Thank you, Sirach. I found this reference:
Despite its spiritual nature, the Church on earth is composed of imperfect human beings. Thus laws are needed, just as in civil society, to protect the rights of the People of God, and also to prescribe their responsibilities as members of the Christian community.
It is important at the outset not to confuse Church law and moral law.... Church law governs the external relationships of individuals in the Christian community. ** In itself it does not bind under pain of sin, although sin may well be involved when Church law is transgressed....**
The direct relationship of the individual to God is governed by a higher law, which includes the moral norms.... Transgression of moral law involves sin.
Canon law requires that its laws must indeed be obeyed, but with the following understanding: When the spiritual needs of the individual or group are such that strict adherence to the law would prove counter-productive, or when there is doubt about how to apply the law to a particular situation, the obligations of the law may be removed by one having the authority [to remove them]....
The Church is a multifaceted society -- all of its various aspects,...even its laws, are ordered to a supernatural end.... By keeping this in mind, we can see the canons not as a collection of restricting rules, but as a guide to living the Christian life within a specific community, the Catholic Church.
-- Thomas P. Doyle OP. Rights and Responsibilities -- A Catholic's Guide to the New Code of Canon Law (Pueblo, 1983).