Canon law makes the mission possible

When Pope Francis announced upcoming changes to rules regarding marriage annulments, it turned a spotlight onto canon law. And though it might seem terribly abstract, in reality, canon law affects answers to nitty-gritty questions of our daily life.

For example, can grandma be cremated when she dies? Are you allowed to get married on the beach? What do you need to do to get an annulment?

The answers to these questions, and many more, are all present in the Code of Canon Law.

Many people, however, don’t know what that is, where it comes from or how it is enforced. They also are frequently afraid of it, most likely because they only heard about it when a request, such as getting married on the beach, was denied.

“Some people automatically think canon law is punitive in nature, but really it is a means of bringing healing and assistance to the Christian faithful,” said Father C. Thomas Miles, adjutant judicial vicar for the Diocese of Charleston.

“Canon law is there to help people understand their rights and obligations as Catholics, and to help us all carry on the mission of the Church,” Father Miles continued.

In order to understand just why canon law is important and why Pope Francis’ recent news was groundbreaking, it might help to take a brief look at the law’s history and the way it functions in the United States.

What is canon law?

It is the body of laws and regulations made or adopted by Church authority for the government of the Church and its members.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the word canon comes from the Greek kanon, meaning rule or practical direction.

Where did it come from?

The law has its roots in the very beginning of Christianity. Many consider the Church’s system of law to be the oldest functioning legal system in Western culture.

In his book “A Handbook on Canon Law” author Joseph T. Martin de Agar describes how early Christian communities took their rules from Scripture, particularly the New Testament, and from apostolic teachings passed on by tradition. Some of these early rules, for instance, were based on the Apostle Paul’s teachings on liturgical celebrations and the obligation to earn a living through work.

Many of the early canons were established by bishops who met at ecumenical councils or local councils. Over the centuries, these norms were supplemented by decretals from popes, either acting on their own or in response to questions or controversies that erupted over points of law. A decretal is essentially a letter from a pope that formalizes a decision in Church law.

How did it evolve?

Church law is said to have evolved in four eras, distinguished by developments in the way the laws were established and compiled. De Agar divides the early ages into the First Millennium, from the foundation of the Church to the middle of the 10th century; Classical Canon Law, mid-1100s to the mid-1500s; and the modern era, spanning the late 16th century to roughly the late 19th century.

The current era, the contemporary period, began with the release of the complete Code of Canon Law of 1917. That was replaced by the 1983 Code overseen by Pope John Paul II, which is the standard in the Latin rite today.

Eastern Catholic churches are governed by a separate but parallel Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, issued in 1990. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops describes this as the first comprehensive code of church law established for the Eastern churches. The separate code is necessary because Eastern churches have different liturgical rites and structures of hierarchy than those in the Roman rite.

What does canon law govern?

The Code sets out norms and processes for all aspects of the life of the Church, including the organization and structure of the hierarchy and church authority, the handling of Church assets, Catholic education, religious orders, the sacraments, liturgical norms, rules for sacred places such as cemeteries, and special times such as feast days.

The 1983 Code allowed for local bishops’ conferences to adjust 84 of the canons in accordance with custom.

Since then, the USCCB has acted on 29 of those, establishing particular legislation for dioceses within the United States. These specific actions are known as Complimentary Norms.

If you attend Mass on one of the usual Holy Days of Obligation or fast during Lent after the age of 18, you do so because of these norms.

Who carries out canon law?

Within a diocese, cases are addressed by a diocesan tribunal. Tribunals assist bishops in fulfilling their judicial ministry for the faithful, in accordance with the Code of Canon Law.

In the Diocese of Charleston, the bishop authorizes the Tribunal to hear cases of people who want to clarify their marital status according to Church teaching.

As an example, the Tribunal would consider the case of people seeking an annulment. For their case to be considered, individuals must show grounds within the frame of Church law and provide members of the Tribunal with the appropriate proof.

Where can I learn more?

The complete 1983 Code of Canon Law is available online at the Vatican website: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website offers some basic information about Canon Law and the Complimentary Norms at


There’s a canon for that

Think canon law doesn’t apply to daily life? Here are three questions that might come up and the canons that give the answers:


Can my fiancee and I get married on the beach?

Not likely. According to Canon 1118, “Marriage between Catholics or between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic party is to be celebrated in a parish church.” Local bishops can also allow couples to be married in another Catholic church or oratory, such as a chapel on a college campus. Catholics who marry non-baptized people can be granted an exception to have the wedding in “some other suitable place” but most dioceses, including the Diocese of Charleston, generally do not permit weddings outdoors.


My relative said they wanted to be cremated when they die. Can Catholics be cremated?

Burial is still the preferred custom but cremation is permitted. According to Canon 1176.3, “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.”


I have celiac disease. Am I allowed to consume a low-gluten host at Communion and is it still considered a valid way to receive the Eucharist?

Yes to both questions. There are now low-gluten hosts available that have been approved and still meet the requirements of Canon 924.2, “The bread must be only wheat and recently made so that there is no danger of spoiling.”