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The Dicastery for Legislative Texts

Vatican News continues with its inside look at the history, objectives and “mission budgets” of the various Vatican offices assisting the Pope in his pastoral ministry. Featured here is the Dicastery for Legislative Texts with an interview with its President, Archbishop Filippo Iannone.

Salvatore Cernuzio – Vatican City

These are the experts in canon law at the service of the Church’s supreme legislator, the Pope. For more than a century, although the persons assigned have changed, the task of this Dicastery has remained unchanged: that of maintaining updated the two Codes of Canon Law (Latin and Eastern) which form the core of the Church’s universal legislation. At its head since 2018, Archbishop Filippo Iannone shows how the contribution of the Dicastery for Legislative Texts’ affects its mission budget which, according to the official data released 2021 regarding the Holy See’s budget, is subsumed under the €21 million budget allocated to some thirty Vatican Dicasteries and institutions.

The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - Archbishop Filippo Iannone at his desk
The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - Archbishop Filippo Iannone at his desk

Your dicastery has been entrusted with the task to help the Pope in his function as “universal legislator”, through the authentic interpretation of the Church’s laws. What does this mission consist in and what are the criteria guiding it?

The competency and the activities of the Dicastery for Legislative Texts are found in the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium governing the Roman Curia. It was promulgated by Pope Francis in 2022.

The Dicastery, in the form of a Commission, was established within the context of the canonical codification of 1917, with the task of interpreting the Church’s universal laws. When a norm was singled out whose meaning was not clear to everyone or could be understood in different ways, consequently leading to different applications, with the assistance of expert Consultors, the Commission would study the issue and propose a response that was submitted to the Holy Father for promulgation.

This is how things proceeded for decades, even after the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983 (the Code for the Latin Church) and, on some occasions, it even proceeded to modify canonical texts when it appeared necessary for doctrinal or disciplinary reasons. Subsequently, once the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches was promulgated, the same tasks were extended to this legislative text as well.

In the meantime, the Commission began a Pontifical Council, and with Praedicate Evangelium, a Dicastery.

Even though today its competence has been extended to include other matters, in short, it can be said that the Dicastery is concerned, above all, with keeping the text of the two Codes, Latin and Eastern, up to date, since they represent the central core of the Church’s universal legislation. It carries out this task by interpreting dubious texts, and should it be warranted, proposes to the Holy Father modifications or additions to the text when this becomes necessary. In fact, this past June, the Pope promulgated an entirely new chapter in the Code of Canon Law – Book VI on penal discipline – on which the Dicastery worked for over a decade. Collaborating in the drafting of the norms were the Episcopal Conferences from various countries, the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia and the Faculties of Canon Law operating in Urbe et in Orbe, as they say.

The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - ancient books conserved in the Dicastery archive
The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - ancient books conserved in the Dicastery archive

In addition to this task, and in a broader sense, the Dicastery assists the Roman Pontiff in his activity as Supreme Legislator. The Dicastery accomplishes this by lending its specific collaboration to the Pope in the drafting of all provisions of a juridical nature. Even Pope Francis avails himself of the work of our Dicastery in the implementation of the reforms he has undertaken, for which it is obvious that normative texts need to be produced, thus demonstrating his trust in our activity.

The collaborative activity between our Dicastery with the other Dicasteries of the Roman Curia – which is the organism through which the Holy Father exercises his ministry as Pastor of the Universal Church – regarding issues dealing with Canon Law, can also be considered an expression of this task.

The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - a woman religious browses a book on the Vatican criminal code
The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - a woman religious browses a book on the Vatican criminal code

How is this interpretative task connected to the necessity that Canon Law keep up with the times and meet the changing needs of the Church as it moves through history?

The Dicastery is in contact with various organizations in the Church, in particular with the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia and the Episcopal Conferences, so as to identify the need for eventual normative changes, or to gather suggestions for new norms. As a famous saying goes, law follows life. In the Dicastery, we work on universal legislation which is common to the entire Church. It is the task of the Episcopal Conferences, and above all, the Diocesan Bishops, to apply it in the concrete needs of the various places and cultures. In this regard, it is the task of the Dicastery to assure that the laws issued by Bishops or Conferences are consistent with the universal law. It is also possible that, if necessary, that those who are concerned can challenge before the Dicastery local norms that they do not deem inconsistent with those issued by the Pope. For this reason, the Dicastery for Legislative Texts has been entrusted with the task of examining decrees issued by episcopal institutions, and to verify that they are consistent with the Church’s universal law. Decentralization, even in the juridical realm, is more than ever needed today, but it must be achieved preserving the unity of the Church. In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis speaks of sound ‘decentralization’.

The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - a work meeting
The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - a work meeting

What skills are required and how does the Dicastery organize its work? How are the goals of the Dicastery’s mission reflected in its financial budget and in its management of resources?

As is easily understood from the Dicastery’s tasks already described, the skills required for those who work here lie in the juridical realm. It is required that every official possess an academic degree in Canon Law. In addition to Latin, a certain knowledge of modern languages is also necessary so as to fulfill the requests for consultation received from various countries. Generally speaking, the officials who are employed by the Dicastery already have prior experience in this area of ecclesial life, having carried out ministries that presuppose knowledge of Canon Law in their diocese or in their religious institutes, if there are religious. Along with these skills, they also bring pastoral experience which certainly qualifies not only their work, but also the activity of the Dicastery.

Being a Dicastery of the Roman Curia, the Dicastery is structured according to the norms of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus. It is directed by a President, assisted by a Secretary and an Under-secretary, and is composed of Members chosen by the Pope among the world’s Cardinals and Bishops. Some officials work here in headquarters. In reality, in comparison to other Congregations, this number is quite small due to the type of work the Dicastery does since it can avail itself of remote collaboration, as it is called today. In fact, the Dicastery has a large number of consultors, professors and experts in Canon or Ecclesiastical Law throughout the world whose opinion is sought for more complex issues.

Entrance to the Dicastery for Legislative Texts
Entrance to the Dicastery for Legislative Texts

The Dicastery’s activity is characterized as a service to the central organisms of the Catholic Church and the Particular Churches and their Pastors, as well as other ecclesiastical institutions. As such, it is completely gratis. The Dicastery’s expenses are sustained by the Holy See which, as is known, is maintained through the economic support of the ecclesial community throughout the world. I believe the faithful are well aware that our service, in the final analysis, contributes to ensuring the exercise of the Pope’s apostolic ministry, for the good of the Universal Church and of each individual Particular Church. For this reason, they feel it is their duty to collaborate according to their particular possibility.

How are the requests received that come from the pastors of the local Church, and what type of help is offered to them for the correct interpretation and application of Canon Law?

The major part of our work is dedicated to responding to questions regarding concrete issues that we receive from Diocesan Bishops, from the staff of ecclesiastical tribunals, from Religious Superiors. In fact, the Dicastery receives precise requests regarding not so much, or not directly, the authentic interpretation of Canon Law, but its application in individual cases that come to light in daily life. Such requests cover every type of issue related to Canon Law and the Dicastery tries to give timely replies, obviously after carefully studying the issue, and keeping in mind the established practice of the Roman Curia.

Nevertheless, these responses are to be understood as opinions regarding individual cases and are not binding on the person making the request, unless reference is made to a law in force. We can, however, describe them as authoritative opinions of a Holy See Dicastery regarding the subject matter of the consultation which, in general, is what is being sought so the person seeking advice might be more secure in the exercise of their pastoral governance.

The Dicastery for Legislative Texts  - Archbishop Filippo Iannone
The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - Archbishop Filippo Iannone

What type of formation do those called to work in the field of canon law undergo?

I think that the new norms implementing the reforms willed and undertaken by Pope Francis are also contributing toward greater attention to the formation of those who are destined to hold positions and offices in which knowledge of Canon Law is required. I would say that prejudices manifested against Church law in the past can be considered as having been overcome.

Recent juridical reforms (the matrimonial processes, for example, and more recently still, canonical penal law) have evoked greater attention on the part of Superiors to the specific formation of employees, clergy and laity, in this field. In a certain way, the need for Canon Law in the life of the Church has been discovered anew. All of the post-conciliar Supreme Pontiffs – from Pope Saint Paul VI to Pope Francis – have spoken of this precise need, referring to the magisterium of Vatican II. Pope Francis himself, in a discourse to the Plenary of our Dicastery, stated: “Making the laws of the Church known and applying them is not a hindrance to the presumed pastoral ‘effectiveness’ of those who want to solve problems without law, but rather a guarantee of the search for solutions that are not arbitrary, but instead truly just and, therefore, truly pastoral. By avoiding arbitrary solutions, the law becomes a valid bulwark in defense of the least and the poor, a protective shield for those who risk falling victim to the powerful”.

The Dicastery for Legislative Texts  - a book on Ecclesiastical Law
The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - a book on Ecclesiastical Law

Is it possible to reconcile a rigorous application of the law with the mercy and charity that pastoral ministry demands?

This is precisely one of the fundamental characteristics of Canon Law that differentiates it from other juridical systems that today are unfortunately anchored in profound positivism. Canon Law, which teaches how to correctly interpret and apply the Church’s law, is a body of law founded on natural and divine law which are the ultimate parameters of justice that ecclesiastical authority must follow. Therefore, Canon Law grants all the necessary tools to those who exercise authority so they can adapt the rigor and the requirements of the law to be justly applied in concrete cases, that is to say, that the demands of charity and mercy cannot be forgotten in applying the law. Pope Benedict XVI used to say that “law is a condition of love”.

The Dicastery for Legislative Texts  - archive shelves
The Dicastery for Legislative Texts - archive shelves

For Saint Thomas, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty.” Mercy does not act against justice, but above it, bringing it to fulfillment. It avoids the rigor of the law and the rigidity of technicality, preventing the letter from killing. Therefore, charity and mercy wisely connote the Church’s justice. According to the Code of Canon Law, “the Christian faithful have the right to be judged according to the prescripts of the law applied with equity” (Can. 221, 2). The judge, therefore, will make use of the aequitas canonica making the law tempered by charity prevail while taking into account all that charity suggests (iustitia dulcore misericordiae temperata). Pope Saint John Paul II went so far as to state that, “true mercy is, so to speak, the most profound source of justice”  (Dives in Misericordia, no. 14).

Note to the reader: this article was updated on 1 July 2022 to reflect the new name of the Dicastery, previously known as the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, changed by the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium.

13 December 2021, 15:00