Canon Law at 40: Fr. Chris Armstrong’s Perspective
The story below was originally published in The Athenaeum, MTSM’s bi-annual magazine. The Athenaeum is published twice a year for alumni, patrons and friends of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology. To be added to the mailing list, contact: Heidi Walsh at 513.233.6159 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the third of three articles featured in the Fall 2023 edition of The Athenaeum magazine reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Rev. Christopher R. Armstrong, J.C.D., S.T.D. received both a doctoral degree and a licentiate in canon law from the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. He has served as the Chancellor for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati (1996-2003) and the Judicial Vicar for the Archdiocese for the Military Services (2014-20).
I first heard about canon law in First College (1972-73). The course was on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, taught by our Rector, Reverend (Daniel E.) Pilarczyk, later to be the Archbishop of Cincinnati. In the course, we were told that on January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, later to be canonized, called for not only an Ecumenical Council and for a Synod for his diocese of Rome, but also the reform of the Code of Canon Law. I subsequently found out that Pope Paul VI, also later canonized, wanted to delay the reform of the 1917 Code of Canon Law until the current council completed its work. As it turned out, one of the major interpretive keys of the 1983 Code of Canon Law is the Council itself: the Code follows the Council.
My next exposure to the Code of Canon Law was in III Theology, (1978-79). The Code was in its final stages of revision. Our professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Reverend Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, (and later created a cardinal) did his best to present the 1917 Code, which was soon to be abrogated, and the Schemata of its revisions. Father Ghirlanda was especially concerned that his students understood that the Pope was the head of the College of Bishops, that he could act independently of it and that he enjoyed the supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church. Those with ears to hear could almost detect the debates among the canonists charged with its reform from class to class.
Pope John Paul II, later canonized as well, promulgated the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church in 1983. My second pastor, Father (Jerry) Bensman, gave me a copy of the translation and commentary by the Canon Law Society of America in 1986. Little did I know that I would be sent to study canon law in 1990, and subsequently earn a license in 1992 and a doctorate in 1996 or that I would teach the subject at our seminary for 17 years, and later be appointed Chancellor for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati (1996-2003) and then Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. I am grateful to have studied the Code and to have been charged with its application in the different aspects of my priestly ministry, especially as a pastor, as the supreme law of the Church is the care of souls.
I believe the Code of Canon Law remains the practical expression of the Church’s theology. The Code touches on every aspect of the life of the Church. I am grateful for Archbishop Pilarcyk, sometime rector of our college seminary, who led us through all sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council, yet to be woven into the warp and woof of the reform of the Code of Canon Law.
Dare I paraphrase, with all due reverence to St. Jerome, that ignorance of the Code of Canon Law is ignorance of the Church? If it isn’t, I think it comes pretty close.