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James J. ConnNovember 25, 2000
New Commentary on the Code of Canon Lawby Edited by John P. Beal, James A. Coriden, and Thomas J. GreenPaulist. 1,952p $89.95

The United States has but one graduate program in canon law, and many seminaries and theologates do not have a full-time canonist among their professors. Much of the extensive U.S. research in canon lawwhich covers a broader spectrum of ecclesial concerns than the law governing the nullity of marriageis ably produced by the men and women who staff diocesan tribunals and chanceries and who convene each October as the Canon Law Society of America. Since the Second Vatican Council, the C.L.S.A. has had a major role in commissioning and editing publications that have served the canonical reference needs not just of academic specialists, but of diocesan officials, pastors, seminarians and lay leaders in the church. Most significant among the C.L.S.A. projects were its prompt translation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law and a mammoth commentary on its contents published in 1985. Until the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland published a similar volume a decade later, the C.L.S.A.’s big burgundy book was the only such resource available in English and could be found on a bookshelf or as a doorstop in most Catholic clergymen’s studies.

The many satisfied readers of the 1985 commentary may reasonably ask whether another is necessary or useful. They should know, first of all, that the 2000 commentary is what its title claims, namely, a New Commentary, not a second edition. Its format and audience are like those of 1985: a canon-by-canon translated text from the 1983 code with expository and explanatory comments intended for a theologically literate readership not necessarily trained as specialists in canon law. Helpful, accurate footnotes can be found throughout, along with a fine updated bibliography at the end of each section. Two of the three editors are the same: Msgr. Thomas Green of The Catholic University of America and the Rev. James Coriden of the Washington Theological Union. They are joined by the Rev. John Beal, currently chair of C.U.A.’s canon law department. All three are respected and productive teachers and scholars in their own right, well networked among C.L.S.A. members, and broadly and deeply in touch with the church’s pastoral concerns.

But the New Commentary differs from its predecessor in a variety of ways. First, though longer in the number of pages, it is not nearly so (literally) heavy or awkwardly large as its predecessor (the downside being the thinner pages’ non-resistance to highlighters). Completed with more time and better scholarly sources than were available in the early 80’s, the overall quality of its contributions is much more even. It includes an altogether new U.S. translation of the 1983 code, yet another C.L.S.A. publication produced in 1998. Not previously reviewed in these pages, the 1998 volume corrects a few errors in the 1983 translation, is more precise and consistent in construing the Latin original, and adds the English text of some important post-code documents. It also includes in English translation an extensive alphabetical index and invaluable footnotes indicating the canons’ sources, neither of which was published in Latin by the Vatican until 1989.

There are many new voices among the contributors, who also reflect the increasingly less clerical C.L.S.A. membership. The 36 authors are half again as many as wrote for the 1985 book; about three-fourths of the authors did not contribute to the older work, and one-fourth are lay persons or women religious. They represent a good variety of academic backgrounds (European, U.S., Canadian) and professional experience. Most authors appear to have been chosen for their special expertise and previous writing in the area of the code for which they are contributors. At first glance the assignment of material to authors may seem fragmented, with a few canons here and a few more there given to the same contributor, or with several authors writing on a single general topic (e.g., clerics or consecrated life); but the complete text does not reflect obvious differences in approach or style.

While the 1985 commentary focused on differences between the 1917 and 1983 codes, the new commentary shifts attention to the experience of the church since the promulgation of the new code. The application of its provisions in the everyday life of the church has raised new questions that the authors strive to answer. They manifest a fuller awareness of the legislative history of various canons and have used the intervening years to reflect further on the values that the provisions of the law are intended to preserve and foster.

Even as a document the code has not remained static, and the new commentaryreflects this reality. Since 1983 there have been several official interpretations of ambiguous passages as well as amendments to two canons explained in the apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem on doctrines to be definitively held. The canonical impact of other post-code Vatican documents is also considered in thecommentary: apostolic constitutions on the Roman Curia (1988) and on Catholic universities (1990), an apostolic letter on the teaching authority of episcopal conferences (1998), a new ecumenical directory (1993) and an interdiscasterial instruction on the collaboration of the non-ordained in sacred ministry (1997). No book of this kind could ever be completely up to date; it went to press, for example, in advance of the approval of the U.S. application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and appeared shortly before the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal became available this summer. Perhaps the most important recent canonical event, though one too often overlooked, is the promulgation of a separate Code ofCanons of the Oriental Churches (1990). Among the new commentary’s greatest assets are its references throughout to the Oriental law’s parallel provisions on the various topics treated in the Latin code, as well as a helpful integrative essay on the law of the Oriental Catholic churches.

The New Commentary also includes an essay on theology and canon law and a canonical overview from 1983 to 1999. The latter notes that certain developments during this period (as exemplified in some of the documents just mentioned) reflect retrogression when compared with the expectations of Vatican IIa point made elsewhere in the commentaryand one on which reasonable people of good will continue to differ. Specialists in canon law will, no doubt, differ with the authors on various other points as well. When considered in its entirety, however, the New Commentaryis a reference book of significant quality and usefulness. It will contribute to the continuing conversation among specialists in canon law and provide a dependable resource for participants in and students of ecclesial life and discipline. It was time for a new commentary. Along with other works of its kind, it belongs not on the floor by the door, or even on the bookshelf, but readily at hand on the responsible church leader’s desktop.

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