Holy Spirit Interactive
Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Inside Holy Spirit Interactive

Holy Spirit Interactive: Discover the Church: The New Role of the Laity. Church Law.

The Laity in the 1983 code

Why are there Church laws?

As a Church we are not just a collection of private individuals. We form a community, as we saw in Part 1.

As a community, the Church shares with all other institutions the need for organisation, procedures, systems. These are necessary if the community is to work at all. Among these systems there is the system of law. By the time of Vatican II many canon lawyers thought that the Church needed a new code of canon law. Why?

Aims and means

In any community or institution, it is important to make a distinction between:
  • the aims of the institution;
  • the means we employ to achieve the aims.

    Obviously, the aims of an institution are the most important. However, the means can often become more important than the aims. A business may cling on to out-of-date and inefficient production methods. If it does that, it is placing the aim (producing goods) beneath the means (appropriate production methods). When means become more important than aims, the survival of the business is put at risk.

    Think back to session 1. The aims of the 6 Christian groups we considered were survival and community growth. The means were the various Church structures that each Church set in place. In the 11th. and 12th. centuries the aim was still survival, to save the Church from collapse. The means used in those centuries were the restructuring reforms of Pope Gregory.

    Before Vatican II, was the Church structure (a pyramid) still a form of ministry to the people, or were there people there to perpetuate the pyramid?

    Aims, means, and laws

    It seemed to many during the run-up to Vatican II that the Church structures sometimes got in the way of the Church's mission. The means of achieving aims, especially when the means take the form of a code of laws, can become somehow "sacred". Some Catholics placed all norms on the same level. For example, a survey done in the United States in the 1960's found that Catholic school children commonly considered Friday abstinence from meat as being more important than loving one's neighbour. Aims and means had been turned upside-down.

    The 1983 Code of Canon Law

    It was against this background that Pope John XXIII ordered that the 1927 Code of Canon Law be revised. The work began immediately after the conclusion of the Council. The whole project took nearly 20 years to complete, and was finally published in 1983.

    If we compare the finished text with the 1917 Code, we notice a number of differences:
    1. in line with Vatican II, the whole tone is more pastoral and less heavy-handed;
    2. the laity have a much larger amount of space devoted to them;
    3. the text is shorter (there are 1752 canons as against 2414);
    4. there is a version in English (translations from the Latin of the 1917 Code had not been allowed).

    Brief Guide

    It is divided into 7 "books":
    1. The General Principles of Law. This is dull but necessary. It indicates how the laws of the Code, and the terms it uses, are to be interpreted and applied (canons 1-203).

    2. The People of God. Strikingly different from the 1917 Code, this Code starts with the faithful - i.e. all the baptised, irrespective of rank - and deals with their rights and duties as Christians. The old Code had only one canon )682) which specifically referred to the rights of the laity - namely the right to receive from the clergy the spiritual aids necessary to salvation. The book then goes on to define the roles of each member of the hierarchy and deals with the various councils in the Church. Finally, it deals with Religious life. (canons 204-746)

    3. The Teaching Role of the Church. This book deals with the Church as the guardian of revelation. It includes sections on preaching, missions, catechesis, Catholic schools, universities, and the media. (canons 747-833)

    4. The Sanctifying Role of the Church. Each sacrament is dealt with here in turn. A theological statement is followed by a description of the practical arrangements for the celebration of each sacrament. Also included are the Prayer of the Church, funerals, church altars, fast days, and feast days, etc. (834-1253)

    5. The Temporal Goods of the Church. This book deals with the administration of the Church's material goods in the interests of the spiritual aims of the Church. For example: collections, accountability, finance committees, etc. (1254-1310)

    6. Sanctions. This is the Church's penal code (1311-1399). It is much shorter than the former code.

    7. Judicial Processes. This final book deals with the ordering of Church courts, e.g. in marriage -annulment cases.

    Using the Code

    Not many laity dipped into the 1917 Code of Canon Law. It was available only in Latin. As we have seen, there was only one canon that mentioned the laity. It required fairly intensive study even to begin to feel confident about using it. By contrast, the new Code is available in English and many other languages, is relevant to many aspects of lay ministry, and is much less impenetrable than its predecessor. If you ever need to find out how a particular detail of Church life should be proceeding in your diocese or parish, you could well find your first help in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.


    The laity have come a long way in a relatively short time. From being merely passive members of a clericalised Church, lay people are able to become active participants in the continuation of Jesus ministry to the world. The Constitution on the Church, the Decree on the Laity, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and Christifideles Laici constitute an invitation to team up with our fellow-Christians throughout the Church clergy and laity and be as Christ for our fellow human beings.

    Next: The Church and the World: The Constitution