Laity, Canon Law

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The 1983 Code of Canon Law is unique in the history of Church legislation in the prominence it gives to lay members of the Christian Faithful. In the 1917 Code, laity were mentioned in two canons. One stated that laity had a right to receive from clergy the spiritual goods of the church and the second prohibited laity from wearing clerical dress unless they were seminarians. The 1983 Code, as the canonical articulation of Vatican II, is conspicuously different in its approach to and inclusion of laity. Most notably, reflecting the teaching of Vatican II, book II of the Code, "The People of God," is restructured to begin with a treatment of the Christian faithful, clergy and laity alike, their place in the Church their obligations and rights (cc. 204223), and then the rights and obligations of the lay Christian Faithful in particular (cc. 224231). In addition, laity are the particular concern of the final section of book II, "Associations of the Christian Faithful" (cc. 298329).

Particularly significant in the canons on all the Christian Faithful are: the statement that all the baptized share in Christ's priestly prophetic and royal functions and in the mission "which God has entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world" (c. 204 § 1); all the Christian Faithful enjoy "true equality regarding dignity and action" by which each one builds up the body of Christ (c. 208 § 1); that each one has the right and duty to lead a holy life (c.210) and receive the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments (c. 213); all are at liberty to join together in associations, by their own initiative, for purposes of "charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world" (c. 215).

Two stipulations of the 1983 Code, both radical departures from the former Code, form the basis for much lay involvement in the inner life of the Church. First, laity are eligible to hold ecclesiastical offices (cc.145, 228 §1) and second, laity may cooperate in the exercise of the power of governance (c. 129). Many questions surround the scope and implementation of these canons, especially the second, and study of them is ongoing.

In addition to these pervasive provisions of the law, laity are specifically mentioned with respect to a number of activities to which they may be invited by the hierarchy. A qualified lay person may serve as chancellor of a diocese (c. 483), or in a variety of marriage tribunal positions, including judge (cc. 1421, 1428, 1435), or on diocesan or parish finance councils (cc. 492494, 537) or pastoral councils (c. 512). Some laity on a diocese must be invited to participate in a diocesan synod (c. 463). When there is a dearth of priests, laity may be entrusted with participation in the pastoral care of a parish (c. 517, § 2). All qualified laity may be invited to serve as experts and advisors to bishops and pastors (c. 228 §2).

In the liturgical life of the church, lay men may be permanently installed as lectors or acolytes (c. 230 § 1). All qualified lay persons may be invited to serve as readers, commentators, cantors (c. 230 § 2), and when warranted because of need, laity may be invited to preach, preside at prayer, confer baptism and distribute the Eucharist (c. 230 § 3). Laity may be delegated to assist at weddings (c. 1112), administer sacramentals (c. 1168), preach in churches (c. 766), and be commissioned as missionaries (c. 784) or catechists (c. 785)

In virtue of their own proper role in the mission of the Church received in baptism, laity share in the Church's teaching office by witnessing to the gospel in their lives (c. 759) and by having concern for catechesis (c. 774 § 1). From the same baptismal foundation, laity share in the Church's sanctifying office through their active participation in liturgical celebrations, especially the Eucharist (c. 835 § 4).

Those lay persons who are married receive particular attention in the 1983 Code. A married couple, in living out their vocation, are to build up the people of God (c. 226, § 1). Those couples who are also parents have the obligation and right to educate their children in the faith (c. 226 § 2). This role of parents with respect to the faith formation of their children is repeated and emphasized a number of times, especially in the canons on sacramental preparation (For instance, see cc. 851, 868, 872, 890, 914, 1063, 1°). In circumstances other than sacramental preparation, the role of parents is no less diminished. They are to set an example of faith for their children by word and example (c. 774 § 2) and are given a "most grave duty and primary right" to care for their children in all aspects of life, physical, social, moral, cultural and religious (c. 1136; see also cc. 793 and 1252).

Despite the significant changes clearly seen from the 1917 Code to the 1983 Code, there are some weaknesses. First, many of these statements on laity, especially the enumerations of the obligations and rights, are so new to the law that they are neither fully implemented nor fully understood. Related to this is concern that the enumerated rights are not sufficiently complemented with structures for the vindication of rights. Also, authors have noted the Code's omission of the role of charism in determining a lay person's activity within the Church (see AA 3; LG 12,13), which raises significant canonical questions about the foundation of lay ministries undertaken.

Bibliography: j. beal, et al., eds., New Commentary of the Code of Canon Law (Mahwah 2000). f. mcmanus, "Laity in Church Law: New Code, New Focus," The Jurist 47 (1987) 1131. e. pfnausch, ed., Code, Community, Ministry (Washington, DC 1992). Lay Ecclesial Ministry: The State of the Questions (Washington, DC 1999).

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Laity, Canon Law

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