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Bishop Robert P. Deeley, 2016 Role of Law Recipient
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Most Reverend Robert P. Deeley


Thank you, Fr. Manuel Viera, for that gracious introduction, and to the Board of Governors for bestowing upon me this unexpected award. I am honored to be considered in the company of so many canonists who inspired and challenged me in my service to canon law over the years.  Like so many who have stood in this place through the years I never expected to be standing here.  Together, as a Society, we work to advance justice in the Church.  We do it cooperatively and collaboratively.  Our successes are part of that good which comes from a community working together.  I am grateful beyond words for this honor but I know the honor would not be mine if it were not for the good we were able to do together in serving the Church.


In this regard I would note that it is an understatement to say that I have benefited from the expertise and support of this Society throughout my nearly 40 years of canonical ministry. My first meeting of the CLSA was in 1978. I was working in a Tribunal for four months when I first came. Ever since I have profited greatly from the association with other canonists this Society has provided. As the 1983 Code was  beginning to take shape, and then promulgated, translated, and commented upon, indeed, as it continues to be implemented today, my participation in the Society has both broadened and informed my interpretation and application of the law. The Society has been a constant and reliable resource, whether I was in the archdiocesan Tribunal, in the parish, at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or now, as a diocesan bishop. I am grateful, therefore, to have this opportunity to say to you, “Thank you.”


As comes with age, I have had the privilege of sitting where you are this evening on many occasions! Traditionally, the recipients of the Role of Law award have reflected upon various aspects of canon law in the Church. I will continue that tradition -- even if not as eloquently as past recipients -- but with an emphasis on what the role of law suggests for the role of the Canon Law Society – for our communities, our nation, and the world. As a longstanding member of the Society and an active participant in its work, what I have benefited most from over the years has been the constant and consistent witness that the Society has given to the Church, not only in the United States, but abroad. It is that consistent witness that I wish to focus my reflections upon this evening.


I suspect all of us have been quite captured by the very vivid images that our Holy Father Pope Francis has used to describe aspects of the Church’s ministry and mission. We – “scholars of the law” – know that canon law has not escaped that imagery! What has struck me, however, over the past three years is the continuity in what Pope Francis has expressed with observations voiced by his immediate predecessors. I would like to highlight two aspects of the role of law, in particular, where I see evidence of this continuity, and suggest what they might convey for our common service as canonists, and for the ongoing work of the Canon Law Society in this historical moment.


In a certain sense, the moment we find ourselves in is not unlike the time I began my own canonical studies, when the Code of Canon Law was in development. (I’m sure many of you here remember the uncertainty and excitement of that time, when new laws were being envisioned and proposed!) In that same spirit, just since our last convention, Pope Francis has: reorganized several dicasteries of the Roman Curia; instituted procedures for the removal of a diocesan or eparchial bishop from office; issued regulations governing cloistered monasteries of nuns; and promulgated laws intended to bring the two universal Codes into greater harmony. We also know that there are working groups in Rome assiduously developing further revisions to the universal law – for example, Book VI and its treatment of sanctions – as well as new norms based upon the recent Synods of Bishops. It seems every other day a new commission is being appointed to explore areas of the Church’s life with an eye toward their possible renewal.


In his writings and public addresses, Pope Francis has repeatedly highlighted the image of canon law as an instrument for renewal in the life of the Church.  We see this in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (nos. 26-27, 33), and in his 2015 address to the Roman Rota. It is a principle that has clearly formed the basis of his renewal of canon law – we saw this certainly in the revised marriage nullity procedures, but in the other provisions as well. He is continually calling us to undertake a serious re-examination of Church structures to see how they might foster evangelization, enhance pastoral leadership, and remove unnecessary obstacles for encountering Jesus Christ or saving souls.


Looking back we can see that this image of canon law as an instrument of renewal was prevalent as well in St. John Paul II’s reflections upon canon law. In 1992, for example, when addressing the convention of our good friends, the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland, he emphasized the importance for canonists to be constantly attentive to the needs of God’s people, so that the structures of the Church can enable them to share truly in the Church’s mission. He, too, believed that the ability of the Church to adapt its laws to meet changing needs was “an indispensable reference point” for the renewal of Church life.[1]


So, too, Pope Benedict XVI, on the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law, highlighted the role of law as an instrument of renewal. He affirmed that the law “must keep up with the changing circumstances of the historical reality of the People of God.” And, he challenged us to identify portions of the universal law that were in need of revision, a task that he was committed to personally both as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where I had the privilege of working with him on some of those revisions, and during the years of his pontificate.  We now see that task of revision brought to further fruition in his successor.[2]


Surely, the perception of canon law as an essential instrument for renewal is at the heart of this Society’s purpose and mission. Its Constitution highlights the fundamental importance that each of us has, as a canonist, to foster the renewal of law (Constitution, Article II, nn. 2-3), so that it continues to meet the needs of the Church. Through its longstanding commitment to scholarship, the Society has provided countless examples of this commitment. I need cite only a few examples: the development of the American Procedural Norms prior to the 1983 Code; the analyses of the various schemata leading up to the Code’s promulgation; after the promulgation, the preparation of the translations; the extensive commentaries on the law; and, in more recent years, the special attentiveness to various aspects of the penal law.


As scholars of the law, I encourage you to let your commitment to scholarship, in all of its fullness, remain an indispensable cornerstone of the Society’s constant witness. As new legislation is promulgated, it provides countless opportunities to delve back into the tradition; to mine the vision and purpose behind the law; to guide practitioners in its interpretation; and to encourage pastoral leaders in its implementation. Here and abroad, many will continue to look to this Society for its insights and its informed reflections.


In the Preamble to the Society’s Constitution, there is a clause that refers to the “research and common opinions” of the Society. I recall this clause as a way to encourage you, as the various commentaries, convention presentations, and reflections are being developed, to model the example we have been given for consultation, so that the Society’s broader membership has the opportunity to be heard on important issues facing the Church, and so that the research and studies promoted by the Society truly benefit from the diversity and richness of the experience and expertise of its members.


Now, I suppose, in part, that what has been a stumbling block for some canonists about Pope Francis’ characterizations of the law are the metaphors he has chosen to convey his deeper message – two images that come readily to mind for me are a “prison[3] or a “bottleneck”[4]!  (Those of my generation will recall in these expressions an image of canon law we heard about in the course of our studies - canon law - "the dark side of the Good News".)  If we look behind these images, however, to what Pope Francis is consistently calling us to become, it is that willingness to find graced moments – beyond our carefully crafted commentaries, decisions, and decrees – that bring the “closeness, compassion” and “hope” of the Lord Jesus to those who are most in need of it.[5]  Do we, in our service to the law in truth, allow God’s merciful love to be visible to those we serve –in our attitudes, our words, our gestures? “The service of justice,” Pope Francis has reminded us, “requires that we keep our gaze focused on the icon of the Good Shepherd, who bends down to the lost and wounded sheep.”[6]


In recalling for us this central truth, our second aspect of the role of law, if you will, again we can see continuity with earlier papal reflections. St. John Paul II emphasized the notion repeatedly. He knew that canonists are uniquely called “to bring healing and hope in fragile situations of human weakness and sin.” And he offered to us his prayers that our work “on behalf of God’s people through the faithful application of Canon Law will always help to build up the communion of Christ’s Body in faith, hope and love.”[7]

Pope Benedict XVI, again on the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law, used the occasion to recall that, “the essence of canon law is the Christian person in the Church.”[8] And, it was in his 2006 address to the Roman Rota where he cautioned canonists, particularly those who work in marriage tribunals, not to form complacent attitudes toward the parties. “The judge,” he recalled, “is always dealing with people, beset by problems and difficulties . . . Consequently, the approach toward people” must always be sought “with sensitivity and concern for the individuals involved.”[9] At other times, he encouraged canonists to find opportunities to bring the activities of the tribunal “ever closer to the people.”[10]


 So many of us in this room know deep within our marrow that if there are canonical “field hospitals” to heal the wounds of God’s people they are in our marriage tribunals. That has been an important focus of the work of many of us in the Church in the United States.  It is one particular place where we have carried the law to the people of the Church. Today we might add to that our ongoing work to heal the Church and, in particular, to ensure safe environments in our parishes, schools and institutions. The commitment to pastoral ministry is also at the very heart of this Society’s purpose and mission. In fact, it is the first of the enumerated purposes articulated in its Constitution. Throughout its history, the Society has been at the forefront of promoting the rights and obligations of the Christian faithful, and it has been a constant and consistent proponent of due process, and for the need for well trained advocates.


Behind every libellus are faces and names, persons who are searching for an arbiter of truth, and who may yearn to experience the mercy of the Lord Jesus through the Church’s instrument of justice. Every accusation of misconduct calls us to bring to bear what is needed to protect rights, restore justice, repair scandal, reform the offender, and lead individuals and communities toward a path of healing. The countless emails and letters we receive in our various offices are opportunities for the faithful to be heard, and for us to bring greater clarity to the truth that we possess. So, I encourage you – whether you serve in the tribunal or chancery, in a religious community, college or university, or even in private practice – to continue to find ways to allow your service to the law to be an instrument of justice, and also one that bears witness to the healing, hope and compassionate mercy which we know are integral to the salus animarum.


Friends, I have tried in my remarks to emphasize what I perceive to be a trajectory of continuity in images that have been used to capture particular aspects of the role of law over the history of our Society.  In doing so, I have tried to bring a voice of hope and encouragement as we go forward together as a Society, still as students of the law, to mine the depths of its provisions with scholarly integrity and pastoral purpose, and remain dedicated servants to the Church in our journey toward Jesus Christ. In doing so, let us be mindful, as a learned Society, to continue the strong tradition of presenting a unified witness in our common mission. 


I would do a disservice to my heritage and my episcopal office if I did not end with a blessing. So, I will use the closest thing in the Sacred Scriptures to an Irish Blessing:


“The Lord bless you and keep you!

The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!

The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!” (Numbers 6:24-26)


Thank you.


[1] John Paul II, Address to Participants in the 35th Conference of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland, May 22, 1992, n. 2.

[2] Benedict XVI, Address to Participants in the Study Congress Organized by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts on the Occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Code of Canon Law, January 25, 2008.

[3] Francis, Morning Meditation in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, “New Wine, New Wineskins,” September 5, 2014.

[4] Francis, Address to the Officials of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota for the Inauguration of the Judicial Year, January 23, 2015.

[5] Francis, Morning Meditation in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, “When God Visits,” September 16, 2014. Cf. also Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, September 19, 2014.

[6] Francis, Address to the Supreme Tribunal of the Roman Rota, November 8, 2013.

[7] John Paul II, Address to Participants in the 35th Conference of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland, May 22, 1992, n. 4.

[8] Benedict XVI, Address to Participants of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Congress, 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Code of Canon Law, January 25, 2008.

[9] Benedict XVI, Address on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Judicial Year of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, January 29, 2010.

[10] Benedict XVI, Address to the Members of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, January 28, 2006.

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