New Book VI of Code of Canon Law

On the solemnity of the Pentecost, dated May 23, 2021, Pope Francis announced the reformation of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law 1983 with the promulgation of Apostolic Constitution Pascite gregem Dei. Out of 7 Books of the Code of Canon Law 1983, Book VI contains regulations and norms on criminal sanctions in the Church.

Book VI of Code of Canon Law

A brief history of the reform of laws in the Church

     In the context of the new Book VI of Code of Canon Law, it would be interesting to know for the ordinary people what is meant by «reform of a law» in the Church? Well, in the history of the Code of canon law, the first codification process began with the announcement of Pope Pius X on March 19, 1904, who through his motu proprio Arduum sane munus («A truly Arduous Task») set up a commission of cardinals and learned consultors to undertake this demanding task. Almost after a period of 12 years, the new code was completed in 1916. The Code was promulgated on 27 May 1917, the day of Pentecost, with the title «Codex iuris canonici» (the Code of Canon Law), by Pope Benedict XV, the successor of Pope Pius X. It came into force in the following year on 19 May 1918. Since the codification was a dream project of Pope Pius X, and was accomplished in the tenure of Pope Benedict XV, it is also referred to as «Pio-Benedictine Code».

     The second codification of the Code of Canon Law is known as Code of Canon Law 1983. Pope John XXIII, at the time of proclaiming the new Ecumenical Council, also opted to announce the revision of the first Code of Canon Law 1917. However, the revision was not feasible until after the conclusion of Vatican Council II (1962-1965) so that the decision of the Council could guide the revision of the ecclesiastical law. Later, with his motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae, Pope Paul VI, issued the norms to apply the instructions of Vatican Council II to the revised code of canon law. Finally, after several deliberations and revisions, the Code of Canon Law 1983 was promulgated on 25 January 1983 by Pope John Paul II through his Apostolic Constitution Sacrae disciplinae leges. The revised Code of Canon Law came into legal force on 27 November 1983. Until then it was in vatio legis – meaning the «vacation of law» – the time frame between the day of promulgation of law and that of its coming into legal force, during which the promulgated law does not have binding force on its subjects.

Book VI of code of canon law and abrogation

     With its coming into force, the Code of Canon Law 1983 abrogated the former Code of Canon Law. In Latin, the term «abrogation» is defined as «lex tota revocatur» meaning that the «whole law is revoked». It is important to distinguish «abrogation» from «derogation» in that while the former is a «total revocation of law», the latter is only a «partial revocation». The Latin expression used for «derogation» is lex partialiter revocatur.

     In addition, «subrogation» of law is expressed as adiicitur aliquid primae legis, meaning «a law is subrogated when anything is added to the former law». «Obrogation» of law is given as est mutator aliquid ex prima lege, i.e., «a law is obrogated when anything in the former law is changed».

     In the revision process, all four of the terms can occur – law can be abrogated, derogated, subrogated, or obrogated. However, in the current legislation, instead of subrogation and obrogation most commonly terms used are abrogation and derogation of laws. Nevertheless, with the promulgation of the new Book VI of Code of Canon Law, the former Book VI was “abrogated”, i.e., totally revoked.

Reform of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law

     The last paragraph of the Apostolic Constitution Pascite gregem Dei of Pope Francis reads that the Pope decreed the abrogation of the present Book VI of the Code of Canon Law with the entry into force of the new Book VI of Code of Canon Law. This means that the penal sanctions of the former Book VI are “totally revoked” and have no more legal force on its subjects.

What Pope Francis meant by this is, that the texts of the former Book VI of the Code of Canon Law 1983 are totally revoked (lex tota revocatur).

     In his address, Pope Francis also emphasized on the importance of laws and rules in the Church. At the same time, he reiterated the new needs of the «People of God» and the Church according to whom the laws and norms must serve and conform. The Pope also mentioned his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI who initiated the process of revising the penal regulations of Book VI of Code of Canon Law by ordering «Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts» [= PCLT] to undertake this laborious task.

Revision process

     The newBook VI of the Code of Canon Law contains canons 1311 to 1399, a total number of 89 canons. In the revision process, the total number of canons remains intact as it was earlier. However, there have been substantial alterations of norms ordered under the number of paragraphs (§§) along with modifications of norms. As a result of this, 63 canons have been amended (71%), 9 canons are shifted to other sets of canons (10%), and only 17 canons remain unchanged (19%). Hence, we see that the new Book VI undergoes a substantial change. There are three main guiding principles that led to the revision of Book VI.

First principle of revision of Book VI

     First, the revised texts of Book VI of Code of Canon Law adequately determine the penal norms to give a precise and clear guidance to the authorities and superiors. In order to give fair justice, laws must be objective and uniform. As compared to the former Book VI, the revised texts provide less ambiguity. In addition, the revised texts provide less discretionary power to the authority, i.e., Bishops and superiors in penal matters without, however, eliminating completely the necessary discretion required of them. The new text contains reference parameters to evaluate specific circumstances of the offense. Can. 1336 lists the expiatory penalties under specific categories: §2 contains an order, §3 a prohibition, §4 a deprivation, and §5 the dismissal from the clerical state.

Second principle of revision of Book VI

     The second guiding principle for the revision of Book VI of Code of Canon Law is to make the instrumentality of penal sanctions a part of the ordinary form of pastoral governance of communities. In doing so, the new text seeks to provide protection of the community with the focus on «restoration of justice», «repair of scandal or damage done», and the «correction of the offender». A strong emphasis is placed on the «pastoral care» (caritas pastoralis) which consists of the imposition of a penal precept (cf. can. 1319 §2), and the initiation of the sanctioning procedure (cf. can. 1341), on the condition when the restoration of justice, repair of scandals and correction of the offender are not sufficiently achieved by other means. The new text hence redefines the «pastoral care» and act of mercy in not letting the offender escape, but to ensure a sure means in which true justice is served by restoration of justice, repair of damage, and the reform of the offender. Hence, the remission of penalty is not to be given until and unless, from the prudent judgment of the authority, the offender has repaired the scandal (cf. can. 1361 §4).

Third principle of revision of Book VI

     The third principle is that the new Book VI of Code of Canon Law (penal sanctions) are aimed at providing a means to the Pastors for their timely intervention to prevent the offenses, to correct the situations, and to prevent the situations from aggravating further.

     Apart from the above three principles, the new penal sanctions also ascertain the need to observe all requirements of the «right of defense», and to achieve moral certainty regarding the conclusive decision. In addition, the emphasis is laid down on the obligation of the authority to maintain the same attitude of independence that is required of a judge (cf. can. 1342 §3). The new texts accord to the Ordinary – Bishops and superiors – an instrument of penal remedies, namely, admonition, reprimand, penal precepts, and vigilance.