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Canon Law for Today

By Rev. Frank Morrisey

03/18/2015
Rev. Frank Morrisey

The pope has a special and unique role of in the church

A number of canons in Book II of the Code of Canon Law refer to the special canonical duties and responsibilities of the pope. The code does not enter directly into issues relating to liturgical, moral or social matters, which are also a major part of the pope’s mission. We must refer to other documents to study these prerogatives.

Canon 331 mentions a number of canonical titles held by the pope. Among these, we could note: he is Vicar of Christ, head of the college of bishops; pastor of the entire church here on earth, as well as being bishop of the Church of Rome. These responsibilities carry with them, in virtue of his office as universal pastor, supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power throughout the church. The pope is free to use this power as he sees fit.

Besides taking a new name on the occasion of his election — such as Francis — the pope also has many other titles. The most common one is “Holy Father,” a title of respect, while the legal ones used in the code are Roman Pontiff and Supreme Pontiff.

In one of the few instances in the Latin Church where a bishop is elected, the pope is elected as bishop of Rome. The process will be described in the next column.

Among the areas where the pope exercises his particular jurisdiction, we could mention the appointment and acceptance of the resignation of bishops in the Latin Church. In the Eastern Catholic churches, where bishops are elected, this election requires the confirmation of the pope before it takes effect.

It is the pope who establishes new dioceses and, especially due to population shifts, suppresses or unites existing ones.

Of course, the pope is not directly involved in all the preparatory work leading to these decisions, many of which call for lengthy consultation and discernment before they are taken. He is assisted in these tasks by the officials of the Roman Curia, the various offices in Rome which assist in the governance of the entire church.

At the time of this writing, in addition to the secretariate of state, there are a number of congregations, many of which date back centuries, although sometimes under other names; there are also a number of newer entities, usually known as pontifical councils, such as the Council for the Laity. With time, it could be expected that some of these councils will become congregations.

Then there are a number of tribunals and administrative offices which complete the picture. The principle is that the personnel of the Roman Curia is drawn from around the world, although, through tradition and for obvious reasons, a large number of those working there are from Italy.

The pope may resign his office, as we saw with Pope Benedict XVI in 2013. There have been only a few examples through the centuries of popes resigning, but the possibility was there.

Although the diocesan bishop in his diocese also functions as “Vicar and ambassador of Christ” (see Lumen gentium, No. 27), the pope’s authority reinforces and defends that of the bishop. In particular instances, the pope may appoint a temporary administrator to assist a bishop who, for various reasons, such as illness, is unable to see to the proper administration of his diocese.

Sometimes, such an administrator is appointed when there are serious financial or disciplinary troubles in a given diocese. At other times, the pope names an apostolic administrator in the case of vacancy of a see, especially if it is foreseen that it might take some time to find a suitable replacement.

There is no appeal or recourse against a decision of the pope. His decision in a matter is final. If new information were to come to light, a person could always ask the pope to reconsider a previous decision, but there is no obligation on his part to do so.

There is one weakness in the present canonical legislation that might be corrected at some time. There is no provision in the code for a situation where a pope would be, for a prolonged period of time, in a coma, either after an illness or some other unfortunate incident. Of course, a pope could make special provision on his own for this in a document to be used if and when such a situation were to occur.

One special prerogative of the pope is his infallibility in matters relating to faith or morals, when he proclaims a teaching by a definitive act (canon 749). But, as the same canon notes, no doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.

The respect that Catholics show for this office leads to greater unity among all the faithful and enables the church to address in an authoritative manner new issues that have to be faced. It is a particular blessing of the church to have such an office of leadership that has been exercised consistently from the time of Peter, down through the centuries.

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 27th article in a series.