Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Two Popes and the Code of Canon Law

(Photo by Sisters of Mercy)
By Sister Sharon Euart, RSM

Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are the bookends for the revision of the Code of Canon Law. On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII set things in motion when he announced the convening of the Second Vatican Council. He also announced that he would appoint a Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law. With this announcement he took one of the most far-reaching steps for reform in the Church. He inaugurated a new era in the development of the Church’s law and linked it with the aggiornamento and renewal called for in the ecumenical council. His call for a pastoral emphasis on the deliberations and decrees of the council would require a set of new or revised laws for implementation.

The extent of this undertaking was beyond what most could imagine. It soon became evident that the revision of the Code could not take place prior to or simultaneously with the council. Initiation of the revision was delayed and John XXIII waited to appoint the first members of the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law until the completion for the council’s first session in 1963, shortly before his death.

Pope Paul VI expanded the original Commission after the Council and emphasized the close connection between the revision of the Code and the Council and calling for a “new way of thinking” in which the pastoral care and needs of people are addressed. Guided by the principles for revision approved by Pope Paul VI and the Synod of Bishops in 1967, the revision process was to be more than a technical revision of the 1917 Code. It was to be a full-fledged reform in keeping with the teaching of Vatican II.

Promulgation of the final version of the revised Code of Canon Law was left to Pope John Paul II. On January 25, 1983, 24 years to the day after Pope John XXIII’s announcement of the revision, Pope John Paul II promulgated the revised Code of Canon Law, bringing completion to the project. In the apostolic constitution Sacrae disciplinae leges, he called attention to the “newness” of the Code and described the task of the Code as the translation of the ecclesiological doctrine of the Vatican Council into canonical terms. Here he stressed key elements of the revision including the notion of the Church as the people of God and as communio; hierarchical authority as service; collegiality and primacy; and participation in the three-fold office of Christ - to teach, to sanctify and to govern, especially for the lay faithful.

As a Church always in need of reform, two popes - Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II sought to renew the Church with a revision of the Church’s law. How effective the instrument of renewal, this manner of “putting on Christ,” is in the life of the Church depends on the people of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.


Sister Sharon Euart is a Sister of Mercy of the Americas and holds a doctorate in canon law from The Catholic University of America. She is executive director of Resource Center for Religious Institutes and a former president of the Canon Law Society of America.

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