|Understanding Canon Law
Feb. 16, 2003
Defining authority and structure in the church
By Father John Griffiths
Because we are all multidimensional creatures, we necessarily bear multiple identities. One may simultaneously be a father, a son, a spouse, a Christian, an employee, a supervisor and a citizen. Each of those identities makes one a member of several distinct communities, such as a family, a faith community, a company, and a city or nation. Each of those communities is governed by its own set of customs, norms, and laws, which are in no way hostile to the rules of another. It is no mystery then that the church, like a family or a country, rightly has its own internal structure and form of governance.
Americans are understandably most familiar with and likely favor a democratic system of governance. The intent of a democracy is that all members be considered equal and that each persons rights, voice, and power of self-determination be honored. It is not the only system for governing, however, and we are all members of communities or institutions which are less than completely democratic, but which nevertheless strive to embrace some of the same values that a democracy does.
For example, most employees do not experience the workplace as a democracy. There is a chain of command, a clearly defined set of goals and responsibilities, and a contract for salary paid in return for labor performed. Periodic performance reviews demonstrate that supervisor and employee fulfill different though complimentary roles in hierarchical relationship to each other.
Most families also are not democratic. While love is presumed to exist between family members, parents who are raising children rightly exercise a role of guidance and supervision over their offspring. While each members rights are honored and each individuals voice is heard, in the end, the parties are not equal in authority and parents are charged with the responsibility for leadership.
Thus in both the workplace and the family, while democratic values are upheld, the system of governance and decision making is hierarchical and not democratic in nature.
The church as founded by Christ has a hierarchical structure and system of governance, in which the bishop of Rome (the pope) presides over the Universal Church in genuine charity, serving as both the symbol and guarantor of its unity.
This role of unifying leadership dates from the time of St. Peter who was directly appointed by Christ to lead the church. In order to fulfill the mission of the church, the successor of Peter has the authority to appoint bishops as leaders in their respective dioceses, where they in turn exercise a ministry of charity, always striving to unify Christs flock.
While the authority of bishops to shepherd their dioceses comes directly from Christ, they exercise their office authentically only when they are in full communion with the bishop of Rome.
There are three essential powers associated with the office of a bishop: the powers to teach, to govern and to sanctify. Thus as the chief shepherd of a specific portion of the people of God, he is the pre-eminent teacher, shepherd, and priest in the diocese. In collaboration with others, he presides over the prayer life of the local church, safeguards and teaches the apostolic faith and oversees processes or organisms of church governance which foster peoples rights, duties, and growth in faith.
On many matters the churchs canon law, binding even on bishops requires him to consult with his advisors, and in some cases obtain their consent before making a decision or executing some function of episcopal office. On many matters no such consultation or consent is required, but a bishop wisely often seeks it.
The church has long endorsed the principle of subsidiarity, affirming that decisions should be made and disputes resolved at the lowest possible level of authority, with appeals to a higher authority only when such efforts fail.
Thus the diocesan bishop, and not the pope, creates disciplinary policies for his local church. Likewise the local parish pastor is responsible for the pastoral care of his parishioners.
Canon law codifies the churchs teaching that laity, priests, and bishops are in hierarchical communion with one another and with the pope who is Christs vicar. Our internal legal system touches all aspects of church life and is designed to ensure the protection of rights and to assist in the pursuit of justice.
Canon law exists, as the Church does to help Christs people on their way to salvation.
Griffiths is a judge in the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Understanding Canon Law:
Feb. 16 Defining authority and structure in the church
Feb. 2 A trial for a crime in the courts of the church
Jan. 19 The church conducts trials?
Jan. 5 Sacraments and the rights of the faithful
Dec. 22 The churchs listing of rights and duties for everyone
Dec. 8 Guiding the gifts of the Spirit