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Rev. Patrick Cogan, 2012 Role of Law Awardee
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Role of Law Award

Last winter, when I received the telephone call from Rita Joyce about my nomination to receive the Role of Law award at this convention, I was stunned and inwardly I had a very deep emotional response beyond words. When I served in the CLSA office during then nineteen-nineties, the selection of the next recipient of this honor at the Board of Governors’ meeting was like a solemn moment of discernment. There are so many worthy potential recipients – the challenge was not "who?” but "which one”? With heartfelt gratitude I wish to thank the Board of Governors and the entire CLSA membership for this honor. I am privileged to join the body of previous recipients. I will display this award proudly in my office so that it is clearly visible to all who enter, not so much for myself, but as a testimony to my cherished association with the CLSA. After more than a decade since my service in the Office of the Executive Coordinator, I still am very interested in how the CLSA is doing. My friends and family still ask me about the CLSA. One never knows when the CLSA will emerge in conversation. Once I was on an airplane, carrying a convention bag, when a passenger next to me asked if I was an optician! He saw the acronym CLSA and understood it to be the Contact Lens Society of America!

The title itself of this award, "Role of Law” offers a springboard for a very timely reflection. We are at both a sensitive and celebratory moment in the Church. A rapid scan of Catholic news and events in recent months signal the extended attention devoted to the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962, which day is tomorrow, October 11, also the beginning of the year of faith. An ecclesial golden jubilee! Various symposia, articles and books are celebrating this anniversary, especially with a focus on the continued reception of this great conciliar event, hardly a blip on the ecclesiastical screen as some might view it. Canonists are almost reflexively inclined to first think of January 1959 when John XXIII announced the convening of the Council, the revision of the 1917 Code, and a synod for Rome. But as canonists we are not disinterested parties for this observance of this fifty year anniversary of the Council. We know in a very real way what the Council has meant for canon law. After all, the revision of the 1917 Code is intrinsically associated with the Council’s teachings; likewise the preparation of the 1990 Eastern Code. The first twenty-one of these fifty years were also about the revision of the 1917 Code, which only began in earnest after the conciliar documents were promulgated.

Often I have remarked that my own familiarity with the conciliar documents is very much owed to my canon law studies. Reading the conciliar text thru a canonical lens is a very unique and necessary hermeneutic. Frequently I have observed to students that in the office of every canonist four books should be evident: the Bible, the 1983 and 1990 Codes, and the documents of Vatican II. In recent years, I even became more pro-active regarding which translation of Vatican II documents a student should use (preferably Tanner)!

The Code Commission was very aware of its task to give juridical expression to the conciliar teachings. What was immediately evident during the revision period was how the various schemata were scrutinized by canonists and theologians for their faithful reflection of conciliar teachings. This is clearly demonstrated in the CLSA evaluations of the various schemata and likewise in articles by various members. Often, when teaching, when a student was exegeting a canon in a research project or thesis, in addition to the standard commentaries and journals, I would direct them to these evaluations of the schemata.

There was a remarkable dynamic at work as the two Codes was being prepared: canonists, together with all the faithful, were still receiving and interpreting the Council. When the 1983 Code was promulgated, the many presentations (including at our annual conventions) and fresh commentaries would necessarily also involve teaching the conciliar foundations of the new law, and thus contributing to the reception of the Council. The law was and continues to be an important vehicle for this reception – if – it is good law. So the Council is and continues to be our standard. This occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Council thus offers an opportunity not only to revisit the conciliar texts, but also to once again examine the many laws which are born from these texts.

Other specialists of course were also deeply involved in the reception and actualization of the Council. Many CLSA members were collaborating with these other specialists. These arenas often involved canon law: a prime example is the renewal of the liturgy and the revision of liturgical law. I do not think it is an exaggeration to state that as regards the reception of the Council in the United States, canonists were often frontline actors as dioceses received both the law and Council and implemented new structures. The same is true for religious institutes in the revision of their particular law. As a long time observer of ecumenical dialogues, more than one ecumenist has observed that we will need the assistance of canonists to develop norms to implement various ecumenical agreements. Several CLSA members have been participants in various national and international ecumenical dialogues. Thus it is impossible to segregate the reception of the revised law from the reception the Council. So what I wish to highlight especially here is the role of the CLSA in this conciliar reception process and experience.

The post-conciliar arena, as a reflection of the ethos of the Council, is an area of continued CLSA activity. The CLSA has also anticipated the need to assist, not only canonists, but the entire People of God in their reception of the Council and also with the new laws issued post-promulgation.

I wish to raise up two examples that can be easily identified. In 1970 the CLSA proposed to the bishops the American Procedural Norms (APN), to assist in the timely processing of petitions for nullity. These norms served the People of God well, even if they were not totally incorporated into the revised legislation. A second example is when I was in the CLSA office, as part of the preparation for the bi-annual visits to the Roman Curia, I typically had a meeting with the CUA faculty to solicit topics for questions, clarifications, etc., to ask in Rome. I recall one such meeting when our sorely missed friend and mentor James Provost suggested that we ask at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith how to understand the expression "graviora delicta,” in Pastor Bonus, art. 62. He already in 1996 had a sense that canonists need to be alert to what might be on the horizon. Unfortunately, we know only too well what those words mean! The CLSA subsequently has responded with resources for canonists and bishops to assist in the handling of these graviora delicta cases. And we continue to keep a high alert for further ways to serve the community of canonists and the Church.

We are already into another generation of canonists who have studied the law almost three decades after promulgation and even longer since the conclusion of the Council. Thus the experience and exuberance of the Council is somewhat remote for this generation. But their learning about the law is also a good tutorial on the Council!

The golden jubilee of Vatican II is an occasion for celebration. It is also an opportunity to ask: what next? Where do we go from here? How do we continue as canonists "to read the signs of the times,” the great conciliar clarion? It is of limited usefulness if we only look at the law with a certain retrospect as to how faithful the law is/was to the Council. Codes have a shorter life-span than ecumenical councils. (But it takes longer to revise a Code than to have a Council !)

Faithful observance of the law does not exclude a critical stance towards the law. It is our obligation as canonists to be ever alert to improvement of the law, when a law is not working well or is not responsive to new situations. The Legislator has invited recommendations for changes or improvements to the law. A most immediate example was the invitation to canon law faculties, conferences of bishops and others to comment on a proposed revision of Book Six – De sanctionibus of the 1983 Code A recent visit of the CLSA officers to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts was also the occasion of such an invitation to revisit the law where appropriate. We cannot pass up this opportunity. And it is a task for which our track record says we do very well!

With increasing frequency, there are voices in the canonical literature about the future revision of the law, increasingly with specific recommendations, a "future” which perhaps is not too distant. One might wonder if this is an opportune moment in the history of the Church to revise the law, but maybe there is not always an ideal moment. Not every revision of the law has an ecumenical council as a beacon to inspire us! But we can be major participants in this endeavor.

I thank you again for this honor.

 Patrick Cogan, SA

October 10, 2012

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