You should also learn to understand and—dare I say it—to love canon law, appreciating how necessary it is and valuing its practical applications: a society without law would be a society without rights. Law is the condition of love.
-Benedict XVI, Letter to Seminarians on October 18, 2010
You don’t often hear an exhortation to “love canon law.” Like civil law, it can seem to matter only when something has gone wrong, or when it’s preventing us from doing what we want when we want. But today is the feast of St. Raymond of Peñafort, patron saint of canon lawyers, and a good day to ask: “Why canon law?”
Law is necessary to govern societies, and the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is truly a society. She is not merely a community organization, nor is she merely a collection of individuals who share the same personal commitments, nor is she an invisible and purely spiritual reality. The Church is the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, the ecclesial presence of that Kingdom. It’s an imperfect presence, insofar as it’s composed of imperfect members and awaiting fulfillment in the Second Coming, but it is truly a kingdom, a society. Thus, the Church needs law, she needs legislation and judges and lawyers—and their presence reminds us of the concrete social and governmental character of Christ’s Church.
We could also recall that those in communion with the Church are unified in faith, sacraments, and governance (see Lumen Gentium 14). Moreover, “communion … is not understood as some kind of vague disposition, but as an organic reality which requires a juridical form and is animated by charity” (Nota Praevia to LG). Communion in the Church is found under the headship of the Holy Father and is given structure and order by the Church’s law. The Church has, in a real sense, a government.
Of course, the governance of the Church is unlike any other. Her essential structures, like the role of the Pope and bishops, were created not by man but by God. The ends of the Church’s governance are supernatural, and thus the concrete effects of Christian faith are often beautifully expressed in Canon Law. Take a look at a few random examples:
Can. 208: From their rebirth in Christ, there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality regarding dignity and action by which they all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ according to each one’s own condition and function.
Can. 663: The first and foremost duty of all religious is to be the contemplation of divine things and assiduous union with God in prayer.
Can. 1752: The salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes. [This is the last sentence of the Code of Canon Law.]
We might not often think about canon law, or about the means of governing the concrete reality of the Church’s life here on earth. But today, say a prayer for canon lawyers, and give thanks to God that he has deigned to welcome us into a society as true as the Catholic Church. Saint Raymond of Peñafort, pray for us.