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The Papacy and the Code of Canon Law


by Fr. Charles M. Mangan


The Code of Canon Law, the revised edition of which became effective on the First Sunday of Advent 1983, contains the legislation which governs the practice and administration of the Latin Church. (The Oriental Churches have their own compendium of the law, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.)


There are five canons in the Code of Canon Law (Canons 331-335) which come under the heading “The Roman Pontiff.” A closer look at these five brief but essential pieces of the Church’s law is bound to give one a better, fuller understanding of how the Church—the Bride of Christ—sees the mission of the one we lovingly and respectfully hail as the “Holy Father.”

Canon 331—The office uniquely committed by the Lord to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, abides in the Bishop of the Church of Rome. He is the head of the College of Bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the Pastor of the universal Church here on earth. Consequently, by virtue of his office, he has supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always freely exercise this power.

Jesus Himself chose Saint Peter to be the first Pope, who is the visible representative of Christ here on earth. All the faithful are obliged to obey the Pon tiff not only in matters of faith and morals but also in those affairs which pertain to the governing of the Church. The Pope is the head of the College of Bishops, which is the “fraternity” of the Bishops who are in communion with the Holy Father. The official title of the Pope is: “Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of Vatican City State.”


Canon 332—1° The Roman Pontiff acquires full and supreme power in the Church when, together with episcopal consecration, he has been lawfully elected and has accepted the election. Accordingly, if he already has the episcopal character, he receives this power from the moment he accepts election to the supreme pontificate. If he does not have the episcopal character, he is immediately to be ordained Bishop.

2° Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is to be required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.


Pope Paul VI, in 1975, revised the norms by which the Cardinal-Electors choose—through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—a new Pope. Historically, there were some men elected to the Papacy who were not as yet Bishops. If this were to happen today, the man would be ordained Bishop before he appears to the faithful awaiting the announcement: “Habemus pa pam” (“We have a Pope”). It is possible for the Pope to resign his office.


Canon 333—1° By virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff not only has power over the universal Church, but also has pre-eminent ordinary power over all particular Churches and their groupings. This reinforces and defends the proper, ordinary and immediate power which the Bishops have in the particular Churches entrusted to their care.

2° The Roman Pontiff, in fulfilling his office as supreme Pastor of the Church, is always joined in full communion with the other Bishops, and indeed with the universal Church. He has the right, however, to determine, according to the needs of the Church, whether this office is to be exercised in a personal or in a collegial manner.


3° There is neither appeal nor recourse against a judgment or a decree of the Roman Pontiff.


The Holy Father enjoys power over all the specific regions and provinces of particular Churches. This reality does not mean that he is able to dispense with the notion of Bishops and their own authority. Rather, his power “reinforces and defends” the power which the various Bishops have. The Pope is joined to the Bishops who are in full communion with the Catholic Church. There is no avenue by which to appeal a decision made by the Vicar of Christ.


Canon 334 — The Bishops are available to the Roman Pontiff in the exercise of his office, to cooperate with him in various ways, among which is the Synod of Bishops. Car dinals also assist him, as do other persons and, according to the needs of the time, various institutes; all these persons and institutes fulfill their offices in his name and by his authority, for the good of all the Churches, in accordance with the norms determined by law.


The Synod of Bishops is a new feature in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Established by Pope Paul VI in 1965, the Synod of Bishops, according to Canon 342, 1°, “is a group of Bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops.” The Holy Father relies on many collaborators who assist him in the sacred work of Christ.


Canon 335—When the Roman See is vacant, or completely impeded, no innovation is to be made in the governance of the universal Church. The special laws enacted for these circumstances are to be observed.


The Chair of Saint Peter would become vacant when the Pope dies or retires. The Papal office would be impeded, if, for example, the Holy Father would be kidnapped by terrorists or fall ill into a condition that does not allow him to function as the Vicar of Christ. No official norms have been made public which would be effective if the Papacy becomes impeded.


The Pope is vital for the welfare of Holy Mother Church. May there be a fresh appreciation of and obedience among all Catholics towards the Successor of Saint Peter in our day.


Father Mangan is a priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved