BY: FR. KEVIN O'ROURKE, OP, JCD
First in a Series on Canon Law
Editor's Note: Leaders of Catholic health care organizations differ from
leaders of other-than-Catholic ones in that their work is bound by both civil
law and the canon law of the Catholic Church. Because this is so, leaders of
Catholic organizations should know something about canon law.
Toward this end, Health Progress offers the first in a series of
columns on canon law. The column, which will be the work of different writers,
will be under the general editorship of a well-known expert in the field, Fr.
Francis G. Morrisey, OMI, JCD, PhD, professor of canon law, Saint Paul University,
This issue's column is by Fr. Kevin O'Rourke,
OP, JCD, professor of bioethics, Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University
For many years now, the Catholic Health Association (CHA) has had a Canon Law
Committee working in direct contact with the association's officer responsible
for sponsorship and mission. Over the years, the committee has helped organize
an annual Canon Law Forum, has contributed to the preparation of various publications,
and has offered assistance as required.
However, something seems to have been missing along the way. Canon law affects
many practical matters, and from time to time health care administrators have
questions about such matters—but direct or immediate answers have not always
For this reason, the Canon Law Committee, in close cooperation with CHA staff,
thought it would be helpful to publish in Health Progress a regular column
answering general questions relating to the church's law. For this column,
the members of the committee would be asked periodically to prepare an answer
to a specific question or topic.
A list of possible column topics has been drawn up, but the list is by no means
complete. The committee would be pleased to receive additional questions from
CHA members and would try to reply to them. Questions should be addressed to:
Sr. Teresa Stanley, CCVI, PhD
Senior Director, Sponsor Services
Catholic Health Association
4455 Woodson Road
St. Louis, MO 63134
It is fitting that Fr. Kevin D. O'Rourke, OP, JCD, who has been involved
in CHA canonical functions for many years, be asked to write the first of these
columns. We are grateful to him for accepting this task, and we hope that he
will agree to write others in the future.
—Fr. Francis G. Morrisey, OMI, JCD, PhD
BY FR. KEVIN D. O'ROURKE, OP, JCD
What is canon law?
In order to attain its goals, every human community needs rules or norms of
behavior governing both private and public life. Although the Catholic Church
is of divine origin and depends upon divine guidance to accomplish its goal
of salvation, it is also a very human community. From its earliest days, the
church has referred to its norms for private and public behavior as canon law.
"Canon" comes from the Greek word kanon, which means reed,
rod, or ruler. Originally, it meant a ruler or gauge used by a carpenter to
measure the proper length of a piece of wood. In time, the word was used to
describe a measure for human behavior, such as law. Canon law is primarily concerned
with private or public behavior, not with articles of faith or morals. Official
church teaching is contained in publications such as the Catechism of the
Catholic Church (1994) or the Documents of the Second Vatican Council
In the long history of the church, canon laws multiplied, and, as they did,
the study of them became a significant specialty at university level. Collections
of canon law soon had an important role in the life of the church. The first
collections of canons were regional. But, during the Middle Ages, collections
were published pertaining to all churches that used the Latin rite for Liturgy
(see below for the canon law for Eastern rite churches).
In 1917, the many collections of church law were combined into one compilation
entitled The Code of Canon Law. In 1959, when Pope John XXIII called
an ecumenical council to renew the life of the church, he also stated that,
after the council adjourned, the laws of the church should be renewed as well.
The result of a long process of study came to an end in 1983, when a revised
Code of Canon Law was promulgated by Pope John Paul II.
Is canon law the same for everybody, or does it differ for different people?
As indicated above, the Code of Canon Law pertains to the Latin church—churches
that at one time celebrated the Liturgy in the Latin language. But there are
also, in union with the bishop of Rome, the Holy Father, 21 churches known as
"Eastern Rite" churches because they were originally founded in the
Near East. These churches have spread throughout the world, especially in modern
times. These Eastern churches possess a Code of Canon Law that is distinct
from that of the Latin church, but not unrelated to it. When Pope John Paul
II promulgated the Code of Canons for the Eastern churches in 1990, he referred
to the two codes as "two lungs for the same body."
Although many of the laws are the same in both Codes, a good example of the
difference between the two is found in the discipline of celibacy for priests.
In the Eastern church, a priest may be married; in the Latin or Western church,
a priest must remain celibate unless he receives a special dispensation from
the Holy Father.
A source of difference within the Latin rite arises from the canons that concern
dispensation and privilege. These canonical entities are derived from the Roman
law; their purpose is to ensure that the law does not become oppressive for
individuals or communities. In general, the Holy See or the diocesan bishop
will grant dispensations or bestow privileges. For example, dispensations are
often granted from some impediments to marriage, or to allow people to eat meat
during Lent on days of special observance, such as the feasts of St. Patrick
or St. Joseph.
Are there any connections between civil and canon law?
The most significant fact to remember about canon law is that it is not
similar to Anglo-Saxon law, which is the basis for the legal system in the United
States. Rather, canon law was originally developed in imitation of Roman law.
Both Roman law and Anglo-Saxon law have their roots in natural law. But, because
they originated in different cultures, they have different manners of composition,
interpretation, and application. Canon law does seek to protect the rights of
individuals and juridical persons, but it is less responsive to changes in public
opinion than civil law is, especially civil law in the United States.
Some sections of church law do recognize civil law, as long as the civil law
is not contrary to divine law. For example, the civil law of particular countries
concerning contracts is recognized as binding upon individual and juridical
persons in the church.
Copyright © 2005 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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