Fall 1982, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 233-243.

Elizabeth McDonough:
      Spirituality and Law: The Coming of the New Code

Canon law, in service to spirituality, has roots in common with spirituality, which, if cultivated, enable the law to promote and facilitate ecclesial life that is not only well ordered but well lived.

Sister McDonough, O.P., recently completed doctoral studies in canon law at the Catholic University of America. She is a consultant to the Columbus, Ohio, diocesan marriage tribunal and instructor in canon law at the Pontifical College Josephinum.

WITHIN the church, as elsewhere, there is a tendency to place in opposition things that are actually complementary realities, such as freedom and obligation, authority and obedience, communion and hierarchy, spirituality and law. It is, perhaps, only those of the stature and holiness of Pope John XXIII, who mandated the revision of canon law more than twenty years ago, who recognize intuitively that an integral part of the renewal of the Spirit in the church is a revision -- not a rejection -- of its legal norms. This is true in part because laws, as specific articulations within an entire legal system, arise from particular situations and often outlive their practicality as circumstances are altered, thus requiring appropriate adaptation. Proper revision of law is also important to spiritual renewal, however, because good law in the church and authentic spirituality have several fundamental properties in common.

Obviously both spirituality and law flow from the sacramental dimension of the church. It may be easy to acknowledge that baptism is the sacramental source that creates in us a new spiritual reality and potential. It is less easy to recognize that baptism is the sacramental source that simultaneously creates in us rights and obligations with legal consequences; but that is, in fact, what each sacrament does in its ecclesial context. From the beginning it must be noted that law, which deals primarily with external conduct, flows from, and is subordinate to, deeper spiritual realities which deal primarily, but not exclusively, with internal dimensions of the heart. Both authentic spirituality and law -- with specific reference to canon law -- exist only in an ecclesial context, are related to faith in their foundations, benefit from deeper understanding and masterful interpretation, and are meaningful only if operative for good in the concrete reality of our lives.

Any analogy between spiritual and temporal things is limited at best, and that between spirituality and law is especially tenuous because the inference can be easily and mistakenly made of attributing to, and expecting from, the law a greater role than it can serve in the Christian life. Perhaps law actually played an unduly predominant role in the church prior to Vatican II, and the vivid memory of its position in the recent past has engendered a less than enthusiastic attitude on the part of many towards the revision of canon law. The process of revision has been questioned for involving so few of the people to whom the law will apply, and the product of revision has been assailed for falling short of the ecclesial vision of the council.(1) Both criticisms are warranted; but it should be noted that the number of those considered qualified to contribute to the legal revision has, indeed, been limited, and that any legal system would be hard pressed to incorporate coherently all the multifaceted dimensions of Vatican II.

Retrospective discussion of what might have been, however, may reflect a misplaced effort to deal with the reality of the new code; or it may reflect a possible misunderstanding of the role of law in the church and, for our purposes, of the relationship between spirituality and law. Let us look, therefore, at some pivotal but limited similarities between spirituality and law in an attempt to understand better the role of law in the church and in our lives. The points of similarity will be investigated from the legal perspective -- not because law is more important than spirituality or necessarily provides a better starting point, for neither is the case -- but because the legal perspective, rather than the spiritual one, requires more careful investigation and redefinition in the light of recent legislative activity in the church.


First, canon law exists only within the church, never above or outside it. In this sense the ecclesial context restricts the scope of law in the same manner that the ecclesial context sets certain boundaries for authentic spirituality. Law in the church is concerned with people in a living society. It is not occupied merely with commanding this, forbidding that, permitting something else, and penalizing actions that fall outside these limits. Good law recognizes a value, sees a need to reach for that value, and honestly assesses the ability of people to work towards the perceived and desired goal. Authentic spirituality does much the same thing.(3) The essential difference is that the goal of spirituality is ultimately transcendent while the goal of law is basically immanent.

Law in the church orders the interrelationships of mature and baptized persons in such a way that their fundamental rights are protected, that obligations to one another are insured at the most basic level, that an atmosphere of growth is facilitated by necessary structures, and that continuity is maintained in transitional situations. Placing the goal and role of canon law in either an exalted or denigrated position within the church can create difficulties. The highest law is always that which dictates actions in accord with the genuine spiritual good of the persons involved; but, in the canonical context, too frequent or too facile recourse to the maxim lex suprema est salus animarum ("the supreme law is the salvation of souls") runs the risk of either lifting humanly articulated church law beyond its customary context, thus attributing to it an aura of absoluteness it does not possess, or of tempering every particular application by appeal to a higher norm, thus rendering the generality of law circumstantially void.

On the other hand, treating canon law too much like contemporary civil law, that is, as a body of positive assertions and possible actions in situations where rightness or correctness have strong voluntarist tendencies, removes canon law from its foundations in the ecclesial society it serves and which does have an undeniably transcendent dimension. It is true that in proper application of law one can act, following epikeia, contrary to legal specifics and yet very much in keeping with the intention of the law according to a higher norm. Likewise, following equity, proper application of law requires attention to the mitigating circumstances of persons, times, and places. In addition, some canons clearly articulate statements that are matters of faith rather than of law, such as the hierarchical constitution of the church and the constitutive elements of sacraments. These assertions, however, are generally recognized not as legislating matters of belief but merely as utilizing the faith context to ground the practical interrelationships of believers in them. The ecclesial context alone, not any legal assertion, constitutes the living community whose moral commitment to shared faith and values is essential to a meaningful legal system.(3)

Flowing from the necessary ecclesial context, and rooted in it, is the requirement that church law, like spirituality, actually express the fundamental beliefs of the community that constitutes the people of God. This common rootedness in faith, which is the second key similarity between spirituality and law, relates to the importance of sound theology for both areas. Belief within the church is transmitted as a deposit of divinely revealed truth refined upon occasion by the various elements of the ecclesial community entrusted with this task. Spirituality in its reliance on matters of faith is limited by certain boundaries of belief that have been established and by important points that have been clarified in time. So, too, canon law is limited by the established boundaries and clarified points of belief as inherited and evolved from past centuries. Thus, for example, belief in the power of the sacramental system allows canon law to claim dominion in internal matters such as confession. Likewise, the doctrine of papal primacy in jurisdictional matters allows canonical legislation for the entire church to originate only at the pontifical level. These are, perhaps, commonly known and generally respected clarifications of the ambience of canon law. On the other hand, a less know -- nor often forgotten -- boundary for law is the limitation of its power to effect what it commands: the law has no power in itself.

Granted, canon law has an all-inclusiveness reminiscent of the Torah because it concerns so many aspects of ecclesial life, but it does not originate in God; it is not a way of life; and it makes no claim for efficacy by reason of exact specification or punctilious observance. What certain canonical legislation does claim -- and rightly so in its ecclesial context founded in faith -- is that, when certain constitutive elements of a sacramental action are present, then the church guarantees the power of God as objectively operative in this living and graced encounter with his chosen people.


Another comparison, admittedly somewhat strained but not without meaning for our purposes, is the difference between law and sacrament which parallels the difference between methods of prayer and the gift of prayer. Methods of prayer are helpful dispositive measures one can take in order to facilitate growth in one's prayer life. They do not constitute prayer as such; and, even less than the law regarding the constitutive elements of sacramental actions, prayer methods do not have efficacious causality in the spiritual life. As those who have devoted years to cultivating a serious life of prayer can readily attest, the gift of prayer can be given to the least methodical neophyte if God so chooses, and can be apparently absent from those who are well versed in methodology. Somewhat comparably, adherence to legislated requirements in sacramental matters, which cannot be dismissed as unimportant because of the basic right of the faithful to receive valid sacraments, does not constitute the substantial action of God which remains beyond human control. Excessive rubrical exactness does not make a valid sacrament more valid and may, in fact, merely render it more tedious for all who participate in the sacred action. Similarly, lack of observance, though it may render an action legally invalid, does not necessarily exclude the efficacious action of the Holy Spirit therein.(4)

It may seem facetious to mention that canon law has never claimed control over the Spirit of God, but the experience of many with reference to interpretations and applications of law that at times appear to give it that dominion may be far less than humorous. just as scrupulous attention to methodology in prayer can betray a subtle semi-Pelagian spirituality, excessive exactness in observance of the law can betray a pre-Pauline belief in legislative power. Both manifest all too clearly the still present aspects of sin in our personal journey towards God in that we are inclined, both individually and collectively, to seek salvific power from the wrong source. Furthermore, neither approach is a true manifestation of our faith. Note that the problem in this comparison is not the content but the significance that we attribute to a method or norm: we rely on, or boast in, the method or norm in such a way that it appears to establish our righteousness or to directly manifest God's will.

Sound theology rooted in faith, then, contributes to a proper and healthy perspective for law as well as for spirituality.(5) On the other hand, law is severely limited by theology that is not sound and by still evolving understandings of faith. Ecclesial law springs from and embodies the strongest prevailing trend of theological understanding for any particular era. The prevailing and even authentically accepted theological understandings of one era may be woefully inadequate for another era. Those who have found the 1917 code of canon law a less than acceptable document for revealing the church's self-understanding might do well to note that it embodies faithfully the most prevalent and authentically accepted post-Vatican I theology for matters such as ecclesial structure, the meaning of sacraments, the respective roles of bishops, clergy, religious, and laity, and relations with non-Catholics and non-believers.(6)

The new code, coming in the wake of some radical theological shifts in ecclesial self-awareness, incorporates some of the theology of Vatican II; but many previous theological conceptions are evident in its norms. Undeniably this is due in part to a preference by some for former structures that could perpetuate the status quo over newer, untried, and somewhat unpredictable structures that could facilitate ongoing renewal from a different perspective.(7) Yet the evidence of previous theological orientations in the new code is also due in part to the lack of time there has been since Vatican II to plumb sufficiently the depths of the council's initiatives. Good theology, like healthy spirituality and meaningful law, takes time to mature. One's expression of spirituality and one's approach to the law are usually indicative, among other things, of a person's theological orientation; but neither spirituality nor law should be faulted for problems reflected in them of which they are not the source.

A third similarity between spirituality and law is the importance of interpretation and guidance. Maintaining proper balance and achieving better understanding of various aspects of the spiritual life have generally been aided by the animcara, or spiritual director. Although spiritual direction is not an absolute requirement for sound spirituality, some form of sharing of one's interior life with another or others has been traditionally regarded as an asset in attaining spiritual maturity. Let us note in retrospect and by comparison that, although sound theological foundations to nourish sound spirituality need not be acquired speculatively, a regular program of spiritual reading is also considered an aid to spiritual growth. Both of these are enhanced by guidance.

The spiritual guide must know the basic principles, be a person of deep prayer, and be attuned to the Spirit of God operating in the present moment. Direction is a process of attentiveness, receptivity, clarification, and communication. The art of legal interpretation, though operating in a different forum and at a different level of contact, is also a process requiring attentiveness to the historical and cultural ambience of the legal norm, openness and receptivity in the human situation for application of the norm, clarification of the type and level of law as well as various alternatives, and communication to intelligent and free people of the current meaning of the legal norm in a manner that violates neither the dignity of the human person nor the authority of the law. In order to do this well, the legal interpreter must know the basic principles of ecclesial law, be sensitive to the intention behind the norm, and apply it with integrity from a broad horizon; otherwise, canon law may not fulfill its proper role of service to people in the church.(8)

It is also helpful to interpretation if those to whom the law applies know something about the law. just as it is helpful in spirituality if those engaged in prayer and direction know something about the process and its content, so, too, it is an aid to good interpretation of law if those most affected are familiar with the basic process and content of the law. Lack of knowledge of rights and obligations, structures and procedures, does not generally contribute to their best use but, rather, to their sometimes unnecessary and occasionally self-serving aberration, as is comparably true for lack of knowledge in the basics of the spiritual life.

Without good legal interpretation based on at least rudimentary information, the stage is set for antinomian rejection of all that is legal or for the authoritarian imposition of limited vision and restricted options enforced by legalism -- the all too familiar experience of law for its own sake. Both are hard on people, and neither contributes very positively to the life of the church.


The life of the church, which is none other than the life of people who constitute the church, brings us to the fourth common point for spirituality and the law, namely, that authentic spirituality and good law exist only so insofar as they are meaningfully integrated into one's lived experience. Spirituality that remains abstract and esoteric without dealing constructively with concrete difficulties is questionably authentic. Similarly, law that remains a validly promulgated norm but is never integrated into the human activity of those to whom it applies lacks something of the nature of good law. This is not to say that the classical idea of law as an ordinance of reason formulated and duly promulgated by a person or group entrusted with the care of the common good is an erroneous one. It is to say, rather, that reasonableness and due promulgation and proper authority and appropriateness to the common good can be abstractly quite correct but concretely quite meaningless if the norm of action never, in fact, becomes a norm of action in the lives of real people. Nor does this suggest that ecclesial law requires ratification by those to whom it applies. It does imply, however, that the appropriation of, or the nonresponse to, a legal norm by intelligent and free Christians cannot be ignored if law is to be genuine law.(9)

If a judgment of value or an affirmation of need by those in authority is legislated for the life of the community but never really becomes part of its life, then the value judgment and decision remain -- for all practical purposes -- mere abstract generalizations, and the capacity of the people to attain the affirmed value or perceived need becomes subjectively thwarted. A further result is that a great deal of energy is then expended to enforce observance of the judgments made by those in authority without due attention to the hidden message contained in the practical reality of nonobservance. Though valid law does have the power to impose external obligation, the fundamental motivation for observance of law, much like the fundamental motivation in the spiritual life, must be an inner quality of the heart that brings a morally self-binding dimension to one's activity within a commitment to the community that is part of the personal assent of faith.

In spite of the many common elements between spirituality and law, the revised code of canon law faces possible relegation by many to a place of irrelevance in the church. Some form of legal organization -- admittedly less codified and all-encompassing -- has always been present in the church because of its need from the very beginning to order the interrelationships within the community. The overemphasis on law in the first half of this century, coupled with nearly two decades of revision since Vatican II, has engendered a certain lack of popularity for legal matters. The lack of popularity is often not unwarranted; but the immediate crisis for ecclesial law is not a question of rejection of this or that norm but the serious threat of loss of an appropriate place for law in the church at large.(10) Like any other aspect of the church's existence, canon law is a limited instrument with which to face the contingency and inevitability of the status quo at any moment. The law, itself, exhibits a degree of contingency and inevitability in that much of it could actually be otherwise; but all of it must be dealt with as it is. Canon law is neither sublime nor ridiculous but an integral part of the church.

The foregoing remarks have indicated certain similarities between spirituality and canon law in an attempt to show that the part law plays in the church can be understood better if viewed as related to spirituality rather than as opposed to it. The fact remains that the two realities are often seen in opposition; and law is often treated, though perhaps not consciously, as if it were the prior and more fundamental one. In retrospect, a breakdown in the necessary proper relationship between spirituality and law can be observed in the process of renewal of religious life as mandated by Vatican II. The council insisted on the primacy of spiritual renewal and the adaptation of structures and norms to facilitate and reflect that spiritual renewal. In its origins, however, the alteration of structures and norms received much more immediate attention than did the spiritual levels of renewal. Since spiritual renewal is deeper and takes much longer, many communities are still struggling with the more profound demands of what has been asked years after the structural and legal adaptations have been tested and rejected or incorporated. Some of the liturgical changes since the council represent other instances in which spiritual preparation did not fully anticipate, or become expressed in, the legal adaptations that were made. In such cases there is a danger that law will assume an inappropriate autonomy which disassociates it somewhat from the heritage it shares with spirituality.

The assumption of inappropriate autonomy is enhanced by rejection and misuse; both are realistic possibilities for the new code. The common elements of ecclesial context, foundation in faith, quality interpretation, and integrated human action which law shares with spirituality strengthen the possibility of acceptance; but they do not preclude the law's possible misuse. Even unintentionally, law can be easily misused by allowing it to function as an instrument for maintenance of bureaucracy and institutional control or as a refuge in which the less than enthusiastic can escape from the duty of creative thinking and responsible action. Since salvation takes place in the concrete inescapability of history, law -- like spirituality -- can contribute to our human authenticity and can help us to recognize who we are before God at any moment of our collective and individual history. The new code of canon law may be marred by a less than desirable revision process, by bureaucratic elements of organization, by various internal contradictions, and by limited incorporation of Vatican II initiatives; but it is, nevertheless, an improvement over the previous code in many respects.

The coming of the new code provides us with an opportunity to accept the current legal dimension of the church realistically and to utilize it constructively. Knowledge, interpretation, adaptation, confrontation, and dissent are all part of a positive regard for law: but a person's spirituality -- not the external norm -- is the foundation for positive regard. The aim of authentic spirituality is not merely that God and people be well thought of, but that God and people be well loved. When kept in proper and subordinate perspective, canon law can fulfill its aim, which is not merely that life in the church be well organized, but that life in the church be well lived.

  1. James H. Provost, "Canon Law--True or False Reform in the Church?" Jurist 38 (1978): 257-67, gives a brief but critical evaluation of the limitations of the revision based on Congar's principles for true and false reform. Thomas J. Green, "The Revision of Canon Law: Theological Implications," Theological Studies 40 (1979): 593-679, especially pages 627-79, presents an extensive investigation of the substantive and methodological assets and limitations of the new code. Green gives a brief summary of the proposed norms in the 1980 schema, according to their numerical order by book, in "The Revision of Canon Law: A Progress Report," Chicago Studies 20 (1981): 207-32.
  2. Ladislas Orsy, "Lonergan's Cognitional Theory and Foundational Issues in Canon Law," Studia Canonica 13 (1979): 215-16. Orseys entire article, pages 177-238, is worth reading for its critical appraisal of the impact of cognitional theory and world view on the realm of law. John A. Alesandro, "The Revision of Church Law: Conflict and Reconciliation," Jurist 40 (1980): 1-26, continues the discussion of the impact of differing world views in canon law.
  3. Ladislas Orsy, "The Canons on Ecclesiastical Law Revisited: Glossae on Canons 8-24," Jurist 37 (1977): 125-27. Orsy speaks here of the relationship between theology and law in the matrix of the church and of the importance of not confusing the content of a theological mystery with the content of a positive legal norm.
  4. John M. Huels, "The Interpretation of Liturgical Law," Worship 55 (1981): 218-37, discusses the use of liturgical law relying on Orsy's principles of interpretation (see note 8 below) and giving special attention to the pastoral aim of celebration within the ecclesial context.
  5. Francis Morrisey, "The Spirit of Canon Law/Teachings of Pope Paul VI," Origins 8 (1978): 33, 35-40, offers a concise summary of Paul VI's positive attitude and approach towards law noting the importance of its ancillary role, its spiritual dimensions, its relationship to theology, and the responsibilities of canon lawyers.
  6. Stephen Kuttner, "The Code of Canon Law in Historical Perspective," Jurist 28 (1968): 129-48, presents a thorough picture of historical and theological influences for the 1917 code and gives some hint of the legal positivism involved even in this classical view of law.
  7. Examples of this are inclusion of the newer priests' senate with retention of the older diocesan consultors, and inclusion of the newer pastoral council with retention of the older diocesan synod. Joseph A. Komonchak, "A New Law for the People of God: A Theological Evaluation," Canon Law Society of America, Proceedings of the Forty-Second Annual Convention, 1980, pp. 14-17, for example, compares the ecclesiology of Vatican II with that evident in the revision of the code and cautions us not to expect too much from the revision.
  8. Ladislas Orsy, "The Interpreter and his Art," Jurist 40 (1980): 27-56, explores the process of interpretation and notes the qualities required of a person exercising the art. In relation to this, one might note that interpretations which give much attention to isolated content with little attention to process and context can often be less than balanced and should be approached with caution.
  9. Orsy, "Lonergan's Cognitional Theory and Foundational Issues in Canon Law," pp. 216-17, 222-26.
  10. Alesandro, "The Revision of Church Law," p. 24.