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Role of Law Response
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Click here to view the Role of Law Citation by Fr. Michael Joyce, CM, President of the CLSA


Role of Law Response

I must begin by expressing my deep gratitude to the Board of Governors and members of the Canon law Society of America for this award. All of us dedicated to ministry in the Church are subtly imbued with the attitude that we should not demand or even expect a word of appreciation but, after completion of a task, to accept dismissal as a good and faithful servant. This recognition, while not deserved, is appreciated and encouraging.

I realize that I am the second Eastern Catholic canonist who has been given this award by the Society. Ukrainian Catholic Archimandrite Victor Pospishil received the Role of Law award in 1994. I am humbled to follow in the footsteps of this scholar for whom I have so much affection and esteem.

The Canon Law Society of America can take pride in all that it has done on behalf of the Eastern Catholic Churches. It was the first to publish a vernacular translation of the Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium. For decades the Society had a committee dedicated to the concerns of Eastern Catholic Churches, a function that has now been entrusted to the present Church Governance Committee. It should also be noted that Eastern Catholic topics figure regularly in the convention programs. We Eastern Catholics are grateful for all these initiatives, but most of all for the interest and loving concern that this Society—with its predominantly Latin Catholic membership—has shown for us.

This evening I would like to reflect briefly on concerns that are rather new for us Catholics: ecumenism and the reform of the Church implicit in it. Before Vatican II, Catholic efforts on behalf of Church unity meant prayers for the return of schismatics or apostates to the Catholic Church. The issue of whether the Church stood in need of reform never arose; in fact, the generally-accepted opinion was that the Church could not be reformed. And then, on 28 October 1958, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli was elected to the See of Peter. After the nearly two-decade pontificate of his predecessor, Pius XII, one might surmise that the cardinal electors had intended to elect a short-term caretaker; Roncalli was 76 at the time of his election.[1] They did not seem to be looking for a man of action or innovation.

Nevertheless, within 90 days of his election, Pope John XXIII made an announcement that was to change the world. On 25 January 1959, at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls—and this is important—at vespers celebrating the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the pope announced the revision of the Code of Canon Law, a synod for the Diocese of Rome and—most importantly--the convocation of an ecumenical council. As an aside, the press embargo on the announcement expired before the announcement was made because the services ran a little longer than scheduled; the news was broadcast to the world before anyone in the basilica knew anything about it. [2]

I call this event to your attention because it is important to remind ourselves of the primary purpose of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII convoked the council for the express purpose of the unity of the Christians and human family. This reconciliation was to be accomplished by means a renewal of the Church.[3]

To reiterate: the purpose of the Council was the restoration of the unity of Christians and the means to this end was to be the renewal of the Church. I would postulate that somewhere along the line, the means became the end and the end became marginalized. Have we—as individuals and as a professional society—focused on the renewal of the Church and paid insufficient attention to the primary purpose of the Council, Christian unity? An examination of the mandates of the various on-going committee reveals that the word "ecumenism” is nowhere mentioned; presentations treating ecumenical issues in our conventions are rare.

There may be a few reasons for this oversight. Some canonists retain the formerly-held approach to Church unity that the non-Catholics should renounce their errors and return to the unity of the Catholic Church. Others argue that the quest for Church unity is a utopian ideal and characterize ecumenists as seekers of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Still others among us deem ecumenism to be a praiseworthy endeavor, but are just to busy with putting our fires and keeping the operations going to address the issue.

Perhaps institutional fatigue has set in: Lots of conferences and papers, but "apparently” little to show for it. It is not my intention to justify ecumenism, but to encourage the Society and canonists to engage more actively in ecumenical initiatives. Now that some of the fruits of the ecumenical movement are about to be harvested, we canonists are needed more than ever.[4] There has been astounding progress in the past fifty years to heal a breach that has existed for a millennium.

Forgive my boldness, but I would assert that canon law as a discipline has not fully embraced ecumenism; nor have canonists devoted enough time and effort to promote the unity of Christians. Permit me to illustrate this point.

As one might expect, neither the 1917 Codex Iuris Canonici, nor the pre-conciliar, incomplete Codex Iuris Canonici Orientalis (issued between 1948 and 1957) for the Eastern Catholic Churches contain a single canon that promotes ecumenism. The sea-change took place when the Council addressed the issue in the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, in the specific decree on the topic, Unitatis redintegratio and other documents, such as Orientalium Ecclesiarum also treat the issue. It was then left to canon law to codify the conciliar insights into the revised codes for the Latin and Eastern Churches.

The commission entrusted with revising the Latin Code was established by Pope John XXIII on 28 March 1963, shortly before his death. In 1967, the Commission elaborated a set of principles to guide the task of revision. These principles were submitted to the Synod of Bishops and were approved in October 1967. One of the main purposes of these ten Principles for the Revision of the Latin Code [5] "was to guarantee harmony between the Church’s revised law and the conciliar documents….The ten principles . . . are more than a historical curiosity of the process of revision. They are useful . . . in understanding the theory behind certain legal changes. . .”[6] It is noteworthy that the Principles are silent with regard to ecumenism. Had the primary purpose of the Council already disappeared from the "radar screen” of canon law? This is not to say that the 1983 Latin Code is devoid of canons that foster the reconciliation of Christians, but one would have a difficult time in asserting that it is a priority of the Latin Code.

Because of a variety of historical, ecclesial, liturgical and social factors, the situation is different with regard to the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. After providing for a rationale and possibility for a common (n. 1), genuinely Eastern code for the Eastern Catholic Churches (n. 2), the 1974 Guidelines for the Revision of the Code of Oriental Canon Law treats the ecumenical character of the future Code (n. 3).

The Guidelines assure the Orthodox that the future code will be only for those persons who are members of an Eastern Catholic Church, that is, the Catholic Church is not presuming to legislate on behalf of the Orthodox Churches. The Guidelines go on to refer to Orientalium Ecclesiarum (nn. 1 and 24) and emphasize that, "It must be a prime concern of the new Code to promote the fulfillment of the desire expressed by the Second Vatican Council that the Eastern Catholic Churches "flourish and execute with new apostolic vigor the task entrusted to them … as regards the special office of promoting the unity of all Christians.”

Pope John Paul II, in his presentation of the 1990 Eastern Code, was enthusiastic regarding its ecumenical dimensions: "There is no norm in the Code that does not promote the path of unity among all Christians.”[7] Pope John Paul II went so far as to "present” the new Code to the Orthodox Churches.[8] The late pope took a similar optimistic approach regarding the ecumenical effectiveness of the new code in Sacri canones,[9] the apostolic constitution that promulgated it. He referred to the possible obsolescence of the code by indicating that it might be abrogated or changed when full communion of all the Eastern Churches with the Catholic Church has been restored.[10]

Ironically, we are encouraged to pray and strive for its obsolescence and the abrogation of the Eastern Code. When full communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches has been achieved, the Eastern Code will have fulfilled one of its primary missions; a new legal arrangement will be necessary.

I would call to your attention a canon in the Eastern Code:

CCEO c. 192 §2. The eparchial bishop is to see in a special way that all Christian faithful committed to his care foster unity among Christians according to principles approved by the Church.

It should be noted that this canon does not have a counterpart in the Latin Code. The purpose of these comments is not to compare the two codes, but to urge Latin canonists to engage themselves in ecumenism and make a contribution that will be crucial. We must remember that the Eastern Catholics number only 15 million in a Catholic Church of approximately 1.2 billion; the effectiveness is limited. Their efforts will logically focus on the Orthodox Churches. It will be left to the Latin canonists to formulate institutions needed by a Church that will exist when West has re-united with West.

On 2 October 2010, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation issued a statement entitled, "Steps Toward a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future."[11] This document marks an unprecedented effort to begin to visualize the shape of a reunited Catholic and Orthodox Church. While it is difficult to predict what a structure of worldwide ecclesial communion, between our Churches, might look like, it must be admitted that re-united Church cannot be achieved

". . .without new, better harmonized structures of leadership on both sides: new conceptions of both synodality and primacy in the universal Church, new approaches to the way primacy and authority are exercised in both our communions.”[12]

This document can serve as an impetus for canonists and the Society as a whole to consider new approaches to Catholic governance and to articulate what structures a "reunited Church” will need.

The success of the ecumenical initiatives of the Church is crucial. To draw from the motto of the Crusades: Deus lo vult. God wills it.

John D. Faris
Jacksonville, FL

October 12, 2011



[1] Perhaps Pope John XXIII himself perhaps realized that he would not be given enough time to complete the task; during his first consistory of 15 December 1958, he appointed Giovanni Battista Montini, then archbishop of Milan, as a cardinal. Montini was to succeed him as Paul VI.

[2] http://thekeysaremightier.com/blog/?p=105 The pope’s secretary, Bishop Capovilla said on that Sunday, 25 January 1959, the pope got up and prayed, but after celebrating Mass, "He remained kneeling longer than usual.” He then went to the ceremony for the feast of St. Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. The ceremony ran longer than scheduled, and before he could announce the convening of Vatican II, the press embargo on the announcement expired. The council was then "broadcast by the media before the Pope could communicate it to the cardinals.”

[3] John XXIII, allocution 11 October, 1962, esp. "Unitas in Christiana et humana familia.”: Enchiridion Vaticanum 1: 48-50.

[4] See Walter Kasper, Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009).

[5] Communicationes 1 (1969) 77-85.

[6] John A. Alesandro, "General Introduction,” in James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, Donal E. Heintschel, The Code of Canon Law. A Text and Commentary. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985) 6-7.

[7] "Discorso del Santo Padre alla Presentazione del Codice dei Canoni delle Chiese Orientali alla XXVIII Congregazione Generale del Sinodo dei Vescovi il 25 X 1990.” Published in Nuntia 31 (1990) 10-16. Translation from George Nedungatt (ed.), A Guide to the Eastern Code, (Pontificio Istituto Orientale: Rome, Italy, 2002) 29.

[8] Ibid., 29. For a brief commentary on Orthodox "reception” of the Eastern Code, see Nedungatt, op. cit., 53-54.

[9] John Paul II, apostolic constitution Sacri canones, 18 October 1990. AAS 82 (1990) 1045-1363. English translation of apostolic letter in Canon Law Society of America, Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. Latin-English Edition. (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 2001) xxi-xxviii.

[10] "Thus it happens that the canons of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches must have the same firmness as the laws of the Code of Canons of the Latin Church, that is, that they remain in force until abrogated or changed by the supreme authority of the Church for just reasons. The most serious of those reasons is the full communion of all the Eastern Churches with the catholic Church, in addition to being most in accord with the desire of our Savior Jesus Christ himself.” Ibid., xxiii.

The reference to the transitory nature of the current legal arrangements resonates the concluding paragraph of Orientalium Ecclesiarum:

The holy council finds great joy in the earnest and fruitful collaboration of the Eastern and Western Catholic Churches, and at the same time makes the following declaration: All these legal arrangements are made in view of the present conditions, until such time as the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Churches unite together in the fullness of communion. (n. 30a)

During the revision process, consideration was given to the possibility of including a canon referring to the transitory character of the code until full communion with all the Eastern Churches was established. This approach was rejected because the Legislator wanted the Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium to have the same juridic firmness as the Codex Iuris Canonici.

[11] The North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, Steps towards a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future. Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 2 October 2010.

[12] Ibid. nn. 5-6

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