If you mention to people that you’re a canon lawyer, the odds are high that they’ll ask, “What is that?” This confusion exists even among Catholics, who frequently have only the vaguest notion that canon law somehow governs the Church.
But practicing Catholics actually see canon law in action all around them, whether they realize it or not! The manner in which the sacraments are celebrated, Catholic schools are operated, and your diocese spends its money are all governed in various ways by the Code of Canon Law. And the tragedy that is clerical sexual abuse is a canonical issue too.
Church law doesn’t directly discuss sin; that’s a matter for moral theology. It doesn’t condemn anyone to hell, either! But it explains who in the Church has the authority to do what, and how to do it. It provides the parameters that help us to know if a Mass was said validly, when a seminarian is ready to be ordained a priest, and whether you’re free to get (re-)married in the Church or not.
While many Catholics might be tempted to think that canon law is nothing more than a set of restrictions, hindering us from living the way we’d like, in reality the opposite is true. Laws exist in the Church in order to make our lives easier, by showing us clearly what we need to do, what we’re permitted to do, and what we cannot do. And they’re not just for the clergy—the average Catholic family encounters canonical questions more than one might think!
“Can we homeschool our children in the faith, instead of sending them to the parish CCD program?” “My son wants to marry a protestant girl, but she insists on a wedding in her church—can a Catholic ever do that?” “I attended a baptism recently, but the cleric seemed to change the wording during the ceremony. Was the baby really baptized?” These are everyday questions that arise among ordinary Catholics, and the answers to all of them can be found in canon law.
It was the repeated questions from lay Catholics who were bewildered about various legal questions that led me several years ago to begin writing a Q&A column on canonical matters. It proved so popular—and so necessary—that it recently blossomed into an independent website, Canon Law Made Easy (www.canonlawmadeeasy.com). Written for “normal people” rather than for scholars, it’s designed to explain the mysteries of canon law clearly and intelligibly, without all the legal lingo. Readers of Catholic Mom are invited to check it out, and spread the word: you don’t need to be mystified about church law. It really can be made easy.
Cathy Caridi, J.C.L. is an American canon lawyer who practices law and teaches in Rome. In the past Cathy has published articles both in scholarly journals and on various popular Catholic websites, including Real Presence Communications and Catholic Exchange.
Copyright 2012 Cathy Caridi, J.C.L.