Is canon law a set of guidelines rather than a set of rules?

In our RCIA class, contraception was brought up. Specifically someone mentioned that they thought natural family planning has the same aims as contraception, and so the Church is contradictory for condeming contraception and allowing NFP.

The priest that sits in our RCIA meetings discussed the differences (and I though he did so quite adequately), but said something that struck me as wrong. He said that the issue was moot because our understanding of canon law is incorrect. He says he has a degree in canon law, so I imagine he knows quite a bit about it.

He says that canon law proscribes the ideal goal of life, but is not applied we are accustomed. Our understanding of law comes from English common law, and so we are looking at the issue wrongly. He says that common law is written as an inflexible, minimal set of rules that must be followed under all circumstances. However, canon law is an ideal set of laws designed to help guide us to a more holy life. Exceptions to canon law are allowed and are not infrequent.

For example, he mentions the case where a husband has HIV, and to prevent the spread of infection to his wife he is allowed to use contraception. Ignoring the argument that contraception is not 100% effective, is contraception allowed in this case?

Or consider, if it is known that a man’s wife were to have complications during pregnancy that could result in her or her child’s death if she were to become pregnant, would a vasectomy be allowed under canon law?

Also, given the above “loose application of the law” it seems that an abortion would be permissible in certain situations.

As I understand it, dispensations can be granted. However, the priest’s suggesting was to apply “common sense.” It seems to me that he should have suggested that those that in those situations should discuss privately with their priest or spiritual director the possibility of a dispensation. Rather, his suggestion was for us to decide on our own.

So in summary, is canon law a set of guidelines rather than a set of rules? If he is wrong, how do I, an uneducated person in canon law, respond to his assertions?


Dear Suddy,

Canon Law is not simply a set of guidelines. It is the law of the Catholic Church and Catholics are bound to abide by it. For the distinction between contraception and NFP, I would suggest that you get the book, “Good News About Sex and Marriage” by Christopher West. There you will learn what the Church teaches on the matter. I’m not so sure of the orthodoxy of what your priest would say—canon law degree or not. You can purchase the book through or by phone: 888 291 8000.

As for all the other examples, I suggest that you contact the National Catholic Bioethics Center:
Phone: (215) 877-2660

You deserve to know exactly what the Church teaches and not just the opinions of a local priest.

Fr. Vincent Serpa, O.P.

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