Pope Francis’ Canon Law Change Strengthens Evangelism With Eastern Churches

The Holy Father altered the Latin Code of Canon Law, citing the need for the Western and Eastern Churches to work together for the good of all the faithful.

A Coptic Orthodox priest baptizes an infant.
A Coptic Orthodox priest baptizes an infant. (photo: YouTube)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has strengthened the Latin and Eastern Churches’ cooperative efforts in spreading the Gospel with a new decree that brings the Latin Church’s Code of Canon Law into harmony with the canon law of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

The new document from Pope Francis, issued motu proprio (on his own initiative), changes the Latin Church’s Code of Canon Law to harmonize with the existing canons on baptism and marriage in the Eastern Code of Canon Law governing the 23 other Eastern Catholic Churches spread throughout the world. It also strengthens the pastoral support for Eastern Christians in the West, reminding the faithful that they “are obliged to observe their own rite wherever they are,” and sends another powerful message in Francis’ papacy that the Catholic Church is a communion of co-equal sister Churches with their own rich rites and traditions deserving of mutual respect.

The Holy Father explained that since many Eastern Catholics have migrated to Latin-majority territories, he wanted the Latin Church’s law to promote “effective cooperation” between all Catholic communities of the Eastern and Latin Churches in any given territory. Bringing the Latin Code into harmony with the Eastern Code, he explained, would help protect and develop “these venerable Eastern rites” in the West, while respecting the traditions of the majority Latin Church.

Bishop Nicholas Samra of the Melkite Greek Catholic eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts, told the Register that the Pope’s changes would help the Eastern Church’s evangelical mission in the West.

“It strengthens the Eastern tradition, so it is very, very good,” he said.


Definitive Direction

The canons establish definitively in the Latin Church that only a priest or bishop — never a deacon — can be the minister for a valid marriage involving an Eastern Catholic or Orthodox person.

Bishop Nicholas explained that the Eastern Churches’ theology holds that the priest confers the sacrament of matrimony upon the husband and wife, meaning that deacons cannot validly confer the sacrament. The Latin Church has a different theology, where the priest or deacon is the Church’s witness, and the man and woman minister the sacrament of matrimony to each other.

The new canons also make clear that while a child to be baptized belongs to the sui iuris (rightful) Church of the father, the parents by mutual consent can have the child baptized in the mother’s sui iuris Church. For example, if the father belongs to the Latin Church but the mother belongs to the Melkite Church, and both parents want their children to belong to the Melkite Church and follow its traditions, they can elect to have their children baptized in the Melkite Church. But if there is no mutual consent to do this, then the child belongs to the sui iuris Church of the father — in the case of this example, the Latin Church.

The law also provides that spouses can transfer to the sui iuris Church of the other spouse — for example, from the Latin Church to the Maronite Church — at any time during their marriage. The spouse can freely return to the Latin Church upon the end of the marriage.

Bishop Nicholas pointed out that the Latin code no longer has a presumption that an unbaptized person should be baptized in the Latin tradition if they live in a Western country. Now, anyone over 14 years old seeking baptism can freely choose to be baptized and enrolled in the Latin Church or another sui iuris Church.


Doing Pastoral Paperwork

Dioceses and other ecclesiastic jurisdictions throughout the Latin Church have three months to put the new canons into operation.

“We’ll have to disseminate this to the clergy and inform them of the changes,” said Father Alexander Laschuk, a Byzantine Catholic priest and canonist who serves on the Archdiocese of Toronto’s tribunal.

He said the bishops’ conferences may want to decide first how they are going to implement and standardize the changes.

“These are now requirements that already existed in the Eastern code,” he said.

Father Laschuk said the biggest impact on Eastern Catholic faithful would occur in places like Western Europe, where large numbers of Catholics from Eastern Europe and the Middle East have either migrated or come as refugees, but do not have their own hierarchy or clergy to care for them. Such Catholics must rely on the pastoral care of the local Latin-rite bishop and clergy.

But the Pope’s directive also mandates the Latin Church track in its baptismal records to which sui iuris Church the baptized person actually belongs.

Father Peter Mottola, a canon lawyer in the Diocese of Rochester, New York, told the Register this provision will require Latin Church parishes to enter in the baptismal register whether the child baptized was “Latin” (belonging to their own church) or was “Chaldean,” if that was the particular Church of the father or parents.

This form of record-keeping was not previously required in the Latin Church. He said that dioceses will likely take up the question of exactly how the child’s ascription will be written in the baptismal register, such as putting it in a “general notes” field.

Father Mottola, a parochial vicar at St. Louis Church in Pittsford, New York, said his parish serves many Eastern Catholics already. The enhanced record-keeping makes sure that, in the case of an Eastern Catholic man who is married and seeks ordination to the priesthood in his tradition, the baptismal certificate will show his ability to do so.

“If you want to take up the heritage that is rightfully yours, you have the right to do that,” said Father Mottola.

Bishop Nicholas said the new rules for the Latin Church should reduce mistakes regarding sacraments for Eastern Catholics that come from Latin parishes not looking too closely at their paperwork.

“We’ve had to send notices that they did not check out the legal paperwork and this person was already confirmed,” he said. “That happens a lot.”


Orthodox Marriages and Baptisms

The new canons also allow priests to bless the marriages and baptize the infants of Christians from non-Catholic Eastern Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox or Assyrian Church of the East).

The law states that the local ordinary can give to any Catholic priest the faculty to bless the marriages of non-Catholic Eastern Christians if the faithful voluntarily ask for it and the priest prudently informs the appropriate hierarch.

The law also allows priests to baptize infants of non-Catholic Christians if one or both of the parents requests it and it is “physically and morally impossible for them to approach their own minister.”

However, Father Mottola indicated the canon raises the interesting question of whether requests for baptism will ever come from people in Protestant ecclesial communities.

Overall, Msgr. William King, a pastor in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and adjunct lecturer on canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, told the Register that the changes in canon law have “codified hospitality” between the Latin and Eastern Churches. He added that it is clear that the changes are part of Pope Francis’ sensitivity that the Latin Church needs to provide pastoral care and support to Eastern Catholics who have migrated to the West or come as refugees sustained only by the treasure of the faith as nurtured by the Eastern Churches.

The law is also a teacher, Msgr. King explained, and will help Latin-rite Catholics to broaden their understanding of the Church beyond their parish experience to realize the Catholic Church is actually a communion of Churches, united with the bishop of Rome, and that each have their own different “liturgical expressions, devotional and pietistic, and inculturation of the [Catholic] faith.”

“This motu proprio of Francis reminds us clearly and rather potently that the Latin Church is not the only Church within the communion of Catholic Churches,” he said. “It asks us to be mindful and attentive to the various cultures that may exist within our midst or within our neighborhoods.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.