A reader of the blog has drawn to my attention that the Holy Father addressed the Roman Rota on January 21st, and that in his speech he used the phrase “sentire cum ecclesia”. The Roman Rota is, of course (inter alia), the last court of appeal for marriage annulment cases in the Catholic Church, and so it has some connection with the dispute that was going on in the combox under the previous page.
The passage in which he uses the phrase which forms the title of this blog is this:
It follows that interpretation of canon law must occur in the Church. It is not a question of a mere external, environmental circumstance: it is a return to the very “humus” of canon law and the realities it regulates. The dictum “sentire cum Ecclesiae” (thinking or feeling with the Church) is also relevant to disciplinary matters by reason of the doctrinal foundations that are always present and at work in the Church’s legal norms. In this way, there must also be applied to canon law that hermeneutic of renewal in continuity, of which I spoke in reference to Vatican II, which is so closely connected to current canonical legislation. Christian maturity leads one to an ever greater love of the law and a desire that it be faithfully applied.
The whole speech is very interesting from a number of angles – including its place in the future of what will become known (I am sure) as Benedict’s “Hermeneutic of Reform vs. Hermeneutic of Discontinuity” speeches. He uses a variant of that phrase above (“hermeneutic of renewal in continuity” – thus combining both thoughts in the same phrase, something I have not seen him do before).
The basic idea of the speech, as I see it, is that the process of applying Canon Law is not just about applying “the letter of the law” (to swipe a phrase from St Paul), which is what secular lawyers do, always looking for a “loophole” that will enable the outcome the client desires, but rather an activity of faith itself. Again, while he is at it, Pope Benedict picks up the old liturgical adage “lex orandi lex credendi” and modifies it to make it applicable to the exercise of Canon Law: “Lex agendi” (the law of practice) “lex credendi” (the law of faith or believing). I am not quite sure that the translation in Zenit (to which I have linked above – I don’t think this speech is on the Vatican website yet) does justice to the point that the Pope is trying to make. I haven’t read the original but the translation says:
The connection with the topic that I have mentioned — the right interpretation of faith — is not to be reduced to a mere semantic agreement given that canon law has in the truths of faith its foundation and its meaning, and that the “lex agendi” (rule of acting) cannot but reflect the “lex credendi” (rule of believing).
I think the point is that given that canon law has the truths of faith as its foundation and its meaning, one cannot reduce the application of canon law to “mere semantics”. Now, I know that in the combox to the previous post, Gareth was arguing that the fault in relation to the exercise of assessing annulment cases is with Canon Law itself, but it seems that Pope Benedict is saying that things will be vastly improved if canon lawyers interpret and apply Canon Law itself according to the “lex credendi” and not just according to the “mere semantic” meaning of the letter of the law. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”, as St Paul said.
The Pope says:
In recent times some currents of thought have warned against excessive attachment to the Church’s laws, beginning with the Codices, regarding it as a manifestation of legalism. Consequently, there have been proposals for hermeneutic approaches that are more in keeping with the theological bases and also the pastoral intention of the canonical norm, leading to juridical creativity in which the individual situation becomes the decisive factor for grasping the authentic meaning of the legal precept in the concrete case.
Now I don’t think the Pope has any problem with the lawyers applying the law in keeping with “the pastoral intention of the canonical norm” – after all, the very last of the laws in the Code states that “the salvation of souls is the supreme law in the Church” – never the less, it does seem that he has a bone to pick with those who might employ “juridical creativity” in using a kind of situational ethics according to individual cases. This is in fact a kind of “positivism”:
itself to replacing the one positivism with another in which the human interpretive work comes to prominence as the protagonist in determining what is lawful. There is a lack of a sense of an objective law to be discovered since it is subjected to considerations that pretend to be theological and pastoral, but that are, in the end, exposed to the danger of arbitrariness.
So he isn’t speaking against the objectivity of the law when he warns against excessive attention to “mere semantics”. He explains this in reference to his Reichstag speech:
As I wished to explain at my country’s Federal Parliament, in the Reichstag in Berlin, true law is inseparable from justice. Obviously the principle also holds for canon law in the sense that it cannot be shut up in a merely human normative system but must be connected to a just order of the Church in which a superior law reigns.
And this is where he comes back to the saying “Sentire cum Ecclesia”:
In this realistic perspective, the interpretive work, which is occasionally arduous, acquires a meaning and a direction. The use of the interpretive methods foreseen by the Code of Canon Law in canon 17, beginning with “the proper meaning of the words considered in their text and context,” is no longer a mere logical exercise. It is a matter of a task that is enlivened by an authentic contact with the whole reality of the Church, that seeks to penetrate the true meaning of the letter of the law. Something occurs that is similar to what I have said about the interior process of St. Augustine in biblical hermeneutics: “transcending the letter made the letter itself credible.”
There is much more in this very important speech, which I think will give canon lawyers the world over much to think about, but I do hope that we can see here the right way to regard the role of our Tribunals in the Church. It is not their role, nor, it seems, even the Pope’s intention, to hold the letter of the law up for question. Nor is the way out a kind of “pastoral” (read “creative”) application of the law. Rather, it is always to apply the law with the heart of faith, of The Faith, to do faithfully what the Church intends by its laws, for the sake of true justice.