The Holy See
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26 February 1983


1. I am keenly grateful to Monsignor Dean for the noble words in which he expressed your common sentiments and conveyed the difficulties and prospects facing the complex activity which you look after with such generous dedication. This annual meeting is a welcome occasion for extending a cordial greeting above all to those who exert their energies in this delicate sector of the Church’s life. Greetings to you, Monsignor Dean, to the college of prelates auditors who make up the tribunal, the other officials who are part of it, and the ranks of Rota advocates, whom I see so well represented here. I am glad to be able to honor with recognition the persons who make the administration of justice in the name of this Apostolic See their profession. 

The circumstance likewise offers me the opportunity to dwell with you, as is customary, on those aspects of your work which seem to deserve greater attention year by year. Our encounter today occurs a few days after the solemn act of promulgating the new Code of Canon Law. Thus, as I said in the constitution Sacræ disciplinæ leges the Code: “must be regarded as the essential instrument for the preservation of the right order, both in individual and social life, and in the Church’s zeal” (January 25, 1983, in AAS, 75 [1983], p. xi). 

At the end of that long and meritorious work of reforming the Church’s laws, I think that we can repeat - with a retrospective judgment of their truth - the words that my predecessor Paul VI addressed to you on February 12, 1968, precisely concerning revision of the Code: “Now, as in the past, the vast and varied heritage of the experience gained by your tribunal during recent years puts you - today as in the past - in a position to furnish much solid material for the new legislation. Not only, as is evident, the part dedicated to the structure and dynamics of the canonical trial and the teaching on marriage, but also to the basic and fundamental principles and institutes of canon law itself can be singled out in a more exact manner and defined in more certain terms with the doctrinal contributions contained in your decisions. Through your judgments recent developments in the civil law of nations and also recent findings of medicine and psychiatry will find their way into the new Code of Canon Law. The profoundly human outlook that inspires your judgments will help to clarify the mystery of what it means to be a human and a Christian today - to whom this new Code will be addressed. The new legislation should offer clear guidelines and effective helps in courageously living the truth of the Gospel and in fulfilling one’s own vocation in the Church of Christ” (February 12, 1968, supra p. 92).              

It seems to me that the expectations of Paul VI have been amply realized in the legislative texts of the new Code. The ecclesiological doctrine is in conformity with the orientations of Vatican II, and the pastoral indications contained in it assure us of a stimulating wealth and concrete adherence to reality. They deserve to be carefully studied in order to be generously applied to the Church’s life.

2. Now I desire in particular to lay stress upon certain elements concerning the important and irreplaceable work which the Sacred Roman Rota, the Roman Pontiff’s ordinary tribunal, performs for the good of the whole Church.

I refer above all to what the new Code of Canon Law affirms in can. 221, §1: “Christ’s faithful may lawfully vindicate and defend the rights they enjoy in the Church, before the competent ecclesiastical forum in accordance with the law.” The second paragraph is more explicit: “If any members of Christ’s faithful are summoned to trial by the competent authority, they have the right to be judged according to the provisions of the law, to be applied with equity.” The Church has always affirmed and promoted the rights of the faithful, and in the new Code, indeed, she has promulgated them as a fundamental charter (cf. cc. 208-223). She thus offers opportune juridical guarantees for protecting and safeguarding adequately the desired reciprocity between the rights and duties inscribed in the dignity of the person of the Christian faithful (christifidelis).

The ministry of the ecclesiastical judge is therefore that of interpreter of justice and law. Moreover, as I said in my discourse of February 17, 1979, “The ecclesiastical judge, therefore, will not only bear in mind that the primary requirement of justice is to respect persons, but will also look beyond justice and strive for equity and, beyond this, for charity” (February 17, 1979, supra pp. 154-155). 

3. But the safeguarding of the personal rights of all members of the People of God, faithful and pastors, should not diminish the promotion of that ecclesial communion that is laid down as the prime exigence of all ecclesiastical legislation and which ought to guide all the activity of the People of God. The Church is indeed described as the sacrament of unity (LG, no. 1). So, therefore, if Christians as I noted in the same discourse, “accept the inspiration of the Spirit and acknowledge the need of a profound conversion to the Church, the affirmation and exercise of their rights will be transformed into an acceptance of duties with regard to unity and solidarity so that the higher values of the common good may be achieved” (February 17, 1979, supra p. 156). 

The striving for the common good and toward the co-responsibility of all Church members in building that highly articulated society  - which is the bearer of salvation to all mankind - demands respect for the roles of one and all, according to each one’s juridical status in the Church, and the effective activity of all public functions imbued with sacred power (potestas sacra). All this is in view of a more profound redemption of humans from the slavery of sin and from the myth of a deceptive liberty. “Recalling the principle of authority and the need for a juridical order detracts nothing from the value of freedom or from the esteem in which it ought to be held,” Paul VI affirmed in his discourse of January 29, 1970, “Rather it stresses what is needed to safeguard effectively t he common good - including the basic good of exercising freedom - which only a well-ordered social order can adequately guarantee. As a matter of fact, what would freedom be worth to an individual if it were not protected by wise and suitable laws? The great Arpinian had good reason to say: 'Magistrates make the laws, judges interpret them; all of us, therefore, are servants of the law, so that we may be free’ “ (supra p. 101). 

In the constitution Sacræ disciplinæ leges, I also referred to the false opposition between liberty, grace, and charism, and the law of the Church; I declared: “Granted this, it is sufficiently clear that the purpose of the Code is not in any way to replace faith, grace, charisms, and above all charity in the life of the Church and of Christ’s faithful. On the contrary, the Code rather looks toward the achievement of order in ecclesial society, such that while attributing a primacy to love, grace, and the charisms, it facilitates at the same time an orderly development in the life both of the ecclesial society and of the individual persons who belong to it” (AAS, 75 [1983] p. xi). 

4. Concerning the function of judges and the judicial activity in the Church, it is necessary to point out that - apart from the directive role that they play by their very nature in every process - judges undoubtedly enjoy a freedom of decision, which is granted to them by the legislator. This refers to both their qualifications and competence (cf. cc. 1420-1421) and precise observance of procedure in order to guarantee the correct administration of justice, and it also refers to the judges’ conscience, for it requires not only “moral certainty about the matter to be decided in the judgment,” but it warns them as well that they “must conscientiously weigh the evidence” (c. 1608, §§1-3). 

If it is true that the new Code clearly imposes the obligation of rapidly bringing all processes of first and second instance to completion (see c. 1453), this must not result in the detriment to justice and protection of the rights of all the parties to the cause and the community of which they are members. This requirement becomes the more urgent inasmuch as the jurisprudence of the Sacred Roman Rota, as that of the other apostolic tribunals, and also the practice of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia are considered to be guides and orientation for interpretation of the law in some cases (see c. 20). Along this line, the jurisprudence of the Rota has acquired increasing authority -  not only moral but judicial authority - in the Church’s history in reference to the evolution of the norms.

Especially during the transitional phase between the old and the new canon law, the Rota has played a decisive role in gathering and translating into decisions - which obviously constitute laws only for the matters and persons for which they were pronounced (see c. 16, §3). The most significant instances since Vatican Council II are above all in what concerns the contents of Christian marriage (cf. GS, nos. 47-52). 

5. It is necessary for this function of the Sacred Rota to continue and increase though the lofty and exemplary quality of the work carried out by all who labor in your and my tribunal, so as to guarantee ever greater fidelity to the Church’s doctrine concerning the essence and properties of marriage, which are for the rest amply represented with theological richness in the new Code of Canon Law (cf. cc. 1055-1165). 

While respecting a healthy pluralism that reflects the Church’s universality, the function of the jurisprudence of the Rota is indeed that of leading toward more convergent unity and substantial uniformity in safeguarding the essential contents of canonical marriage, which the spouses, the ministers of the sacrament, celebrate in adherence to the depth and wealth of the mystery, in reciprocal profession of faith before God. I said in fact at the general audience last January 18: “In this domain men and women are the artisans of the actions which in themselves have definite meanings. They are therefore the artisans of their actions and at the same time authors of their meaning. The sum of those meanings constitutes in a certain sense the generality of the language of the body that the spouses decide to speak to each other as ministers of the sacrament of marriage. The sign they effect through the words of marriage consent is not a purely immediate and transitory sign, but is a prospective sign reproducing a lasting effect, that is, the marriage bond, which is exclusive and indissoluble for all the days of my life, that is, until death. In this perspective they have to fill up that sign with the manifold content offered by the conjugal and family communion of persons, and also with the content originating with the language of the body that is continuously reread in truth. In this way the essential truth of the sign will remain organically united with the ethos of conjugal behavior.” 

I would therefore express the hope to you, eminent weighers of the law and sage interpreters of its rules, that in this judiciary task as well, which is vital for the Church, you should contribute to seeing that the faithful, in full acknowledgement of the moral order and in respect of genuine liberty, “may become . . . witnesses to that mystery of devoted love which the Lord in his death and resurrection revealed to the world” (GS, no. 52).     

With these wishes, while I call the special divine protection down upon you, that you may go on with your work of service to the Church with that conscience of loftiest responsibility and total dedication which ought to distinguish faithful collaborators of the pope and the Holy See, which you are, I impart from my heart, as a pledge of constant benevolence, my apostolic benediction.


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