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Decoding Canon Law for Lay Catholics

Pete Vere Answers the Faithful's Most Common Questions

OTTAWA, NOV. 8, 2004 (Zenit) - Due to the recent controversy of pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving Communion, a lay canon lawyer has seen the faithful awaken to the importance of canon law.

Pete Vere, who co-authored "Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law" (Servant Books) with fellow canonist Michael Trueman, is pursuing a doctorate in canon law at Saint Paul University and has worked with the tribunal ministry for the last three years.

He shared with us how canon law plays a role in Catholics' everyday lives.

Q: When do most Catholics come into contact with canon law and the Church's tribunals?

Vere: Divorce is the primary reason most Catholics approach a Church tribunal. Either the individual wishes to attempt another marriage, or the individual wishes to put a broken marriage behind him or her. Thus the individual will petition the tribunal for a declaration of nullity.

In popular parlance, we call this an "annulment." Nevertheless, the Church does not actually nullify the marriage -- that is, take a marriage and erase it. Rather, the Church declares the marriage null.

In other words, after a careful investigation the Church determines that something essential to marriage was missing in the relationship from the beginning. Hence, despite the external appearance of the marriage and the good faith of at least one party, a marriage never existed, as the Church understands marriage.

The practical consequences of this declaration is that the individual is free to attempt another marriage within the Church.

In the past couple of years, sad to say, sexual misconduct among the clergy has become the second most common reason why Catholics in North America approach the Church's tribunal. Additionally, the grave scandal caused by pro-abortion Catholic politicians has also awakened many lay Catholics to the importance of canon law.

Q: How does this internal legal system govern the Church's day-to-day workings?

Vere: Canon law touches upon every aspect of the Catholic faith. It touches upon the Church's teaching function, such as catechesis, preaching and Catholic education.

It touches upon the Church's governing function, from papal elections to whether the rosary guild can meet in the local parish. And it touches upon the Church's sanctifying function, such as the administration of the sacraments and the blessing of pious objects.

Thus, most Catholics encounter canon law without ever coming into contact with the Church's tribunal. Take baptism for example, since baptism incorporates one into the Body of Christ. Canon law governs whose consent is needed to receive baptism -- namely, that of the parents in the case of children and infants, and that of the individual for those who are older.

Canon law also governs who can act as a sponsor or godparent to the baptism. The individual should be a baptized and confirmed Catholic who regularly practices his or her faith. Thus a Protestant may act as a witness to the baptism, but not as a godparent or sponsor.

What's interesting is the exception canon law makes for members of Eastern non-Catholic churches. Given our common heritage as liturgical and sacramental Christians, canon law permits an Eastern Orthodox to act as a godparent at a Catholic baptism if the other godparent is Catholic.

Q: What are the most common questions Catholics have about canon law?

Vere: The most common question is definitely the following: "Are my children considered illegitimate if I receive an annulment?"

Understandably, people are most sensitive when it comes to their children. Thus, my co-author, Michael Trueman, and I answer this question last in "Surprised by Canon Law" for precisely this reason. We wanted the answer to this question to be readily accessible whenever our readers encounter a misconception concerning this issue.

Of course, the answer is no. A declaration of nullity declares one's marriage invalid, not one's children. Thus, Canon 1137 recognizes the legitimacy of children born to a putative marriage. A putative marriage is a marriage attempted in good faith by at least one of the parties, but that later receives a declaration of nullity from the Church.

Q: What are the basics of the code that Catholics need to know on a daily basis?

Vere: There are several of basics, both in terms of canonical rights and canonical responsibilities.

Yet Canon 213 provides a nice summary, stating: "The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments." In other words, all Catholics have the right to ...

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