The promulgation of the Vatican’s revised code of canon law, signed last week by Pope John Paul II, seemed almost anticlimactic. The substantial 20-year overhaul of the code, the first since 1917, finally enshrines the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), many of which are already in practice. But Canada’s community of 10.5 million Roman Catholics gave it only mixed reviews. Church leaders were gratified by the new code’s strong support of decentralization. But activist nuns were disappointed that it continues to bar women from even the lowest ranks of ordained clergy.
The church’s most contentious doctrines, such as those prohibiting abortion and birth control, are unchanged. But the new document stresses the rights of the laity, gives local bishops more power, and reduces the daily obligations required of Catholics. At the same time, the number of offences punishable by excommunication has been reduced from 37 to six, including the church-defined sins of voluntary abortion and physically harming the Pope.
Rev. Francis Morrisey, dean of the faculty of canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa, welcomed the changes. “I like comparing the new code to the Canadian Constitution,” he said. “It is j going to mean an awful lot but it is going to take a little while. We don’t wake up the next morning and see the difference.” Morrisey estimates that the code granted Canadian bishops 80 per cent of the changes they were seeking. The code does, however, forbid the clergy from participating in politics. But Bishop Remi De Roo of Victoria, a member of a committee of bishops that recently accused Ottawa of sacrificing working people for profits, said last week that he believes the restriction applies only to partisan politics.
On other fronts reform-minded bishops both won and lost terrain. Grounds for annulment have been broadened, and the administration of marriage courts has been opened up to the laity— both men and women. But the new code rescinds a special 1974 provision that allowed Canadian marriage cases to be processed more easily.
The revised code contains 1,752 canons—whittled down from 2,414—but about 400 of them allow for local “adaptations.” Rev. Bernard Prince, assistant secretary-general with the Canadian Conference of Bishops in Ottawa, said that Canadian dioceses in native communities will now have more leeway to
incorporate local cultural traditions once branded as pagan.
But Sister Margaret Brennan, a teacher at Toronto’s St. Regis College, was disappointed that the code’s expanded latitude falls short of allowing the ordination of women. Brennan reserved a final judgment until she can
see the exact text of the canons. But she contended that the document does not appear to live up to its own egalitarian principles. Says Brennan: “It looks like they have gone out of their way to keep us out.”
In the United States the National Coalition of Nuns has already condemned the new code. But St. Paul’s Morrisey expects a more conciliatory attitude from Canadian nuns. “We wished the code could have gone further, but the rest of the church in other parts of the world wasn’t ready for it.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.