The Society’s involvement in the Revision of the 1983 Code

The Society’s involvement in the Revision of the 1983 Code

A significant contribution made by the Canon Law Society was its involvement in the revision of the Code of Canon Law. Pope John XXIII had announced the Council in 1959, and later on he also directed that, as a result of the Second Vatican Council, there would need to be a new Code of Canon Law. This would replace the old Pio-Benedictine Code. Already between 1917 and 1959 there had been changes in the Law. Most of these changes had not been by new legislation but by dispensation.

The Second Vatican Council issued a momentous statement called Christus Dominus on 28th October 1965, dealing with the pastoral office of Bishops in the Church. Subsequently a document implementing Christus Dominus called Ecclesiae Sanctae was issued on 6th August 1966. This indicated the scale of the changes to be made in the revision of the Code. The Commission of Cardinals for the Revision of the Code had already been established by Pope John XX111. Shortly before the end of the Council in 1965 Pope Paul V1 had inaugurated the work of the Commission. The first question put to the Commission by the Pope was Should there be a Code for the West and a Code for the East, and if so, should there be some common form of principles of law for these churches?This matter concerned the Code Commission for some years. In 1980 it was decided that there would be no common Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis; but there would be Codes for the East and for the West. Long prior to this decision, the Canon Law Society had already been involved in comment on the Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis from 1972 onwards. The view of the Working Party of the Society had been against the Lex. [A summary of the report by the Society can be found in CLSN 146, June 2006, and the whole report can be found in CLSN 10, September 1971]. The CLSN Report was sent to Rome in September 1972 as the view of the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales.

The Society participated in comment on all the Schemata of the Revised Code as they appeared. Considerable work was put into the comment on De Poenis together with work on De Sacramentis; likewise on De Processibus. The last two of these generated meetings in 1976 and 1977 in Dublin and in Ottawa, involving English speaking

Canonists from throughout the world. The comments on each of the Schemata were presented by the Society to the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales (by this time Cardinal George Basil Hume was a member of the Commission of Cardinals for the Revision of the Code). The Bishops were warm in their thanks and congratulations to the Society for the reports which were adopted by the Bishops and sent to Rome as their own comment.


The work of the Code Commission was concluded with a draft of the Code which was put to the Pope on the Feast of SS Peter and Paul in 1980. A meeting of the Code Commission took place in October 1981 to consider six special questions posed by the Secretariat of the Commission and 35 other questions raised by the Members themselves.

Cardinal Hume attended the meeting in October 1981. He took as his advisers Monsignor Gerard Sheehy and the undersigned, who was President at the time. The details of the meeting are described by another Member of the Commission, Bishop Joseph OConnell, Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne.

The part played by Cardinal Hume can be seen from the specially published Relatio of that meeting. From that time onwards the Cardinal always regarded himself as an expert in Canon Law. Cardinal Felici, (Left) the Secretary of the whole meeting, complimented Cardinal Hume on his elegant Latin used in his interventions. Since these had been written by Monsignor Sheehy, everyone was pleased! (see Congregatio plenaria, 20-29 October 1981: Vat. Polyglott Press). The Cardinals interventions can be seen in the index of the Relatio).

After this lengthy gestation, the new Code was finally promulgated on 25th January 1983. As the Holy Father pointed out, this was some 34 years after Pope John XXIII had announced the Second Vatican Council. It was a little after 12.30 that Pope John Paul II signed the Apostolic Constitution Sacrae disciplinae leges which formed part of the introduction of the printed Code. This was at a private ceremony in the Sala del Concistorio. Present with the Holy Father were Cardinal Casaroli, the Secretary of State, Archbishop Martinez Somala, the Sostituo, Archbishop Silvestrini, Secretary of the Council for Public Affairs of the Church, Archbishop Castillo Lara, pro-President to the Commission for the Revision of the Code, Archbishop Fagiolo of Chieti, and Bishop Grocholewski, Secretary of the Signatura Apostolica.

Pope John Paul II signed the apostolic constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges promulgating the revised Code of Canon Law for the Roman Catholic Church and on Thursday 3rd February 1983 there was a public ceremony in the Aula della Benedizione in the Vatican. This was the solemn presentation of the new Code in the presence of the Holy Father. On this occasion he addressed a large gathering of Cardinals, Bishops and the diplomatic corps, members and consultants of the Code Commission, of the Pontifical Universities and the academic world. The pro-President of the Commission, Archbishop Castilo Lara had invited the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland to be present to be represented at the ceremony. The President of the CLS arranged that Monsignor Gerard Sheehy should be his representative. The Code was to take effect on the first Sunday of Advent, namely 27th November 1983. So, apparently, ended an enormous volume of work for the Society. (The address of Cardinal Castillo Lara can be found in CLSN 56, March 1983) 

Monsignor Ralph Brown

Cardinal Castillo-Lara attended the 1986 Conference of the Society in Dublin.  Pictured here on his right is Father Gordon Read; and on his left Father Donal Kelly.

Cardinal Castillo-Lara attended the 1986 Conference of the Society in Dublin. Pictured here on his right is Father Gordon Read; and on his left Father Donal Kelly.