Question about authority of canon law

I was raised Catholic, but spent about 35 years as a protestant before coming back to the church. Consequently I picked up some views which may or may not be in line with Catholic thinking. This probably classifies me as a beginner in this area, so please be gentile :slight_smile:

I’ve been thinking about what the differences are between Catholic and Jewish views of tradition. What I’m wondering about right now is the inspirational aspect. As I understand it, rabbis don’t claim any kind of inspiration, they simply see themselves as having been put in charge. It’s up to them to make good decisions about the practices allowed in Judaism, so they developed a “standardized” way of reasoning about it.

Catholics do claim inspiration in a limited sense. I don’t believe that extends to canon law, but that’s part of my question here. Let’s say I’m right about that for the sake of argument, to what extent then would canon law be authoritative?

In other words, if the only source of infallibility is the Pope speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith or morals, is canon law capable of question? Is it absolutely binding?

I hesitate to ask this question because I’m pretty sure I’ll be taken as an advocate for some kind of craziness or other, but that’s not what this is about.



Hi, Joe! You’re not crazy, and I hope you get some worthwhile responses. I do know that for instance that when I was young we were told that to eat meat on Friday was a mortal sin. With Vatican 2 that was changed, it is no longer taught as being a mortal sin.

It’s isn’t wrong to question…that’s what theologians do, question, examine, sort out what is true or not. Especially as one who spent years as a Protestant, you may need to research proper authority carefully to answer your questions.

The claim to inspiration comes from Jesus’ promises to the first priests…to the Church He set up with them.

“When the Advocate comes, whom I shall send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father, He will be my witness. And you too will be my witnesses.” [John 15: 26-27] “When He comes, He will show the world how wrong it was, about sin…and about judgement” and “about who was in the right: proved by my going to the Father…proved by the prince of this world already being condemned.”

Jesus promised, “I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now.** But when the Spirit comes He will lead you to the complete truth…All He tells you will be taken from what is mine**.” “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but indeed…to the ends of the earth.” [John 16:8-9, 12-13, 15]

Before His ascension, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. **And know that I am with you always, yes even to the end of time.” **[Matthew 28:17-20]

Good luck with your reading…and is there a wise, learned priest whom you may consult?

So are you saying that canon law is inspired? If so, how could it no longer be a sin to eat meat on Friday? What does “inspiration” mean in this context?



You are correct in your initial belief that Canon Law is not in the same category as Doctrine.

To illustrate the difference, consider the case of parents and children. There are some beliefs which all Christian parents are required to teach their children - do not steal, do not be sexually promiscuous, etc. And there are other rules that each family imposes individually upon their children - what TV programs they may watch, or what time their curfew is, etc.

These “required” teachings are what the Church would consider Doctrine - it cannot ever change because it is Truth.

The other “rules” such as curfew time is what the Church considers Canon Law. Just as the “rules” of a household may change to adapt to the circumstances of the children, Canon Law may change as the Church deems appropriate to adapt to the circumstances of society. And Canon Law is not dictated by Rome, but by the local Bishops. The Canon Law of the United States is not the same as it is in other countries (but Catholic Doctrine is the same for all people in all places at all times).

But, as far as a child is concerned, there is very little difference if his parents tell him “do not steal” or “be home by ten.” The child may recognize that one command comes from God and one from his parents, but the child has an obligation to obey BOTH of these authorities. The child has no right to reject his curfew simply because Jesus himself didn’t mandate it.

Likewise, faithful Catholics are expected to obey both the Doctrines AND the rules of the Church. We promise to do so at our Baptism (perhaps by proxy) and also at our Confirmation (by an act of our own free will). Priests (and Deacons and Bishops) reaffirm this promise at their Ordination.

Various rules (such as regarding eating meat on Friday) do not have the weight of Doctrine (because Our Lord did not mandate it) but these rules are still binding upon Catholics because we PROMISE to obey BOTH the Doctrines AND the rules of the Catholic Church. It is sinful to break ANY promise, so we sin if we disobey the rules of the Church which we have promised to obey. But the Church may change these rules as She sees fit, just as a parent can change the rules of a household.

Nice little Freudian slip there.


… to what extent then would canon law be authoritative?

In other words, if the only source of infallibility is the Pope speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith or morals, is canon law capable of question? Is it absolutely binding?

Another source of infallibility, by the way, is an ecumenical (worldwide) council of bishops teaching definitively on the Catholic faith, with the backing of the pope. But anyway…More in a minute…


Great post, other than the underlined part. Canon Law is universal, not local. Commentaries on it, of course, may vary from region to region, or country to country. But the law itself is the same across the board. I believe there are two codes in total, across the universal Church: The Code of Canon Law, and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, one covering the West, and the other covering all the East(ern Churches).




Does David’s post make sense? He explained it very well, I think.


Yes, except that I recall being told that I would go to hell for eating meat on Friday. I suppose that might have just been over zealous nuns though :slight_smile:


Catholics don’t view anyone as “inspired” except the Apostles and the writers of the Sacred Scriptures. Canon Law does not define Doctrine, it does reflect Doctrine, but is the hows and why’s of Catholic practice, not belief.

Canon Law is not infallible, but neither is it doctrine. It’s legislative and juridical in nature.

It is authoritative and it is binding on Catholics.

No, it is not “inspired”. It is human in origin.

Eating meat is not sinful. If it were, it would sinful on every day of the week. It has never been a sin to eat meat.

What is sinful is disobeying the authority of the Church. The Church has laws governing the practice of penance.

Under the old Canon all Catholics were required to perform the *same *penance on each Friday by abstaining from meat. Under today’s code of Canon Law, a person may *choose *their form of penance-- it does not have to be abstaining from meat, but it can be. The requirement of penance remains.

I haven’t explained my question adequately, let me try again.

What we have today is not the first-century church, in fact, what we have today is quite different than anything described in the New Testament. This isn’t a criticism, I’m simply pointing out that a lot has changed. My question is about how I should see those changes.

Your comment “What is sinful is disobeying the authority of the Church” is an example of the kind of thing I’m wondering about. This view is itself a development, not something given explicitly in scripture. Some process of reasoning gave rise to it, it’s not self-evident.

Let me give an extreme example of what I mean (an example I hope won’t be taken as a characterization of your comment - it’s not meant that way at all). During my wanderings in Protestantism I was a member of the Church of Christ. Their unifying doctrine is “We speak where the bible speaks, and we are silent where the bible is silent”. This statement is unquestioned among members of that church. However, it involves a self-contradiction because the bible itself does not require this, so they wind up speaking where the bible is silent.

So, in the reasoning process that went on in determining canon law, it’s possible for mistakes to have been made as well, is it not? If not, why not?

Again, please take this as an academic question if you like, I’m not trying to prove anything, I’d just like to understand some things a little better.



…The “weight” of a given man-made law can indeed be such that a violation of that law is mortal. Just because the law is not directly inspired by God does not, therefore, mean it is not serious.

Whether or not violating the law in question rose (rises during Lent still) to the degree of “grave/serious” is a matter of some debate. I myself disagree with the idea that this would be mortal. But then, I’m just me, so…


For my own purposes of understanding, can you provide an example of a hypothetical mistake that you might have in mind in Canon Law?


If it’s a matter of some debate, what is it’s status?

Eating or not eating meat on Friday seems rather too arbitrary a thing to go to hell for. Even if it’s not open for debate.



I’m not sure I can, I’m still trying to get a hold on the idea actually.

I don’t know if the eating meat on Friday thing is a matter of canon law or not, but if it is, I’d be tempted to call that a mistake.

I have tried reading canon law, but honestly I can’t understand that any more than I understand my mortgage papers. My question really is more academic than practical, I’d like to have some idea what canon law is, what it does, why I should care about it.

If it can send me to hell, how do I deal with it since I can’t even read it with any comprehension at all?



See…That would be my reasoning. Eating and drinking, unless it has something directly to do with the Eucharist, just doesn’t qualify in my mind for grave matter. It just doesn’t…But then, that’s me. I’ve been wrong about other stuff before, so…



P.S. As for the “status”, I didn’t mean to imply that there is an active public debate going on at the moment, only that some hold one opinion about it and others hold another…

Ok…The more you go on, the more clear you’re making your position, so…Here’s to hoping we can do the same for you. :wink:

I guess the very first thing I want to say about Canon Law would actually be - Don’t worry about it. As far as daily Catholic living goes, it rarely plays a part in a Catholic individual’s life. It’s really more for Church authorities than it is for us lay folk. (Which is part of the reason you can’t understand it. :wink: ) If there is anything in Canon Law that you need to know about as a matter of practical living (such as the obligation to do penance on Fridays), you’re going to hear about it by other means. You shouldn’t need to be studying Canon Law to find this stuff out.

The next thing I want to say is something that’s already been said - that Canon Law is a set of laws the Church issues to help regulate Catholic living. They are laws, not doctrines. Thus, no canon would ever really be a matter of “right” or “wrong”, as much as “appropriate” or “inappropriate”, I would say, if anything. “Up to speed” or “outdated” maybe.

The canon regarding doing penance on Fridays, as I recall, does not specify that “eating meat on Fridays is a mortal sin”. It simply says something to the effect that all Catholics are obliged to do penance on Fridays and what specific form that penance will take corporately is up to the local bishops’ conference. That’s all it says. (As I recall.)

So…At some point, you’ll no doubt come across someone who can provide you with a more scholarly explanation. In the meantime, as a lifelong Catholic, I would simply suggest that you not worry too much about it.

I hope that helps some?


Canon 1024 states that a baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly. Those who consider this canon to be outdated, so that the Church should really start ordaining women, are generally called heretics on this forum.

Yes, thanks very much.


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