The Holy See
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Thursday, 26 January 1984


1. On the traditional occasion of the inauguration of the judicial year, I am most happy to meet the whole family of your tribunal: the auditors, officials, and collaborators of the Roman Rota.

I thank Monsignor Dean for his courteous words, the expression of profound attachment to and sincere communion with the successor of Peter of your entire tribunal, and I greet cordially all the prelate auditors, the officials, the advocates, and students of the Rota course. 

This traditional, solemn inauguration of the judicial year offers me the welcome opportunity to renew to you the expression of my esteem and to tell you how much I appreciate the valuable work which you carry out with praiseworthy diligence in the name and by mandate of this Apostolic See. 

Your very worthy ministry of serving the truth in justice is confirmed by the glorious traditions of this tribunal, which are worthily matched by the industriousness and universally recognized competence with which you carry out your delicate services. 

2. Our meeting this year is marked by a fact of particular ecclesial consequences, which almost imposes the subject on us. Approximately two months ago, the new Code of Canon Law, promulgated on January 25 of last year, went into effect. The fruit of a long, patient, and careful work, enriched by various consultations with the episcopate— giving it a particular note of collegiality—the Code represents an authoritative guide for the application of the Second Vatican Council. It could even be considered, as I said on another occasion, the last council document (see discourse, November 21, 1983). In promulgating it, I expressed the hope that it “will be an effective instrument by the help of which the Church will be able to perfect itself in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and show itself ever more equal to carry out its salvific role in the world” (Sacræ disciplinæ leges, January 25, 1983, in AAS, 75-II [1983], p. xiii). 

The fulfillment of this hope of mine depends for the most part on how the new Code of Canon Law is received and observed. As my venerated predecessor Paul VI said while speaking to the International Congress of Canonists: “It must, nevertheless, be added that the advantages envisaged in the reform of canon law will not be effectively secured unless, and to the extent that, the laws are inserted into the life and society by the People of God. For however relevant or well drafted ecclesiastical legislation may be, if it should be disregarded in practice, or should be challenged or rejected, it will unfortunately remain barren and useless, and deprived of all profit and efficacy. Hence it follows that the drive toward reform of laws—unsupported by the practical observance—will be weakened and perhaps fleeting, and it will certainly be less authentic and certain” (May 25, 1968, in AAS, 60 [1968] p. 340). 

3. The promulgation and the going into effect of the new Code of Canon Law interests the entire Church, naturally in a different degree, according to the juridical condition and, above all, according to the diverse offices and functions. 

Speaking to you, judges of the Rota, I would like to make some observations on the role and the special responsibility that you have in your ecclesial task in the light of what the new law of the Church establishes in this regard. 

Your ministry to declare justice (dicere ius) places you institutionally in a close and profound relationship with the law, by whose terms you must be guided, by conforming your decisions to it. You are the servants of the law and, as I said to you on another occasion quoting Cicero, you are the law itself speaking (February 4, 1980, supra p. 172). Allow me now to emphasize some other elements of what must characterize your attitude before the law. 

Above all, a special commitment to know adequately the new law. At the delicate moment of pronouncing a judgment, which can have very deep repercussions in the lives and destinies of persons, you have always before your eyes two orders of factors, of a different nature, which will, however, find in your pronouncement an ideal and wise combination: the fact (factum) and the law (ius). The facts, which have been gathered carefully during the investigative stage and which you must conscientiously ponder and examine, arriving, if necessary, to the point of plumbing the obscure depths of the human psyche. The law (ius), which gives you the ideal measure or criterion of discernment to apply in the evaluation of the facts. This law (ius), which will guide you, giving you sure parameters, is the new Code of Canon Law. You must know it perfectly, not only in the procedural and marriage sections which are so familiar to you, but in its entirety, so that you may have complete knowledge of it, as magistrates (magistrati), that is, as masters of the law that you are. 

This knowledge presumes an assiduous, scientific, deep study which is not limited to pointing out the possible variations with respect to the previous law, or to establishing its purely literal or philological meaning, but which takes into consideration the mind of the legislator (mens legislatoris) and the reason of the law (ratio legis). This will give you a global view which enables you to penetrate the spirit of the new law. For the issue in substance is: The Code is a new law and it is to be evaluated primarily in the perspective of the Second Vatican Council, to which it is intended to conform fully.

4. Knowledge is followed almost spontaneously by fidelity which, as I said to you in the discourse mentioned earlier, is the judge’s first and most important duty toward the law (ibid.).

Fidelity is above all the sincere, staunch, and unconditional acceptance of the law legitimately promulgated; which, in its turn, must be seen as the pondered expression of the function of governing (munus regendi) entrusted to the Church by Christ and, therefore, a concrete manifestation of the will of God.

Such a recommendation of fidelity addressed to persons who, like you are not only distinguished experts of the law, but who by training and profession have a fundamental orientation of adherence to the law, would seem completely superfluous. Nevertheless, two considerations induce me to make such a recommendation.

The first derives from the particular situation of the drafting of the law (ius condendum) through which we have lived for more than twenty years. In that period a critical attitude in regard to drafts or schemata of law was spontaneous, I would say almost a duty, especially in the case of experts and specialists. This way of thinking revealed the defects and deficiencies with the intention of improving them. Such an attitude could then have been very useful and constructive for a more accurate and perfect formulation of the law. Today after the promulgation of the Code, it must not be forgotten that the period of drafting (ius condendum) is over and that now, the law, even with its possible limitations and defects, is a choice already made by the legislator after careful reflection and which, therefore, demands full adherence. Now it is no longer a time for discussion, but for implementation.

The other consideration is also based upon similar motivation. Knowledge of the Code just abrogated and long familiarity with it could lead some to a kind of identification with the norms contained in it. It could be considered better and, therefore, worthy of nostalgic regret, with the knowledge of a kind of negative “fore-knowledge” of the new Code—which would be read almost exclusively in the perspective of the former. This could be so not merely for those parts which repeat almost literally the previous law (ius vetus), but also for those which are objectively real innovations.

This attitude, although psychologically understandable, may be pushed to the extent of almost annulling the innovative force of the new Code, which, however, in the professional field must make itself particularly visible. As you can well understand, it is a question of a subtly insidious attitude, since it seems to find justification in the healthy rule of juridical interpretation contained in canon six of the 1917 Code and in the principle of legislative continuity characteristic of canon law.

5. In the reform of canonical procedural law, an effort was made to meet a very frequent criticism, which was not completely without foundation, concerning the slowness and excessive length of trials. Therefore, accepting a deeply felt need, without wishing to impair or in the slightest way to diminish the necessary guarantees offered by the course and formalities of tribunal procedure, [the new law] has sought to render the administration of justice more flexible and functional by simplifying procedures, speeding up formalities, shortening the time-limits, increasing the discretionary powers of the judge, etc.

This effort must not be rendered vain by delaying tactics or by a lack of care in studying cases, by an attitude of inertia that is wary of entering the new track for moving ahead, by a lack of expertise in applying the procedures.

6. Another important aspect of the relationship of the judge with the law revolves around the interpretation of it.

In a strict sense, the true authentic interpretation which declares the general meaning of the law for the entire community is reserved to the legislator, according to the well-known principle: “The source of the law is the source also of interpretation” (unde ius prodiit, interpretatio quoque procedat, INNOCENT III, X, V, 39, 31).

Nevertheless, the judge plays a very important role in deciding the meaning of the law. Above all, the judgment represents an authentic interpretation of the law for the parties (see c. 16, §3). By applying it to the particular case, the judge makes an interpretation which, although it does not have general value, binds the parties with the same force of the law.

The interpretative power, however, is to be placed, above all, in the formation of jurisprudence, that is, of that ensemble of concordant decisions, which—without having the absoluteness of the ancient “the authority of cases always decided in the same way” (auctoritas rerum perpetuo similiter indicatarum, Dig. I. 3. De legibus, 1, 38. Nam Imperator), nevertheless plays a notable role in filling possible lacunae in the law (see c. 19).

7. The value of the Rota jurisprudence in the Church has always been noteworthy, given the knowledge and experience of the judges and the authority they enjoy as papal judges. Canon 19 of the new Code expressly confirms this.

In the new Code, especially in the matter of marriage consent, not a few explanations of natural law from the Rota jurisprudence have been codified.

There still remain canons of great importance in matrimonial law, however, which have been necessarily formulated in a generic way and which await further determination, to which especially the expert jurisprudence of the Rota could make a valuable contribution. I am thinking, for example, of the determination of the “grave lack of discretionary judgment” of the “essential matrimonial rights and obligations” mentioned in c. 1095, as well as the further clarification of c. 1098 on error resulting from deceit, to mention only two canons.

These important determinations, which should serve as direction and guidance to all the tribunals of the particular churches, must be the fruit of mature and profound study, of serene and impartial discernment in the light of the perennial principles of Catholic theology, but also of the new canonical legislation inspired by the Second Vatican Council.

8. Everyone knows with what ardor and tenacity the Church supports, defends and fosters the sanctity, dignity, and indissolubility of marriage, often threatened and corroded by cultures and laws that seem to have lost their moorings to those transcendent values deeply rooted in human nature, which form the basic fabric of the institution of marriage.

The Church fulfills this task through its constant magisterium, through its laws, and in a special way through the ministry of its judicial power, which in marriage cases cannot be separated from these values, since they constitute an indispensable point of reference and a sure criterion of discernment.

The concern to safeguard the dignity and indissolubility of marriage by checking the abuses and irresponsibility, which unfortunately must often be sadly noted in this matter, cannot prescind from the real and undeniable progress of the biological, psychological, psychiatric, and social sciences. Otherwise one would contradict the very value to be protected, namely, a truly existing marriage, not one which has only the appearance of such, since it is null from the outset.

It is here that the impartiality and the wisdom of the ecclesiastical judge must shine: to know the law well, by penetrating its spirit in order to be able to apply it; to study the auxiliary sciences—especially the humane sciences—which allow a more thorough knowledge of the facts, and, above all, of persons; and finally to be able to find the balance between the binding duty to defend the indissolubility of marriage and the due attention to the complex human reality of the concrete case. The judge must act impartially, free from all prejudice: either from the desire to utilize the judgment as an instrument for the correction of abuses, or by setting aside divine or ecclesiastical law and the truth to meet exclusively the demands of a misunderstood pastoral ministry.

9. Dear brothers, these are some considerations which I felt impelled to make, certain of finding you in agreement in a matter of such great importance and gravity, especially since you are already carrying out with a diligence worthy of all praise what I have suggested to you. I express to you my satisfaction, fully confident that your tribunal will continue to direct in the Church the difficult office of “declaring justice with equity” (dicere ius cum æquitate, Charles LEFEBVRE, Les pouvoirs du juge en droit canonique, 1938, p. 164 seq.).     

I impart to all my heartfelt apostolic blessing, a pledge of divine aid for your ecclesial labors.


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