This is the 25th anniversary of the Revised Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope John Paul II on Jan. 25, 1983. Its enforcement, however, was delayed until the First Sunday of Advent.
I noted less than a month after the new code’s promulgation that it would have relatively little effect on the day-to-day life of the ordinary Catholic. I said so not because Catholics had become indifferent to church law in the aftermath of Vatican II, but because most of the significant changes in the life of the post-conciliar church had already taken place.
What the new code did was simply to “codify” these changes. Good law, after all, reflects the actual life and self-understanding of a community, be it religious or political. If those who are to be bound by a new set of laws are totally unprepared for them, that in itself is a sign that there is something seriously wrong with the laws or with the process by which they were codified.
The 1983 code had been in the works for almost 25 years prior to its promulgation. Pope John XXIII had announced his intention to establish a commission to revise the 1917 code about the same time that he announced his intentions to call the Second Vatican Council.
On Nov. 20, 1965, just before the close of the council, Pope Paul VI addressed the Code Commission and pointed out that canon law flows from the nature of the church. In other words, it is a reflection of the church’s self-understanding, or ecclesiology.
If the church’s ecclesiology were largely juridical and hierarchical, the Code of Canon Law would embody that perspective, as did the 1917 code, which had little or no meaningful place for the laity in the church and which contained a major portion listing various “crimes and penalties” applicable to the life of the church.
By contrast, the 1983 code has a major section on the church as the people of God, and even provides a bill of rights for all of the baptized. Only after treating the lay faithful does the new code concern itself with the hierarchical structure of the church, and with emphasis not only on the papacy but on the whole episcopate and on such collegial bodies as world and regional synods, and national conferences of bishops.
Pope John Paul II made the same point that Paul VI had made. The revised code, John Paul II insisted in his letter of promulgation, “fully corresponds to the nature of the Church, especially as it is proposed by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in general and in a particular way by its ecclesiological teaching.”
“Indeed,” he continued, “this new Code could be understood as a great effort to translate this same conciliar doctrine and ecclesiology into canonical language.”
“Hence, it follows that what constitutes the substantial newness of the Second Vatican Council, in line with the legislative tradition of the Church, especially in regard to ecclesiology, constitutes likewise the newness of the new Code.”
John Paul II thereupon listed several ecclesiological elements that inform the new code and make it different in approach from that of the 1917 code: the church is the People of God; hierarchical authority is for service; the church is a communion, with a collegial rather than a monarchical structure; the laity participate in the threefold priestly, prophetic and kingly offices of Christ; and, finally, the church is ecumenical in outreach.
This conciliar ecclesiology had already begun to inform the life and activities of the church, which is why I had suggested in early 1983 that “the new Code would have relatively little effect on the day-to-day life of the ordinary Catholic.” What the new Code mandated was something that was already happening in the church.
We can thank not only Vatican II for that, but also the late Pope Paul VI.
It was Paul VI who approved and promulgated the major reforms in the Mass and in the celebration of the other sacraments. It was also Paul VI who reorganized the newly internationalized Roman Curia, and increased the authority of the bishops, individually and collectively.
It was Paul VI who initiated regular meetings of the World Synod of Bishops and encouraged the establishment of national conferences of bishops to promote the principle of collegiality and to insure that diversity would be respected throughout the church, without prejudice to the demands of universality. Paul VI also made good, sometimes outstanding, appointments to the hierarchy.
Unfortunately, not all of his achievements were carried forward after his death in 1978.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.