The Ships Mechanics: Why Canon Law Matters to Catholics

Daniel Witham

The Ships Mechanics: Why Canon Law Matters to Catholics

Canon law is the internal legal system of the Catholic Church. There is a certain view among some Catholics, that really, it is just a lot of red tape. Some see canon law as useless, a bunch of rules that should be taken lightly. A few even hold it in contempt, perhaps seeing in canon lawyers what Our Lord warned us about in the scribes and Pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matt. 23:4) As a student of Canon Law, I, of course, want to challenge that perception. 

The Church 

Being a member of the Catholic Church is not a hobby. It is not something we do on the side, when it suits us, or as often as we feel like it. Rather, it is the primary source of our identity. Even more importantly, being Catholic is how we are saved. St. Cyprian said in the third-century, “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother.” 

What is the Church, then? It isn’t just a club, or an activity, or some kind of mindset. The Second Vatican Council taught us, the Church is “constituted and organized in the world as a society” (LG 8). A society is a community of persons ordered to a particular purpose. In the case of the Church, the purpose, of course, is the glory of God and the salvation of souls. The ordering of this society is accomplished, in part, by her laws. This is beautifully expressed by St. John Paul II, writing on the occasion of promulgating a new Code of Canon Law in 1983: 

“The Code is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace and the charisms in the life of the Church and of the faithful. On the contrary, its purpose is rather to create such an order in the ecclesial society that, while assigning the primacy to faith, grace and the charisms, it at the same time renders easier their organic development in the life both of the ecclesial society and of the individual persons who belong to it.” (John Paul II, Sacrae disciplinae leges, Jan 25, 1983) 

Canon law, then, should be important to every Catholic because it creates a justly ordered Church, wherein we can be saved more easily. It contributes to our welfare and even to our eternal welfare. Without it, the Church would start to lose sight of her societal nature, and injustice would surely begin to creep in. 

Rights and Obligations

One way in which canon law contributes to justice in the Church is as a source of rights and obligations. Or rather, as an articulation of rights and obligations, since we should remember that many of our duties and prerogatives as Christians really have their source in God himself. 

An obvious place to look for these are the Code’s titles on the “Rights and Obligations of All the Christian Faithful,” cc. 208-223, and on the “Rights and Obligations of the Lay Christian Faithful” cc. 224-231. A quick scan through this “Catholic Bill of Rights” can provoke us to a deep reflection on our dignity as members of the Body of Christ, and also on the high calling we have been given. 

Canon 211 informs Christians of their “duty and right to work so that the divine message of salvation more and more reaches all people in every age and in every land.” Canon 212 reminds them that they are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs and desires. 

Canon 214 provides for each person’s right to worship God according to the prescripts of their own rite and to follow their own form of spiritual life. It reminds them, however, of the requirement that this be in accord with Church doctrine. Canon 222 obliges members of the Church to “assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for the works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the decent support of ministers.” Finally, canon 226 states parents’ right and “most grave obligation” to educate their children, both with a human education and a specifically christian one. These are just a few examples. By familiarizing ourselves with our rights and duties in canon law, we help ourselves better serve God and his people. 

Canon law is not only concerned with proclaiming rights and duties, but also provides an avenue for vindicating the rights of each person in the Church, if they are ever violated. Canon 1400 states the purposes of a church trial as either the pursuit or vindication of the rights of persons, or the declaration of juridic facts, or the application of penalty when some member of the Church maliciously wounds her order of justice. A marriage annulment is a common example. Here a person is seeking help within the society of the Church to rectify an inherently unjust situation: the society views them as bound for life to a person who they never truly married! Though nobody hopes to be in this kind of situation, we recognize that understanding the reality of a broken relationship can help us heal from many sufferings. 

Where the Rubber Hits the Road 

Another area of canon law that lay Catholics may find interesting is the area of sacramental law. The Code presents its law on the “Sanctifying Function of the Church” in Book IV of the Code. This section is concerned with the liturgy, the seven sacraments, sacramentals, funerals, sacred places and sacred times. In short, this is where every Catholic most frequently experiences the Church.

The sacraments and the whole cult of divine worship was given by Christ to His Bride. But Christ lived over 2000 years ago. This area of canon law seeks to give a practical application here and now to the commands of Christ. It seeks to give a concrete expression to the theological principles the Church has received. Knowing and respecting these rules is incumbent on the whole Church. 

Take an example. We hear in the Ten Commandments that we must “remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.” This is a moral principle. But how exactly do we do this? Canon law provides the concrete application: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass. Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body” (c. 1247). It goes on to clarify that participation in any Catholic Mass satisfies this obligation, and provides a suggestion of participating in a liturgy of the Word whenever this is truly impossible. 

Another example could be seen in St. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians. Theological/moral principle: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). Canon law’s concrete application: those obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion (c. 915); A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive Holy Communion without previous sacramental confession (c. 916); we must observe a one-hour Eucharistic fast (c. 919). 

There are countless other examples of canon law applying theological truths to our everyday lives. In this way, canon law is a powerful tool for ensuring a just application of the commandments of God. 


To be certain, merely following canon law won’t save us. To be saved, we must know, love, and serve Jesus Christ. But the value of canon law lies in its potency, when consistently applied, to create the right environment for us to be able to love God and keep his commandments. His burden is easy, and his yolk is light. Canon law helps us live in a society–the Church–where taking up that burden is even easier and lighter. 

One canonist has said, in a self-deprecating tone, “the practice of canon law in the Church today can look suspiciously like rearranging the deck chairs on the bark of Peter while this poor old bark is foundering, or at least in very rough seas, and deck chairs seem pretty irrelevant” (Wrenn, The Joyful Vocation of a Canonist, 1998). With these reflections, perhaps we can begin to appreciate the Church’s law as something more relevant and helpful to every Catholic–more like repairing the engine room, or keeping the galley operational.