New Help for Canonists

EXEGETICAL COMMENTARY ON THE CODE OF CANON LAW: Prepared under the Faculty of Canon Law, University of Navarre. English edition edited by Ernest Caparros (Wilson & Lafleur / Midwest Theological Forum, 2004). Five volumes bound as eight, approximately 9,000 pages. List price US $1,200.00. Purchase Online.

More than twenty years have passed since the promulgation of the 1983 Code, hardly more than the blink of an eye in terms of Church history but an entire generation in terms of human lives, especially in terms of their education. Throughout this period, English-speaking students of canon law—both those preparing for canonical careers and those needing only as such administrative and marriage law as is likely to be encountered in parish ministry— have been trained to refer to and rely upon the pan-textual, single-volume commentaries of the Canon Law Society of America (1985, reworked in 2000), the Canon Law Society of Great Britain & Ireland (1995), and Canada’s Code of Canon law Annotated (1993 and 2004, both being translations and updatings of a Spanish-language original). No chancery in America is without most, if not all, of these English reference works, and most parish pastors, I suspect, could put their hands on at least one of them.

These monographs have heavily influenced (occasionally dictated) not just the substantive canonical decisions made by their users, but the very process of canonical decision-making. To the good, each of these works sprang from a genuine collaboration by many minds toward a single text and, even in methodology, they reflect the themes of collegiality and cooperation set before the Church by the Second Vatican Council and applied in the drafting of the 1983 Code. Moreover, the fact that many contributors were necessary to produce creditable one-volume commentaries on the Code rightly reinforced the idea that modern canonistics was simply too large a field for one scholar to master anymore (if indeed, it had not been for some time, pace Gasparri.)

But while these modern commentaries on canon law reflect the need for many minds in order to make sense of the Church’s legal system and while they teach a profitable lesson thereby, they also more subtly imply that the text of the law can be properly expounded in works that, depending on their pagination, can rarely give more than two pages to a canon, and often considerably less than a half. The worth of a canonical commentary is not numbered in pages, of course, and the achievement of these one-volume works perdures (I shall certainly continue to consult them almost daily) but the arrival of the Exegetical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, a work in eight volumes filling some 9,000 pages, restores to canonistics what our forefathers took for granted: a realization that individual canonical norms are really capstones of much wider juridical sciences, divisions within theology, Church history, and pastoral experience. The more one correctly sees what the law demands today and understands about why the law reads as it does, the better placed one is to implement the pastoral priorities set before us by the Legislator.

The Exegetical Commentary is structurally simple: Each canon is set out in Latin and English. Rome’s official footnotes immediately follow, and unofficial cross-references within the 1983 Code are suggested. Then comes the scholarly comment (each article is signed). These observations, the fruit of the writings of over 100 scholars from a dozen nations, might run less than a page if the material warrants no more, but often cover several pages if that is needed to paint a sufficiently detailed picture of the norm and its referents. Footnotes tend to be “European” in style, i.e., lighter and less frequent than North Americans are inclined to use. The commentary itself is ordered toward the great task of applying canon law within a living Church. Those who need more historical background (and complex cases might require such understandings) will still need to start with the law as explained in the Exegetical Commentary, and then follow the fontes supplied by the Legislator back to earlier enactments.

Most of the priests pastoring parishes (and bishops running dioceses) today learned canon law from mimeographed sheets reflecting the latest draft of what might or might not become a canon in the new code—whenever it appeared (which was anybody’s guess then). By the time the 1983 Code was released, many of these men were already in active ministry and (excepting the industriously curious) were doing well to pick up a one-volume canonical commentary in an attempt to look behind the words of the law for guidance in those situations that did not match exactly what the rules described. It was a very difficult assignment, and resources were few for them.

If I may put it this way, though, some major help has now arrived. The extensive treatment accorded canonical provisions in the Exegetical Commentary, discussions quite readable for all their erudition, and beautifully laid out and printed by Wilson & Lafleur and the Midwest Theological Forum, offer those in pastoral ministry a fresh and detailed look at rules that were enacted to guide the conduct of members of the Church at every level. One will continue to use the single-volumes treatises on canon law of course; but now there is at hand a resource in English that can carry one even deeper into the pastoral and juridical insights that are Catholic canon law.

Dr. Edward N. Peters
Sacred Heart Major Seminary
Detroit, Mich.

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