It has not been uncommon in the course of Church history to refer to the “sacred canons”. In an age when even loyal Catholics sometimes consider canon law as a necessary evil this may appear strange. Yet, Pope John Paul II when promulgating the 1983 Code of Canon Law did not hesitate to include that older tradition which considered canon law to be a sacred discipline. Its roots are found in Sacred Scripture, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The synods and councils which characterized Church life from the beginning invariably included disciplinary provisions rooted in the teaching and faith of the Church. Over the centuries a great body of law grew out of the Spirit-led life of the Church in the most diverse cultural settings.
The law was drawn together in various collections, perhaps the greatest being the multi-volume Corpus Iuris Canonici upon which people relied well into the twentieth century. Cardinal Gasparri, acting under the mandate of Pope St. Pius X and then Pope Benedict XV, worked to codify the canon law following a pattern that extended from Justinian through Napoleon to modern European States.
Cardinal Gasparri and his collaborators succeeded brilliantly, as can be ascertained from the study of the Pio-Benedictine Code which served the life of the Church for over sixty years. Codification in this form was a new feature for the Church. It brought order and also focused Church discipline for the realities of the twentieth century.
I can remember Fr. Henry J. Hahn, a priest of the Peoria Diocese who was my pastor for many years. He was ordained a priest in 1911 and died in February 1983. Thus, he served as a priest during the time of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, under the 1917 Code, and was alive when the 1983 Code was promulgated. He always had a sense of how deeply rooted the law is in the life of the Church.
This sense of continuity in faith, teaching, and discipline is critical for today. Some claim that the Second Vatican Council introduced discontinuity even in matters of faith. An associated strain of thought seems to hold that canon law began with the 1983 Code. As a result, they often take a shortsighted and even positivist view of the canons. They consider words and phrases and “tease” their meaning in an attempt to change the life and teaching of the Church inappropriately. Such should never be the case.
Dr. Edward Peters has rendered scholars and students of the law a major service in this volume. Acknowledging that facility with Latin may be in short supply among canonists and pastoral personnel today, he provides a fine translation of the 1917 Code. He facilitates a much broader and deeper acquaintance with canon law by references to doctoral dissertations, official interpretations, and associated documents. Those who wish to teach and work within the long and living canonical tradition of our Church will find Dr. Peters’ work very helpful indeed. He is to be congratulated for perceiving this need and meeting it with diligence and expertise.
✠ MOST REVEREND JOHN J. MYERS, S.T.L., J.C.D.
Peoria, August 1999