The New Evangelization and Canon Law - Catholic Action For Faith and Family

The New Evangelization and Canon Law

March 30, 2011 :: Cardinal Raymond Burke Leave a Comment




First of all, I wish to thank His Grace, Archbishop John J. Myers for the invitation to give one of the Gerety Lectures during the 150th Anniversary of the Foundation of Immaculate Conception Seminary of the Archdiocese of Newark. While I am honored to make some modest contribution to the work of the Archbishop Gerety Fund for Ecclesiastical History, I am particularly pleased that my contribution is part of the celebration of the sesquicentennial of Immaculate Conception Seminary. The theological seminary is the heart of a diocese. As Our Lord Himself made clear, from the very beginning of his public ministry, by His call of the Apostles, the life of the Church depends upon the service of worthy shepherds who act in the person of Our Lord, Head and Shepherd of the flock in every time and place. My presence with you, this evening, is meant, in a particular way, to express heartfelt congratulations to the Archdiocese of Newark, whose faithful have so steadfastly and generously supported the work of the Archdiocesan seminary, and to underline the fundamental importance of the continued support of Immaculate Conception Seminary for the life of the Church in the Archdiocese, now and in the future. My presentation responds to the work of the Archbishop Gerety Fund for Ecclesiastical History by addressing the present situation of the Church in a totally secularized culture and the response of the Church, that is, the call to the new evangelization. After treating, in some depth, the question, especially in the teaching of the Venerable Pope John Paul II, and of the Servant of God Pope Paul VI and of Pope Benedict XVI, I give particular attention to the state of the Church’s discipline, her law, and its irreplaceable role in the work of the new evangelization. While the presentation addresses a number of particular phenomena in the recent history of the Church, it seeks to interpret those phenomena within the organic perspective of the life of the Church, handed down to us, in an unbroken line, from Saint Peter and, with him, the College of the Apostles. While the question pertains to the life of the universal Church, I trust that its application to the life of the Church in the United States of America will be sufficiently evident, in fidelity to the purpose of the Archbishop Gerety Fund for Ecclesiastical History.

The Call to the New Evangelization in the Magisterium of the Venerable John Paul II

 The pontificate of the Venerable, soon to be Blessed, Pope John Paul II, may be rightly described as a tireless call to recognize the challenge for the Church to be faithful to her divine mission in a totally secularized society and to respond to the challenge by taking up the work of the new evangelization. The new evangelization means teaching the faith, celebrating the faith in the Sacraments and in their extension through prayer and devotion, and living the faith through the practice of the virtues, as if for the first time, that is, with the engagement and energy of the first disciples, of the first apostles to our native place. In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, “On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,” the Venerable Pope John Paul II described the contemporary situation of the Church in the world with these words:

Whole countries and nations where religion and the Christian life were formerly flourishing and capable of fostering a viable and working community of faith, are now put to a hard test, and in some cases, are even undergoing a radical transformation, as a result of a constant spreading of an indifference to religion, of secularism and atheism. This particularly concerns countries and nations of the so-called First World, in which economic well-being and consumerism, even if coexistent with a tragic situation of poverty and misery, inspires and sustains a life lived “as if God did not exist”. This indifference to religion and the practice of religion devoid of true meaning in the face of life’s very serious problems, are not less worrying and upsetting when compared with declared atheism.[1]

As the Venerable Pontiff observed, “a mending of the Christian fabric of society is urgently needed in all parts of the world.”[2] He hastened to add that, if the remedy is to be achieved, the Church herself must be evangelized anew. Fundamental to understanding the radical secularization of our culture is to understand also how much the secularization has entered into the life of the Church Herself. In the words of the Venerable Pontiff, “[b]ut for this [the mending of the Christian fabric of society] to come about what is needed is to first remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself present in these countries and nations.”[3] Pope John Paul II, therefore, called upon the lay faithful to fulfill their particular responsibility “to testify how the Christian faith constitutes the only full valid response – consciously perceived and stated by all in varying degrees – to the problems and hopes that life poses to every person and society.”[4] Making more specific the call, he clarified that the fulfillment of the responsibility of the lay faithful requires that they “know how to overcome in themselves the separation of the Gospel from life, to take up again in their daily activities in family, work and society, an integrated approach to life that is fully brought about by the inspiration and strength of the Gospel.”[5] Before the challenges of living the Catholic faith in our time, the Venerable John Paul II recalled to our minds the urgency of Christ’s mandate given to the first disciples and given, no less, to us today. He declared:

Certainly the command of Jesus: “Go and preach the Gospel” always maintains its vital value and its ever-pressing obligation. Nevertheless, thepresent situation, not only of the world but also of many parts of the Church,absolutely demands that the word of Christ receive a more ready and generous obedience. Every disciple is personally called by name; no disciple can withhold making a response: “Woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).[6]

The “present situation” of the world and the Church “absolutely demands that the word of Christ receive a more ready and generous obedience.” The obedience which is fundamental and essential to the new evangelization is also a virtue acquired with difficulty in a culture which exalts individualism and questions all authority, except the self. Yet, it is indispensable if the Gospel is to be taught and lived in our time. We must take example from the first disciples, from the first missionaries to our homeland, and from the hosts of saints and blessed who gave themselves completely to Christ, calling upon the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit to purify themselves of any rebellion before God’s will and to strengthen them to do God’s will in all things. The Venerable Pope John Paul II issued the same call to the new evangelization to the faithful in the other states of life in the Church. In the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, “On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day,” writing about the spiritual gift of the priest for “the universal mission of salvation to the end of the earth,” he observed:

Today in particular, the pressing pastoral task of the new evangelization calls for the involvement of the entire People of God, and requires a new fervour, new methods and a new expression for the announcing and witnessing of the Gospel. This task demands priests who are deeply and fully immersed in the mystery of Christ and capable of embodying a new style of pastoral life, marked by a profound communion with the Pope, the Bishops and other priests, and a fruitful cooperation with the lay faithful, always respecting and fostering the different roles, charisms and ministries present within the ecclesial community.[7]

According to the teaching of Pope John Paul II, the seminarian preparing to present himself for ordination to the priesthood and for the exercise of the priestly mission, today, must be equipped for and engaged in the remaking of the fabric of the Church, in fidelity to her apostolic nature, developed in organic unity, down the Christian centuries from the Resurrection, Ascension and Descent of the Holy Spirit. Before the forces of secularization which dominate society and culture, the faithful need the spiritual ministration of priests who recognize the gravity of the situation and are prepared to address it steadfastly with apostolic zeal, with fervent prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, with sound teaching, and with obedience to the Holy Father and the Bishops in communion with him. Seminarians and priests should not be naïve about the influence of secularism and its by-product, consumerism, in their own lives. According to an ancient axiom of the Church’s discipline, “corruptio optima pessima est,” “the corruption of the best is the worst thing.” Satan and the forces of evil understand well that any influence which they can have with the shepherds of the Church will redound to their influence in the whole flock. They know the wisdom expressed in the Prophet Zechariah, “Strike the shepherd and scatter the flock.”[8] The formation of future priests and the ongoing formation of priests, therefore, must underline the essential elements of our life in Christ and, in particular, the irreplaceable office of the ordained priest in the Mystical Body of Christ. In a similar fashion, in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, “On the Consecrated Life and Its Mission in the Church and in the World,” the Venerable Pope John Paul II emphasized the new evangelization as the particular form, in our time, of the universal charity which is the characteristic mark of the state of life of consecrated persons. He declared:

Today, among the possible works of charity, certainly the one which in a special way shows the world this love “to the end” is the fervent proclamation of Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know him, to those who have forgotten him, and the poor in a preferential way.[9]

Consecrated persons, because of their identification with Christ the poor, the Chaste and the Obedient, both by their consecration itself and their apostolate – including the apostolate of prayer and penance of those who are contemplative – , carry out an essential service in the Church in every age and, in a special way, in our time. They call the faithful and all persons of good will to Christ, to contemplate Christ and the Gospel virtues, to love Christ and to serve Him. Later on in Vita Consecrata, the Venerable Pope John Paul II articulated the service to the new evangelization, given by consecrated persons, with these words:

The new evangelization, like that of all times, will be effective if it proclaims from the rooftops what it has first lived in intimacy with the Lord. It calls for strong personalities, inspired by saintly fervour. The new evangelization demands that consecrated persons have a thorough awareness of the theological significance of the challenges of our time. Those challenges must be weighed with careful joint discernment, with a view to renewing the mission. Courage in proclaiming the Lord Jesus must be accompanied by trust in Providence, which is at work in the world and which “orders everything, even human differences, for the great good of the Church.” … In every place and circumstance, consecrated persons should be zealous heralds of Jesus Christ, ready to respond with the words of the Gospel to the questions posed today by the anxieties and urgent needs of the human heart.[10]

Given the individualism and materialism characteristic of a secularized society, the faithful witness of the consecrated life to the obedience, chastity and obedience of Christ are more critically needed in our time than ever. An extraordinary synthesis of the teaching of Pope John Paul II on the new evangelization is found in his Apostolic LetterNovo Millennio Ineunte, “At the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.” Before the grave situation of the world today, we are, the Venerable Pontifff reminded us, like the first disciples who, after hearing Saint Peter’s Pentecost discourse, asked him: “What must we do?”[11] Even as the first disciples faced a pagan world which had not even heard of our Lord Jesus Christ, so, we, too face a culture which is forgetful of God and often hostile to His Law written upon every human heart. Before the great challenge of our time, Pope John Paul cautioned us that we will not save ourselves and our world by discovering “some magic formula” or by “inventing a new programme.”[12] In unmistakable terms, he declared:

No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you.[13]

He reminded us that the programme by which we are to address effectively the great spiritual challenges of our time is, in the end, Jesus Christ alive for us in the Church. He explained:

The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a program which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication.[14]

In short, the program leading to freedom and happiness is, for each of us, holiness of life, in accord with our state in life. The Venerable Pope John Paul II, in fact, cast the entire pastoral plan for the Church in terms of holiness. He explained himself thus:

In fact, to place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness is a choice filled with consequences. It implies the conviction that, since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethics and a shallow religiosity. To ask catechumens: “Do you wish to be receive Baptism?” means at the same time to ask them: “Do you wish to become holy?” It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).[15]

Pope John Paul II continued, making reference to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, by reminding us that “this ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few ‘uncommon heroes’ of holiness.”[16] Pope John Paul II taught us the extraordinary nature of our ordinary life, because it is lived in Christ and, therefore, produces in us the incomparable beauty of holiness. He declared:

The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. I thank the Lord that in these years he has enabled me to beatify and canonize a large number of Christians, and among them many lay people who attained holiness in the most ordinary circumstances of life. The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.[17]

Seeing in us the daily conversion of life by which we strive to meet the high standard of holiness, the “high standard of ordinary Christian living,” our brothers and sisters will discover the great mystery of their own ordinary life in which God daily showers upon them his ceaseless and immeasurable love, calling them to holiness of life in Christ, His only-begotten Son. Clearly, the “mending of the Christian fabric of society” can only come about by the remaking of “the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community,” beginning with the individual in his family, at home.[18] 

The New Evangelization in the Magisterium of the Servant of God Pope Paul VI

 To understand the nature and gravity of the call to the new evangelization it is important to note how the same call was issued in the Magisterium of the Servant of God Pope Paul VI who, in his Apostolic ExhortationEvangelii Nuntiandi, “On Evangelization in the World Today,” had already called for a new proclamation of the Gospel in the situation of what he called “a dechristianized society.”[19] In the years which followed the close of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the Servant of God had witnessed the progressive secularization of society and its destructive effects within the Church. In his homily on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, in 1972, for example, reflecting upon the situation of the Church in the world, he spoke of his sense that “through some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered into the temple of God.”[20] He spoke of a pervasive doubt, uncertainty, restlessness, dissatisfaction and dissent, and of a loss of trust in the Church and of a ready placement of our trust in the secular prophets who speak to us through the press or social movements, seeking from them the formula for a true life.[21] He noted how, also in the Church, the state of uncertainty prevailed, observing that after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council it was believed that “a day of sunlight had dawned upon the Church,” while, in fact, “a day of clouds, storms, darkness, search and uncertainty” had arrived.[22]He commented that we seek to excavate the abysses rather than fill them.[23] I am reminded of a comment by the wise Mother Mary Francis of the Poor Clare Colletine Monastery of Roswell, New Mexico, writing, already in 1967, about the approach to the reform of the religious form of consecrated life after the Council. She observed:

It is simply a fact that we can have too many workshops and discussions on such subjects as the formation of novices and juniors, the psychological aspects of religious life, and mental hygiene, which reduce to mere long-ringing condemnations of the past. One, of course, would be too many. We could be using this time and this energy actually forming our communities, in studying and promoting a sound psychology of religious life, and in practicing and encouraging mental hygiene. We are all surely aware that mistakes have been made in the past. We may even be willing to admit we have made a few ourselves. Let us go on from there, not hold a seminar there. Let us by all means get expert guidance in the areas just mentioned and many others, the while not letting the fact elude us that the Holy Spirit remains the Expert, theCounsellor. There may certainly be valid reasons for calmly mentioning some past errors for mutual education. A charitable sharing of blunders can be a genuine service to one another, since we all stumble often enough even when forewarned of booby-traps. However, to talk from a stump of censure will never avail anything positive.[24]

Pope Paul VI’s lament, reflected also in the observations of Mother Mary Francis, points to a rupture in the life of the Church, caused by the failure to see the organic nature of her life, receiving from Christ, faithfully down the centuries, the gift of the Holy Spirit for the evangelization of the world. Pope Benedict XVI reflected at length upon the rupture in his first Christmas address to the Roman Curia, in December of 2005, which also marked the fortieth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. He described a struggle between two interpretations of the Council, the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” and the “hermeneutic of reform.”[25] Without entering into a thorough analysis of his discussion of the struggle of the two hermeneutics, which would certainly be illuminating for the subject of our reflection but which time does not permit, suffice it to say that the hermeneutic of rupture postulates “a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church” and, thereby, justifies an interpretation of the Council not based upon the texts approved by the Council Fathers but upon what is called “the true spirit of the Council,” which is discovered “in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.”[26] The result is described by Pope Benedict XVI in these words:

The nature of a Council as such is therefore basically misunderstood. In this way, it is considered as a sort of constituent that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one. However, the Constituent Assembly needs a mandatory and then confirmation by the mandatory, in other words, the people the constitution must serve. The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself. [27]

His analysis points to the need of a new evangelization which centers upon the gift of Christ’s life given to us, as individuals and as a community, in the Church, by which we are to live and thus to serve our neighbor. In the years following the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, but certainly not because of the Council, the Church has witnessed, for example, an erosion of family life, of marital fidelity and the denial of procreation as the crown of marital love. She has also witnessed the betrayal of the liturgical reform ordered by the Council through a manipulation of the divine action of the liturgy to express the individual personality of the celebrant and of the congregation, and even to advance various human agenda, completely alien to the divine action of the Sacred Liturgy. Already, in 1972, Pope Paul VI had the sense that some foreign, indeed hostile element, had entered into the very sanctuaries of the Church. One understands, then, why he urged so adamantly the work of evangelization in the Church and in the world.

The New Evangelization in the Magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI

 Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2010 Christmas Address to the College of Cardinals, the Roman Curia and the Governorate of Vatican City State, spoke clearly and strongly about the profoundly disordered moral state in which our world finds itself, today, and of its profound effect also within the Church. He spoke about the grave evils of our time, for example, the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy, the marketing of child pornography, sexual tourism, and the deadly abuse of drugs. One also thinks of other most grievous moral evils of our time, for instance, the plague of procured abortion, the abhorrent practices of the artificial generation of human life and its destruction, at the embryonic stage of development; the so-called “mercy killing” of the very brothers and sisters who have the first title to our care, those who have grown weak through advanced years, grave illness or special needs; and the ever advancing agenda of those who want to redefine marriage and family life to include the unnatural sexual union of two persons of the same sex. Regarding the grave evils which beset the world, in our day, Pope Benedict XVI declared that they are all signs of “the tyranny of mammon which perverts mankind” and that they result from “a fatal misunderstanding of freedom which actually undermines man’s freedom and ultimately destroys it.”[28] They are manifestations, to be sure, of a way of living, to use the words of the Venerable, soon to be Blessed, Pope John Paul II, “as if God did not exist.”[29] They are a manifestation of sin at its root, which is pride, the pride of man who fails to recognize that all that he is and has comes from the hand of God Who has created us and has redeemed us, after the sin of our First Parents. They are a manifestation of the foolishness of seeking our freedom other than in the will of God and thus making ourselves slaves to creaturely realities. That foolishness manifests itself in a most distressing way in a culture of addictions, in which we seek our freedom and happiness in some creaturely reality and, when we do not find them there, as indeed we never can, we, in our pride, instead of turning in obedience to God, enslave ourselves more and more to the same creature, for example, alcohol, food, sexual promiscuity or pornography, until the creature destroys us. Pope Benedict XVI’s words in his Christmas Address of last year are redolent of the powerful pastoral concern which he expressed in his homily during the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff, celebrated before the conclave during which he was elected to the See of Peter. He spoke of how the “the thought of many Christians” has been tossed about, in our time, by various “ideological currents,” observing that we are witnesses to the “human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error,” about which Saint Paul wrote in his Letter to the Ephesians.[30] He noted that, in our time, those who live according to “a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church” are viewed as extremists, while relativism, that is, “letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’,” is extolled.[31] Regarding the source of the grave moral evils of our time, he concluded: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”[32] In his 2010 Christmas Address, reflecting on the grave evils which are destroying us as individuals and as a society, and which have generated a culture marked predominantly by violence and death, the Holy Father reminded us that, if we, with the help of God’s grace, are to overcome the grave evils of our time, “we must turn our attention to their ideological foundations.”[33] He then identified directly and unequivocally the ideology which fosters these evils: a perversion of ethos, of the moral norm, which has even entered into the thinking of some theologians in the Church. Referring to one of the more shocking manifestations of the ideology, namely, the so-called moral position that the sexual abuse of children by adults is actually good for the children and for the adults, he declared:

It was maintained – even within the realm of Catholic theology – that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a “better than” and a “worse than”. Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. Anything can be good or also bad, depending upon purposes and circumstances. Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process it ceases to exist.[34]

Pope Benedict XVI describes a moral relativism, called proportionalism or consequentialism in contemporary moral theology, which has generated profound confusion and outright error regarding the most fundamental truths of the moral law.[35]It has led to a situation in which morality itself indeed “ceases to exist.” If, therefore, the irreplaceable moral order, which is the way of our freedom and happiness, is to be restored, we must address with clarity and steadfastness the error of moral relativism, proportionalism and consequentialism, which permeates our culture and has also entered, as the Holy Father reminds us, into the Church. To confront the ideology, Pope Benedict XVI has urged us to study anew the teaching of his predecessor, the Venerable, soon to be Blessed, Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, “On the Fundamentals of the Church’s Moral Teaching.” In Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “indicated with prophetic force, in the great rational tradition of Christian ethos, the essential and permanent foundations of moral action.”[36] Reminding us of the need to form our consciences, in accord with the moral teaching of the Church, our Holy Father also reminded us of “our responsibility to make these criteria [these moral foundations] audible and intelligible once more for people today as paths of true humanity, in the context of our paramount concern for mankind.”[37] In the exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI, we see the expression of the deepest pastoral charity of the Vicar of Christ on earth, charity, which like that of the Christ the Good Shepherd, knows no boundary and is unceasing. For us, as members of the Catholic Church, we discover the true relationship between faith and reason, the true concept of ethos, of the moral norm, in Jesus Christ, in a personal relationship with Him as He comes to meet us and to make us ever more one with Him in His Mystical Body, the Church. In Jesus Christ, God the Son made man, heaven has come to earth to dispel the darkness of error and sin, and to fill our souls with the light of truth and goodness. If we live in Christ, in the union of our hearts with His Most Sacred Heart, when our brothers and sisters, lost in the unreal world of moral relativism and, therefore, tempted to despair, encounter us, they find direction for their lives and the hope for which they are looking and longing. Living in Jesus Christ, living according to the truth which He alone teaches us in His Church, we become light to dispel the confusion and error which lead to the many and so grave moral evils of our time, and to inspire a life lived in accord with the truth and, therefore, marked by freedom and happiness. The words of our Holy Father make clear the inherent dynamism of the life of the Holy Spirit within us, leading us to give witness to mystery of God’s love in our lives and so to convert our own lives more fully to Christ and to transform our world. 

The State of Canon Law in the Church

 I began my studies of Canon Law in September of 1980, residing at the Casa Santa Maria dell’Umiltà, the residence of the Pontifical North American College for priests doing graduate studies. At the time, the number of priests pursuing graduates studies was much less than the capacity of the residence. As a result, the Casa Santa Maria, at the time, was also the residence for priests from the United States doing a three-month sabbatical. Every fall and every spring semester, a new group of priests arrived, and the normal process of getting to know one another took place. I, who, to be honest, took up the study of Canon Law in obedience to my Bishop and not because of a deep interest in the discipline, soon learned how much the Church’s discipline was disdained by her priests, in general. When I responded to the usual question of what area of study was, the responses ranged were of the following kind: “I thought that the Church had done away with that,” and “What a waste of your time.” These responses, in fact, reflected a general attitude in the Church toward her discipline, an attitude inspired by the hermeneutic of discontinuity, by that sense that “a day of sunlight” had arrived in the Church, in contrast to the darkness of what had gone before. Institutes of the Church’s law, which, in her wisdom, she had developed down the Christian centuries were set aside without consideration of the chaos which would result. The hermeneutic of discontinuity, which tried to highjack the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, influenced by a pervasive antinomian culture, symbolized by the Paris student riots of 1968, had a particularly devastating effect on the Church’s discipline. Father John J. Coughlin, O.F.M., in his recently published book comparing canon law with Anglo-American legal theory, treats at some length the effect of antinomianism on Church discipline. Reflecting on the long process of the revision of the Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, he observed:

Over the course of almost three decades of revision, although theoretically still the universal law of the church, the 1917 Code fell into general disuse. It was in many instances abrogated in favor of postconciliar innovations ad experimentum. In retrospect, the ecclesial ambiance in the wake of Vatican II represented a swing of the pendulum from the preconciliar legalism toward the antinomian. While it would overstate the matter to claim that the juridical structures of the church disintegrated during the postconcilar years, it seems accurate to observe that proper function of law in the church became unbalanced. The legalism of the past had been supplanted not only by openness to the new spirit but perhaps also by the tendency to underestimate the need for a healthy ecclesial order. The culture of canon law was reduced, with the effect that law was seen as an obstacle to the manifestation of the spirit in the church.[38]

He shows, in a particular way, how the failure of knowledge and application of the canon law, which was indeed still in force, contributed significantly to the scandal of the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy in our nation.[39] Indeed, it is often asserted that the just-mentioned scandal was caused by the absence of a proper discipline in the Church to treat such abhorrent situations. In the typical approach of the hermeneutic of discontinuity, it is assumed that the Church lacked the proper canons with which to investigate such crimes and sanction them. The truth of the matter is that the Church had dealt with such crimes in the past, as should come as a surprise to no one, and had in place a process by which to investigate accusations, with full respect for the rights of all parties involved, including the protection of potential victims during the time of the investigation; to reach a just decision regarding their truth, and to apply the appropriate sanction. In his annual addresses to the Roman Rota, from 1969 to 1973, the Servant of God Pope Paul VI confronted the loss of respect for the irreplaceable, if also humble, service of canon law in safeguarding and fostering our life in Christ in the Church. His repeated appeals for a new appreciation of the Church’s discipline are an indication of the gravity of the situation. Confronting a general opinion that somehow the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council had repudiated the service of Canon Law, he declared:

On the contrary the Council not only does not repudiate canon law, the norm that spells out the duties and defends the rights of the members of the Church, but wishes and desires it as a consequence of the power bequeathed by Christ to his Church, as a necessity of its social and visible nature, its communitarian and hierarchical nature, as the guide of religious life and of Christian perfection, and as the juridical safeguard of liberty itself.[40]

In another address to the Roman Rota, he confronted the false dichotomy between canon law and freedom in the Church, observing that canon law is not opposed to freedom but serves “what is needed to safeguard the common good – including the basic good of exercising freedom – which only a well-ordered social order can adequately guarantee.”[41] The years of a lack of knowledge of the Church’s discipline and even of a presumption that such discipline was no longer fitting to the nature of the Church indeed reaped gravely harmful fruits in the Church, for example, the pervasive abuse of the liturgical law of the Church, the breakdown of the discipline of priestly formation and priestly life, the loss of direction of many congregations of religious Sisters, Brothers and priests; the loss of the Catholic identity of charitable, educational and healthcare institutions bearing the name of Catholic; failure of respect for the nature of marriage and the time-proven process for judging claims of nullity of marriage in ecclesiastical tribunals. Regarding the last example, it is not simply a matter of a legalistic concern but of concern for the sanctity of marriage, the first cell of the life of the Church and society, which must be respected, above all else, in judging a cause of matrimonial nullity, which is the reason why, in the Church’s procedural discipline, marriage must always enjoy the favor of the law.[42] A frequent manifestation of the confusion and error regarding the irreplaceable role of canon law in the life of the Church has been the claim that the Church’s discipline is, somehow, in opposition to her pastoral care of the faithful. The Venerable Pope John Paul II confronted the false opposition between Church discipline and her pastoral care in his annual address to the Roman Rota in 1990. He confronted it once again in his last annual address to the Roman Rota in 2005. Pope Benedict XVI has addressed the same false opposition in his annual addresses to the Roman Rota in 2006, 2007 and 2010. In his 2010 address, he recalled the words of the Venerable Pope John Paul II: “The judge… must always guard against the risk of misplaced compassion, which could degenerate into sentimentality, itself pastoral only in appearance.”[43] He went on to observe:

One must avoid pseudo-pastoral claims that would situate questions on a purely horizontal plane, in which what matters is to satisfy subjective requests to arrive at a declaration of nullity at any cost, so that the parties may be able to overcome, among others things, obstacles to receiving the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. The supreme good of readmission to Eucharistic Communion after sacramental Reconciliation demands, instead, that due consideration be given to the authentic good of the individuals, inseparable from the truth of their canonical situation. It would be a false “good” and a grave lack of justice and love to pave the way for them to receive the sacraments nevertheless, and would risk causing them to live in objective contradiction to the truth of their own personal condition.[44]

Regarding the Church’s pastoral concern, Pope Benedict XVI reminded the Rotal auditors and, through them, the whole Church, “that both justice and charity postulate love for truth and essentially entail searching for truth.”[45] “In particular,” he observed, “charity makes the reference to truth even more exacting.”[46]

Canon Law in the Magisterium of Pope John Paul II 

The Venerable Pope John Paul II pursued with vigor the revision of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. There was no question in his mind, as a Father of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, that the Council desired the perennial discipline of the Church be addressed to the present time. In the Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, with which he, supreme legislator in the Church, promulgated the 1983 Code of Canon Law, he wrote:

Turning our minds today to the beginning of this long journey [of the revision of the Code of Canon Law], to that January 25, 1959 [when my predecessor of happy memory, John XXIII, announced for the first time his decision to reform the existing corpus of canonical legislation which had been promulgated on the feast of Pentecost in year 1917] and to John XXIII himself who initiated the revision of the Code, I must recognize that this Code derives from one and the same intention, the renewal of Christian living. From such an intention, in fact, the entire work of the council drew its norms and its direction.[47]

These words point to the essential service of canon law in the work of the new evangelization, the living of our life in Christ with the engagement and energy of the first disciples, the pursuing, at all times, of holiness of life. The Venerable Pontiff described the nature of canon law, indicating its organic development from God’s first covenant with His holy people. He recalled “the distant patrimony of law contained in the books of the Old and New Testament from which is derived the whole juridical-legislative tradition of the Church, as from its first source.”[48] In particular, he reminded the Church that Christ Himself declared that he had not come to abolish the law but to bring it to completion, teaching us that is the discipline of the law which opens the way to freedom in loving God and our neighbor. He observed: “Thus the writings of the New Testament enable us to understand even better the importance of discipline and make us see better how it is more closely connected with the saving character of the evangelical message itself.”[49]Pope John Paul II then describes the purpose of canon law, that is, the service of the faith and grace, and of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and charity. Far from hindering the living of our life in Christ, canonical discipline safeguards and fosters our Christian life. He declared:

[I]ts purpose is rather to create such an order in the ecclesial society that, while assigning the primacy to love, grace and charisms, it at the same time renders their organic development easier in the life of both the ecclesial society and the individual persons who belong to it.”[50]

As such, canon law can never be in conflict with the Church’s doctrine but is, in the words of the Venerable Pontiff, “extremely necessary for the Church.”[51] The teaching of the Church, in fact, is translated into discipline by the canonical tradition.[52] He then indicated four ways in which the Church’s discipline is a necessary complement to her doctrine, declaring:

Since the Church is organized as a social and visible structure, it must also have norms: in order that its hierarchical and organic structure be visible; in order that the exercise of the functions divinely entrusted to it, especially that of sacred power and of the administration of the sacraments, may be adequately organized; in order that the mutual relations of the faithful may be regulated according to justice based upon charity, with the rights of individuals guaranteed and well-defined; in order, finally, that common initiatives undertaken to live a Christian life ever more perfectly may be sustained, strengthened and fostered by canonical norms.[53]

Because of the essential service of canon law to the life of the Church, Pope John Paul II reminded the Church that “by their very nature canonical laws are to be observed,” and, to that end, “the wording of the norms should be accurate” and “based on solid juridical, canonical and theological foundations.”[54]

Specific Form of the New Evangelization through Canonical Discipline

From the above considerations, it should be clear that the knowledge of and respect for canonical discipline is indispensable to the response to the call to the new evangelization. There are four specific aspects of the form of the new evangelization through canonical discipline. The first aspect is respect for the rule of law as the irreplaceable foundation for relationships and activities in the Church. In specific, we must confront the antinomian tendency of the culture, which is inimical to the organ unity of the Body of Christ. A general ignorance of canon law, which sees it as some esoteric aspect of Church life, must be overcome. At the same time, the false conflict between canon law and the pastoral nature of the Church, between truth and love, must be addressed. Key to the form of the new evangelization through canonical discipline is the study of the sources of canonical institutes in the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition. The discipline regarding the refusal of Holy Communion to persons who persist in grave and public sin, for example, must be seen in its consistent development from the time of Saint Paul.[55] The ground of nullity of marriage, lack of sufficient discretion of judgment, must be seen in the long canonical tradition regarding the influence of mental illness on the capacity to give marriage consent.[56] Thirdly, the study of the text of the law must respect the mind of the legislator and, therefore, avoid all formalism. The wording of Church discipline derives from solid juridical, canonical and theological foundations which can only be known by those humble enough to study them. All forms of manipulation of the law to advance particular agenda redound to the grave harm of the faithful and of the Church as the Body of Christ. Finally, liturgical law must enjoy the primacy among canonical norms, for it safeguards the most sacred realities in the Church. It is interesting to note that in his first Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul II confronted the abuse of the essentially personal encounter with Christ in the Sacrament of Penance, reminding us both of the right of the penitent to such an encounter and the right of Christ Himself,[57] and that in his last Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, he addressed urgently abuses of the Church’s discipline regarding the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.[58] In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, he declared:

I consider it my duty, therefore, to appeal urgently that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity. These norms are a concrete expression of the authentically ecclesial nature of the Eucharist; this is their deepest meaning. Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated. The Apostle Paul had to address fiery words to the community of Corinth because of grave shortcomings in their celebration of the Eucharist resulting in divisions (schismata) and the emergence of factions (haereses) (cf.1 Cor 11:17-34). Our time, too, calls for a renewed awareness and apprecaiton of liturgical norms as a reflection of, and a witness to, the one universal Church made present in every celebration of the Eucharist. Priests who faithfully celebrate Mass according to the liturgical norms, and communities which conform to those norms, quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church.[59]

As is always the case, knowledge and observance of canonical discipline frees us from the false impression that we must make the Sacred Liturgy interesting or stamp it with our personality, and frees us to be instruments by which Christ, the Good Shepherd, is present among His people and the action of the Sacred Liturgy bears His stamp alone.


It is my hope that these few reflections may help us to understand the key, indeed essential, service of canon law to the work of the new evangelization. There are, to be sure, many other fruitful avenues of reflection on the subject. It must be clear that the remaking of the Christian fabric of the Church, which is necessary for the mending of the Christian fabric of society, will have as a fundamental element a new knowledge of and respect for the laws of the Church. I conclude with the exhortation with which the Venerable, soon to be Blessed, Pope John Paul II concluded the Apostolic ConstitutionSacrae Disciplinae Leges:

I therefore exhort all the faithful to observe the proposed legislation with a sincere spirit and good will in the hope, that there may flower again in the Church a renewed discipline and that consequently the salvation of souls may be rendered ever more easy under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church.[60]

Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke Archbishop Emeritus of Saint Louis Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura 28 March 2011 – Monday of the Third Week of Lent

[1] Ioannes Paulus PP. II, Christifideles Laici, no. 34.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., no. 33.

[7] Pastores Dabo Vobis, no. 18.


[9] Vita Consecrata, no. 75.

[10] Ibid., no. 81.

[11] Acts 2:37.

[12] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, “At the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000,” 6 January 2001, Vatican City State: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001, no. 29.

[13] Ibid., no. 29.

[14] Ibid., no. 29.

[15] Ibid., no. 31.

[16] Ibid., no. 31.

[17] Ibid., no. 31.

[18] Christifideles Laici, no. 34.

[19] Evangelii Nuntiandi, 8 Decembris 1975.

[20] Paulus Pp. VI, “Per il nono anniversario dell’Incoronazione di Sua Santità: «Resistite fortes in fide», 29 giugno 1972, in Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, Vol. 10 (1972), Città del Vaticano: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1973, p. 707.

[21] Cf. Ibid., pp. 707-708.

[22] Ibid., p. 708.

[23] Ibid., p. 708.

[24] Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., Marginals, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1967, p. 42. Reprinted as: Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience: Recovering the Vision for the Renewal of Religious Life, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007, p. 42.

[25] Benedictus PP. XVI



[28] Pope Benedict XVI, “Benedict XVI’s Christmas greeting to the College of Cardinals, the Roman Curia and the Governorate: Resolved in faith and in doing good,”L’Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English, 22-29 December 2010, p. 13.

[29] Pope John Paul II, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici , “On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,” 30 December 1988, Vatican City State: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988, no. 34.

[30] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff: Monday, 18 April: Homily by the Cardinal who became Pope,” L’Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English, 20 April 2005, p. 3. Cf. Eph 4:14.

[31] Ibid., p. 3.

[32] Ibid., p. 3.

[33] Pope Benedict XVI, “Benedict XVI’s Christmas greeting to the College of Cardinals, the Roman Curia and the Governorate,” p. 13.

[34] Ibid., p. 13.

[35] Cf. Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, “On the Fundamentals of the Church’s Moral Teaching,” 6 August 1993, Vatican City State: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, no. 75.

[36] Pope Benedict XVI, “Benedict XVI’s Christmas greeting to the College of Cardinals, the Roman Curia and the Governorate,” p. 13.

[37] Ibid., p. 13.

[38] John J. Coughlin, Canon Law: A Comparative Study with Anglo-American Legal Theory, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 68-69.

[39] Ibid., pp. 65-74.

[40] Paulus PP. VI, Allocutio, English translation: William H. Woestman, O.M.I., ed., Papal Allocutions to the Roman Rota 1939-2002, Ottawa: Saint Paul University, 2002, p. 96.

[41] Ibid., p. 100.

[42] Cf. can. 1060.


[44] Benedictus PP. XVI, 29 January 2010,



[47] Ioannes Paulus PP. II, Constitutio Apostolica Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, English translation: p. xxviii.

[48] p. xxix.

[49] p. xxix.

[50] Ibid., pp. xxix-xxx.

[51] Ibid., p. xxxi.

[52] Cf. Ibid., p. xxx.

[53] Ibid., p. xxxi.

[54] Ibid., p. xxxi.

[55] Cf. can. 915.

[56] Cf. can. 1095, 2°.



[59] Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 52.

[60] Ioannes Paulus PP. II, English translation: p. xxxii.


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