Woman, Canon Law on

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The Second Vatican Council effected a notable shift in the ecclesial perspective of woman and major changes in her canonical status in the universal law of the Church. Biblical and theological insights, the concept of the Church as communio, conciliar regard for significant human values such as the human dignity and social advancement of persons, resulted in a significant change in the Church's attitude toward woman. This gradual evolution can be traced through the antepreparatory and preparatory documents, conciliar discussions, and the definitive texts of the council. Pope John XXIII in Pacem in terris addressed the social progress of woman and decried the deprivation of her fundamental rights in many parts of the world. Conciliar documents, particularly Lumen gentium 32, Gaudium et spes 9, 29, 60 and Perfectae caritatis 15, addressed woman's dignity as person, her equality with man, and corresponding rights and responsibilities in the mission of Christ.

The 1967 ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops affirmed the fundamental equality of all the Christian faithful. Discussions during the various ordinary assemblies of the Synod of Bishops reflected in the apostolic exhortations on ministry, justice, evangelization, and catechetics challenged the inferior ecclesial status of woman evidenced in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. The sixth principle of the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law ordered that the fundamental equality of all persons regardless of their functional and ministerial diversity be protected in the revised code.

With few exceptions, the Christian faithful share a common juridic status in the 1,752 canons of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Women are recognized in law as members of the Christian faithful, baptized in Christ, incorporated into the Church, and constituted persons with duties and rights proper to Christians in accord with their condition (c. 96). Consonant with baptism, each of the faithful in accord with his or her own proper condition participates in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly functions of Christ (c. 204). All of the Christian faithful enjoy a true equality and dignity and cooperate in building up the Body of Christ in accord with their condition and function (c. 208). Women are members of the laity (c. 207 §1) or consecrated to God through the profession of the evangelical counsels by means of vows or other sacred bonds recognized and sanctioned by the Church (c. 207 §2). Women as members of the Christian faithful share with men the rights and obligations set forth in the canons (cc. 208223). Likewise, lay women share rights and obligations with lay men (cc. 224231). Women enjoy an equal status with men in the determination of domicile (c. 104), in changing rite at the time of marriage (c. 112 §1, 2°), in establishing associations of the faithful (c. 299 §1) or joining them (c. 298), and in choosing a place of Christian burial (c. 1177).

Teaching Function. Canon 766 provides that lay persons can be permitted to preach in a church or oratory if necessity requires it, or it seems advantageous in particular cases in accord with the prescripts of the conference of bishops without prejudice to the prescriptions for the homily (c. 767 §1). When sacred ministers are not available and the needs of the Church require it, lay people, though neither lectors nor acolytes, can supply certain of their functions. In such cases, both lay men and women can exercise the ministry of the word, preside over liturgical prayers, confer baptism, and distribute holy communion in accord with the provisions of law (c. 230 §3). Parents have the primary right and obligation for the education of their children (c. 793). Canon 830 §1 includes the laity among the censors chosen by local ordinaries or submitted on a list made available to diocesan curias by the conference of bishops for judging books.

Sanctifying Function. Canon 861 §2 provides that when an ordinary minister is absent or impeded, a catechist or some other person deputed by the local ordinary, or indeed any person in case of necessity, who has the right intention may lawfully confer baptism. In accord with canon 230 §2, a lay person can receive a temporary deputation as lector in liturgical actions. The norm also provides that the laity can exercise the roles of commentator, cantor, or other liturgical services in accord with law. In 1992, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts gave an affirmative reply to the question of female altar servers. This authentic interpretation of canon 230 §2 was followed by a letter, dated April 12, 1994, from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments advising presidents of conferences of bishops of the decision, and providing that each diocesan bishop, having heard the opinion of the episcopal conference, would make a prudential judgment on the matter in his own diocese in accord with the development of liturgical life. In the absence of sacred ministers, a lay person can serve as an extraordinary minister of holy communion (cc. 230 §3, 910 §2). In the absence of priests and deacons, the diocesan bishop can delegate lay persons to assist at marriages if the bishops' conference has voted favorably and the diocesan bishop has obtained permission from the Holy See (c. 1112). Laity who possess the appropriate qualities can, with the permission of the local ordinary, administer certain sacramentals in accord with the prescribed liturgical books (c. 1168).

Governing Function. Suitable lay persons are capable of being admitted by sacred pastors to those ecclesiastical offices and functions which, in accord with the provisions of law, they can discharge (c. 228 §1). In accord with their knowledge, prudence, and integrity, qualified lay persons can assist pastors as experts and advisors even in councils according to the norms of law (c. 228 §2). Lay persons may be appointed as chancellors or vice-chancellors in the diocesan curias (c. 482). Lay persons may be appointed as diocesan notaries (cc. 482 §3; 483 §1). The conference of bishops can permit a lay person of good repute and possessing a doctorate or at least a licentiate in canon law to be appointed as a judge in a collegiate tribunal (c. 1421 §2 §3). In any trial a sole judge can employ two assessors as advisors who can be lay persons of good repute (c. 1424). A bishop can approve lay persons outstanding for their good character, prudence, and doctrine for the function of auditor (c. 1428 §1, §2). The presiding judge may designate a lay judge of the collegiate tribunal as ponens or relator in order to present the case at the meeting of the judges and set out the judgment in writing (c. 1429). A lay person may be appointed as a promoter of justice (c. 1430) or defender of the bond in a diocese (c. 1432). The laity may participate in a particular council with a consultative vote (c. 443 §3, 2 degree, §4 §5). Lay persons may be designated by the diocesan bishop to participate in a pastoral council (c. 512 §1). Lay persons can be part of the parish council presided over by the parish priest (c. 536 §1). Lay persons can be members of the parish finance committee assisting the parish priest in the administration of the goods of the parish (c. 537). Due to a shortage of priests, the diocesan bishop can entrust a lay person or a community of persons a share in the pastoral care of a parish (c. 517 §2). The bishop can appoint a lay person as diocesan financial officer (c. 494). Lay persons can be appointed by the ordinary as administrators of public juridic persons subject to him (c. 1279 §2). A lay person may be designated to represent the Apostolic See as a delegate or observer at international councils, conferences, or meetings (c. 363 §2).

Discriminatory Canons. While the present legislation shows a marked improvement and places women in an enhanced juridic condition vis-à-vis the former code, there remain a few discriminatory norms. Only laymen (viri laici ) can be formally installed as lectors or acolytes (c. 230 §1). This norm seems clearly inconsistent and discriminatory toward women, inasmuch as Pope Paul VI in his motu proprio Ministeria quaedam of August 15, 1972 proclaimed the functions of lector and acolyte to be lay ministries in the Church. A few norms in the code's section on consecrated life reflect a discriminatory stance toward women religious. Nuns (women religious professing solemn vows) who live a life totally dedicated to contemplation do not have equality with monks with regard to cloistral regulations (c. 667 §2 §3 §4). While male religious in various monasteries can order their cloister in accord with their constitutions (c. 667 §2), nuns are subject to papal norms on cloister prescribed in canon 667 §3 and the instruction Verbi sponsa. These norms endure despite the directive principle of the coetus on consecrated life and the provision of canon 606 which state that the norms for institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life be applied equally to both sexes, unless determined otherwise from the context or from the nature of things. Undoubtedly, the predominant issue in the ongoing discussion of the legal condition of women is their exclusion from ordained ministry (c.1024), which precludes their capacity for the care of souls and the exercise of ecclesiastical power of governance (c. 129 §1). These latter powers (orders and jurisdiction) distinguish clerics by divine institution (divina institutione ) from the laity (c. 207 §1). Ecclesiastical authorities, biblical scholars, theologians, and historians have addressed the issue of women's ordination at length over the last 30 years. On May 22, 1994, Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, stated that the Church is not able to ordain women to the priesthood.

Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (CCEO). The common law for the Eastern churches likewise reflects conciliar and postconciliar teachings on the fundamental equality and dignity of persons. A review of the canons shows that women share an equal juridical status with laymen with few exceptions. While a wife is free to transfer to the church of her husband at the celebration of or during the marriage and can freely return to the original church when the marriage has ended, there is no mention in the norm of the husband transferring to the church of his wife (c. 33). A chancellor in the CCEO is to be a presbyter or a deacon (c. 252 §1), and there is no provision in the code for a layperson assuming the pastoral care of a parish (c. 287 §2). While the Latin code provides that no valid marriage can take place between a woman and the man who abducted or at least detained her for the purpose of entering marriage (c. 1089), the Eastern code recognizes the abduction or detention of a person (man or woman) by another for the purpose of marriage as an invalidating impediment to marriage (c.806).

[r. mcdermott]