Canon Law and the Laity

Since the closing of the Second Vatican Council, Catholic laity have increasingly become aware of the science of canon law. Whether because of the rise in annulments or the recent crisis over sexual misconduct among the clergy, coming across references to canon law is no longer uncommon for most Catholic laity.

The Internal Legal System of the Church

Yet what precisely is canon law? And how can a layperson meaningfully participate in this sacred science?

Every organization, whether secular or religious, requires its own laws and customs to maintain some semblance of order. Within the Catholic Church, the internal legal system that governs its day-to-day workings is known as canon law. The word “canon” comes from an old Greek word kanon, which means “reed”. In the ancient world, a reed was used as a measuring device and hence came to symbolize the authority to set standards, that is, to rule.


One finds in Latin two words for law — lex and ius. Lex means an individual or particular law. From its plural form leges we derive the English words “legislator” and “legislation”. The term ius, on the other hand, means an entire system of law or the subject of law in the abstract. From it we derive the English words “justice” and “jurisprudence”. When the Church employs the term “canon law”, she is referring to Latin word ius. Thus the Code of Canon Law is known in Latin as the Codex Iuris Canonici.

Yet does not Sacred Scripture and Tradition suffice for Catholics? Do we really need a Code of Canon Law to compliment the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church? In answering these questions, let us look at the election of Matthias in the Acts of the Apostles:

Peter stood up among the brethren […] and said, “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry […] For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘His office let another take.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and among us […] must become with us a witness to His resurrection.” And they put forward two […] And they prayed […] And they had cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles. [Acts 1: 15-26]

This passage perfectly demonstrates the interaction between Scripture, Tradition and canon law. From Scripture and Tradition, we know that Christ instituted the office of Bishop. We also know that Christ gave St. Peter and the Apostles the authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition. Yet the Church is no mere teaching institution. By our baptism, Christ calls upon us to live according to His teaching.

If we are to avoid the chaos of Protestantism, Catholics must follow Church teaching in a manner that is both orderly and practical. Thus we see the necessity of canon law. In the above example, St. Peter took charge of the situation and implemented a means whereby the Church selected Judas’ replacement among the Apostles. This helped establish the custom within the early Church through which bishops were elected by the community they served. As the Church grew, the duty of election fell upon the local clergy. This practice evolved into the portion of canon law that now governs the election of the Roman Pontiff by the College of Cardinals.

The Scope of Canon Law

Of course, canon law has substantially evolved since the apostolic age. Divided into seven books, the current Code of Canon Law, which governs the Latin Catholic Church, touches upon more than simply the election of bishops. Similarly, Eastern Catholics have their own Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches that is divided into various titles. These codes cover everything from the proper conduct of priests and seminarians to whether Catholics can marry non-Catholics. They touch upon whether members of a Catholic lay organization such as the Order of Alhambra can meet in the local parish hall. They even govern what to do if a parish wishes to sell its hall.

Yet let us return to the Code of Canon Law, which covers canon law for the Latin Church. The first book of the Code is General Norms. This book covers the basic canonical principles that underlie canon law as a science. For example, canon 18 states: “Laws which prescribe a penalty, or restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception to the law, are to be interpreted strictly.” In other words, laws that would either punish or restrict the rights of individuals should be interpreted in a manner that restricts these laws to as few situations as possible.

Let us borrow an example from Book VI of the code, namely, “[Penal] Sanctions of the Church”. Despite the serious nature of the crime, a fifteen year old girl who procures an abortion would not be subject to the automatic excommunication envisioned by canon 1398. For excommunication is a punishment, and in accordance with canon 1323, n. 1, “No one is liable to a penalty who, when violating a law or precept […] has not completed the sixteenth year of age…” In other words, in keeping with general norm of canon 18, canonical penalties are restricted to those who are at least sixteen years old.

The second book of the code is entitled “The People of God”. This book covers how the Church is structured and governed. It lists everything from the duties of the Roman Pontiff and the Diocesan Bishops in communion with him, to the foundation of lay organizations. It also contains most of the rights of individual clergy, religious and laity. Book III, “The Teaching Office of the Church”, covers everything from catechesis to the establishment of Catholic universities. Book IV, “The Sanctifying Office of the Church,” basically covers the seven sacraments, sacramentals and the Church’s basic canon law concerning prayer. These aforementioned three books derive their scope from the three munera (or functions) of the Church recognized at the Second Vatican Council, namely, to sanctify (Book IV), to teach (Book III) and to govern (Book II). The Church also commonly refers to this as the duties of “Priest, Prophet and King.”

Moving on to Book V, in this part of the code we find the Church’s law governing the temporal goods (or material possessions) of the Church. Thus this book deals with the acquisition, administration, and alienation of the Church’s property. Property in the case includes not only real land where parishes are built, but also pious foundations that dispense Mass stipends, as well as sacred relics or valuable art that has fallen into the Church’s possession.

Finally, Canon law also establishes the Church’s tribunal system in Book VII of the code. When a violation of canon law takes place, a Catholic may appeal to the local diocesan tribunal in order to vindicate his or her canonical rights. Most marriage annulments or serious accusations of priestly misconduct will come before this tribunal system. However, canon law also establishes alternative procedures in some cases where specific circumstances arise. For example, if a baptized Catholic attempts marriage before a Protestant minister without the permission of the Catholic Church, provided that sufficient documentary evidence exists, this Catholic need not go through a formal Tribunal process if he subsequently wishes to marry someone else in the Catholic Church. He may simply petition to have his former marriage declared invalid “due to a lack of canonical form” and submit the required documentary proofs. In many dioceses, the chancery office or the local parish, rather than the diocesan tribunal, process cases pertaining to a lack of canonical form.

What is a Canon Lawyer?

With the Church’s internal legal system comes the need for people trained to function within this system. This is where canon lawyers, also known as canonists, come in. Typically, a canonist is one who has graduated from a three-year program of studies with a pontifical faculty of canon law approved by the Holy See. The degree held by most canonists is the licentiate (JCL) although some canonists, after further study, obtain doctorates (JCD). Others have no degree in canon law, but receive special permission from the Holy See to practice canon law. Canonists may be clergy or religious, or like the present author, they may be lay people. In fact, a growing percentage of canonists are laity.

After graduation, some canonists will find work in a diocesan chancery office, where they assist the Bishop in keeping records and drafting canonical decrees. Whether transferring a priest to another parish, signing a dispensation to permit a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic or drafting constitutions of a new lay organization within the diocese, chancery canonists assist the Bishop in every aspect of diocesan governance. Other canonists end up teaching in Catholic colleges or schools, and a few, like the present author, enjoy moonlighting as Catholic journalists.

Most canonists, however, find employment within the Church’s tribunal system. Within the tribunal, these canon lawyers function much like their secular counterparts, except that the courts fall under the Church’s jurisdiction. When working with a Tribunal, a canonist may function as an advocate for a party, as a judge, as a defender of the bond in marriage cases (where the canonist defends the validity of the bond of marriage), or as a promoter of justice. This last office loosely corresponds to the position of District Attorney or Crown Attorney within the secular justice system.

Like in cases before a secular court, the tribunal will call the parties to give testimony and present witnesses. Most of the proceedings, however, take place by means of written correspondence. A canonist rarely argues his case orally while physically present in a court-room. Additionally, because any tribunal may call upon the assistance of another tribunal where a party or a witness lives, it is possible to pursue a case even if the parties live in different continents.

Most tribunals maintain a list of advocates on staff for those who request them. At least in North America, their services seldom involve any additional cost. Nevertheless, one may hire an outside canonist to act as one’s advocate – especially when a case is particularly serious. Since most Catholics do not know where to begin looking for a canonist, many will contact the theology faculty of their local Catholic university or the Canon Law Society of America. Additionally, the St. Joseph Foundation exists as a charitable organization to help Catholics find canonical representation. Canon Law Professionals is also a respected canon law firm in America. When hiring an outside canonist, however, one should negotiate the fee with the canonist in advance.

Most cases to come before the diocesan tribunal involve a party petitioning for a declaration of nullity concerning a previous marriage. Most Catholics know this type of case as the annulment process. Nevertheless, the scope of cases can involve anything from two religious orders resolving a dispute over property to investigating an allegation of sexual misconduct against a member of the clergy. Liturgical disputes are also not uncommon. From my own experience, my favorite cases usually involve vindicating the right of homeschooled children or Catholics with special needs to receive the sacraments.

Since the closing of the Second Vatican Council, Catholic laity have become increasingly aware of their rights within the Church. At the same time, the Church has become increasingly dependant upon lay canonists to shoulder the workload. As such, canon law presents an exciting opportunity for lay people to minister within Christ’s Church.

© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange

Pete Vere, JCL, earned his ecclesiastical licentiate in canon law from Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. In his spare time, he volunteers as a Deputy Regional Director for the International Order of Alhambra — a Catholic family organization dedicated to serving the needs of the mentally and developmentally challenged.

Pete Vere


Pete Vere is a canon lawyer, author, and Byzantine Catholic from Northern Ontario, Canada. He and his wife Sonya have six children. In his few spare moments, when he is not cooking or camping with his family, he enjoys hunting, reading, video games and scotch.

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