and obligations of Christians. For example, the right to hold an office in the church for which they are qualified; the freedom to make known their spiritual needs and receive the church's assistance; the liberty to found and govern associations; to receive a Christian education; to confidentiality about anything revealed to a priest in the confessional.

The law also lays out a Christian's obligations: No one is permitted to damage unlawfully the good reputation of another, and all are obliged to promote social justice and to assist the poor out of their own resources.

How long is canon law?

It fills one volume. You can hold it in your hand, something you can't do with civil law. There are 1,752 canons, and the final words, in Latin, translate, "The supreme law of the church is always the salvation of souls." Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625;


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