Stick with the 1917 Code of Canon Law

Source:  Deus Meus et Omnia


Which Code for Tradition?


One of the more noticeable developments within the Society of Saint Pius X in recent years has been the growing references to canons found in the Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John-Paul II. Although one might be tempted to speculate as to the reason of this development, this present reflection will limit itself to the problem of the Code itself. Certainly, there has been disagreement among those Catholic desiring to be faithful to Tradition as to the respective status of the two Codes of Canon Law- that of 1917 and 1983. Those who hold to the sedevacantist thesis reject the New Code on the grounds that the man who promulgated it was no pope, and thus incapable of imposing anything upon the Church. Among those who embraced fully the Second Vatican Council, there was likewise no problem. Pope John-Paul II had acted within his rights, and indeed, within the realm of his duty- to reform the law of the Church in the light of the Council.


But for those who both recognized the legitimacy of John-Paul II as Successor of Saint Peter and yet questioned the decisions of Vatican II, things were not so simple. On the one hand, there were those who argued that since the Pope had promulgated the New Code, there was a duty to accept it, or at least as much of it as was possible, given the problematic nature of some of the canons. These saw the code as simply a collection of individual canons. One could not speak truly therefore of the Code as one thing, except as a convenience. It was one in the sense that all the canons were gathered together within it and organized. Each canon was what counted, since each canon was a law promulgated by the pope. In such a scenario, every canon would be accepted save for those which went contrary to the teaching of the Church, such as Canon 844.4 which allows non-Catholics to receive the sacraments (such as Holy Communion) from the Catholic Church provided they cannot approach their own ministers and likewise profess the Faith of the Church regarding those sacraments. This, of course, is contrary to the practice of the Church for reasons grounded in the Faith itself. One cannot have the virtue of Faith only on one point, while rejecting other dogmas of Faith. But apart from such cases, all of the other canons are received as validly promulgated.


Yet there is another manner of regarding the Code of Canon Law. One may regard it not as a simple collection of individual canons, but as something promulgated as a unity or whole. Pope John-Paul II, after all, did not speak of the Code as a simple collection of canons, brought together for convenience sake into one book. It was as one thing that he promulgated it, and it was meant to be taken as something unified, a book of Law. Indeed, the Code was to be the canonical embodiment of the Second Vatican Council, the legal incarnation of its teaching. Thus, in the L’Osservatore Romano of the 12th of March, 2012, it is affirmed,


In his report during the introduction to the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, he [Pope John-Paul II] emphasized to the bishops that the Code was part of the Council and that in this sense it was the Council’s last document.


It is in this canonical embodiment of the Council’s teaching that we must examine the binding nature of the Code of 1983. It is insufficient to simply regard the Code as if it was a collection of canons, each independent and to be examined according to each one’s merits. The Code has a purpose and a spirit that defines it. This is not something that is hidden, or the opinion of conspiracy theorists. Indeed, in the Constitution whereby the New Code was promulgated, “Sacrae Disciplinae Leges” the Pope speaks precisely of the purpose of the New Code and its new spirit.


To understand the problem more deeply, it is necessary to turn to some notions from philosophy. This is not to turn the discussion to matters too difficult for the normal Catholic to understand. These notions can be understood. Philosophy speaks of all things created as having four causes: the Formal Cause, the Material Cause, the Efficient Cause, and the Final Cause. This breakdown is of such importance that all four can be found in the definition of every true law given by Saint Thomas Aquinas. To this definition, indeed we will soon turn. In any case, if we examine the Code by looking at each cause we will see the following. The Final Cause, which is the most important, is that the Code will move the Church in the direction willed by the Second Vatican Council, the renewal of the Church through the teaching of the Council. The Formal Cause will be the translation into the Code of its new teachings. These must inspire the Code if it is to bring us to that renewal. The Pope tells us of this new spirit. The Code is to translate the new ecclesiology expressed at Vatican II. Let us look at the Pope’s own words, found in the promulgating Constitution:


…Indeed, in a certain sense, this new Code could be understood as a great effort to translate this same doctrine, that is, the conciliar ecclesiology, into canonical language. If, however, it is impossible to translate perfectly into canonical language the conciliar image of the Church, nevertheless, in this image there should always be found as far as possible its essential point of reference.

From this there are derived certain fundamental criteria which should govern the entire new Code, both in the sphere of its specific matter and also in the language connected with it. It could indeed be said that from this there is derived that character of complementarily which the Code presents in relation to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, with particular reference to the two constitutions, the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium and the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes.

Hence it follows that what constitutes the substantial “novelty” of the Second Vatican Council, in line with the legislative tradition of the Church, especially in regard to ecclesiology, constitutes likewise the “novelty” of the new Code.

Among the elements which characterize the true and genuine image of the Church, we should emphasize especially the following: the doctrine in which the Church is presented as the People of God (cf. Lumen gentium, no. 2), and authority as a service (cf. ibid., no. 3); the doctrine in which the Church is seen as a “communion,” and which, therefore, determines the relations which should exist between the particular Churches and the universal Church, and between collegiality and the primacy; the doctrine, moreover, according to which all the members of the People of God, in the way suited to each of them, participate in the threefold office of Christ: priestly, prophetic and kingly. With this teaching there is also linked that which concerns the duties and rights of the faithful, and particularly of the laity; and finally, the Church’s commitment to ecumenism.

The Pope makes it quite clear that this Code of 1983, is meant to be the Council’s “last document”, for it embodies the “novelty” of its teaching by putting it into canonical form. There is indeed a unifying spirit that binds the canons together, and that is the new vision of the Church put forward by the Council. Thus we see that the Church must express itself now according to the new idea of itself found especially in “Lumen Gentium” and “Gaudium et Spes“. This new vision permeates the Code, gives it life, and therefore provides the reason why Catholic Tradition must refuse it. There cannot be a new definition of the Church, given to us now after 1900 years. The Church’s nature has always been understood by the Magisterium. It certainly does not now need to be discovered.


If we look at the definition of Saint Thomas on the nature of Law, we find that he teaches that it is an ordinance of reason, promulgated by the proper authority, for the common good. In this succinct definition, we have the four causes. It is an ordinance (material cause) of reason (formal cause) promulgated by the proper authority (efficient cause) for the common good (final cause). It is not enough that it be promulgated by the proper authority. The same must hold true for the promulgation of the Code. It is not enough that it be promulgated by the Pope. It must be for a purpose, and this purpose governs its nature. The Laws of the Church must be ordered to their purpose- the salvation of souls, and this salvation can only be acquired by means established by God firstly: Faith and the life of the virtues. The supernatural order was not discovered at Vatican II. The Church had had myriads of saints from her founding, all of whom reached Heaven by adherence to the true Faith and by sanctity of life. The New Code is ordered to the “renewal of the Christian life” according to new principles, principles which did not demand conversion of life and opposition to the world. And so the Code incarnates this new vision, a vision of a modern Church no longer at war with the world, but  friends with it, a Church no longer identified with the Catholic Church.


So we end with the stark reality of this Code of 1983 having a life of its own, child of a Council turned away from the past towards a humanistic future. The new spirit is the life binding together the canons even as the soul makes one in operation the organs of the body. It cannot be accepted for the very reason the reform cannot be accepted, even if there are good and traditional elements sometimes present. The life and direction of this new law is the death of the Catholic spirit. For Tradition then, Catholics must hold on to the 1917 Code, inspired by its own life and finality. It is not a question of denying the Pope’s authority, but of taking John-Paul II at his own word. This is a New Code for a New Ecclesiology, not for the Catholic Church.

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