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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Canon Law (But Were Afraid to Ask!)

By Matt Abbott

For those who might be interested in learning more about canon law - the "internal legal system" of the Catholic Church - there is a dandy new book on the subject. It's titled "Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask about Canon Law," and it's authored by Pete Vere and Michael Trueman, two excellent canon lawyers (canonists) and writers.

The informative, easy-to-read 126-page book is divided into 14 short chapters, all of them in Q & A format: Introductory Questions and General Norms; The Canonical Rights and Obligations of Christ's Faithful; Structure of the Universal Church; The Bishop and Diocesan Structure; Priests and the Parish Structure; General Questions on the Church's Teaching Office; Catholic Schools and Universities; Baptism; The Sacrament of Confirmation; The Celebration of the Holy Eucharist; Reception of Holy Communion; Confession and Anointing of the Sick; and Marriage and Annulment.

Vere and Trueman assert that their book "represents a collection of the most common questions" they have encountered in their "various ministerial capacities," and that it is "a starting point for understanding" canon law and its applications.

Two sample passages:

"Can a Catholic be forbidden to receive Holy Communion?

"Canon 915 is clear: Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.

"As already mentioned, Catholics who approach Holy Communion have the right to receive our Lord, unless otherwise stated in the law. Here is one of the exceptions stated within canon law.

"When the Church excommunicates or places under interdict an individual, she does so not with the intention of punishing the individual. Rather, she intends to help the individual repent of whatever crime led to the penalty. Thus the Church bars the individual from receiving Holy Communion in order to force the individual to reflect upon how his or her crime wounded Christ's Mystical Body. Once the individual repents and has the penalty lifted, he or she may be readmitted to Holy Communion.

"Similarly, the Church must refuse Communion to those who obstinately persist in mortal sin--again, with the intention of helping these individuals come to repentance. Notice that the persistence must also be obstinate--that is, the individual must be forewarned by the Church but choose to continue the mortally sinful situation anyway.

"One example of such behavior would be a Catholic's attempt to contract marriage outside of the Church without the Church's permission. The politician who intentionally supports laws facilitating and promoting abortion presents another example. Such individuals have the right to be readmitted to Holy Communion once they repent of their sinful situation." (p. 98)

"What are some of the reasons for granting an annulment?

"The Code of Canon Law lists several grounds upon which a marriage can be declared invalid. In North America the two most common grounds concern the psychological maturity of either person at the time of the wedding and the intention with which a person attempts marriage.

"Canonists refer to the first ground as 'a grave lack of discretion of judgment.' The second paragraph of canon 1095 outlines this ground. In investigating this ground, the tribunal examines the psychological maturity and the day-to-day judgment of the individual around the time of the wedding. How well was the individual prepared for marriage? How well did the person know his or her future spouse? Did he or she freely choose to marry, or was the wedding a reaction to strong internal pressure? For example, many couples rush into marriage after discovering a premarital pregnancy. The other ground commonly used by North American tribunals is called 'simulation.' Outlined in the second paragraph of canon 1101, simulation concerns the intention of the individual at the time of the wedding. Simulation may be total--that is, the individual goes through the motions of the wedding but truly does not wish to marry. More commonly, simulation is partial: The individual excludes something essential to marriage, such as fidelity to the spouse or openness to having children.

"Several other grounds are available to canonists. Therefore, you should not try to discern potential grounds by yourself when considering the possibility of an annulment. Rather, check with your parish priest or diocesan marriage tribunal." (p. 116-117)

The official website for the book is


Matt Abbott
Matt Abbott - Author,



Catholic, Abbott, canon law

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