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Its Right to Exist According to Canon Law
Thomas P. Doyle, O.P., J.C.D.

The revised Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, provides a basis for the existence of the Voice of the Faithful as an organization of the faithful, clergy and lay, of the Roman Catholic Church.

The revised code, reflecting the theology of the Church that emerged from the Second Vatican Council and especially formulated in the conciliar constitution Lumen Gentium, contains a new section entitled "The People of God." This section begins with a series of canons under two chapter headings: "The Obligations and Rights of All Christ's Faithful" and "The Obligations and Rights of the Lay Members of Christ's Faithful."

According to the code, the Christian faithful are divided into two groups: lay and cleric. This division is based on Church law in that clerics are defined not by divine Law or God's will, but by man-made Church law. A further distinction is made between those who are in holy orders and those who are not, and this distinction is viewed as being founded in divine law.

All Christian faithful, lay and those in orders, have a mission in the Church that is defined in Lumen Gentium as "The People of God." (Canon 204).

Canon 212 states that the faithful are bound to follow what the sacred pastors (the bishops) declare as teachers of the faith. This statement is balanced off, however, by an annunciation of the right and obligation of all the faithful to provide intellectual input to the governance and indeed the very life of the Church.

Can. 212 3 They have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ's faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals.

The source of this canon is Lumen Gentium n. 37. This canon reflects the fact that the institutional Church and its leadership recognize the fact that the Church is a community and that all faithful have a right to provide input into that is good for this community. The right to share information and opinions is extended between the faithful (lay and cleric) and the bishops as well as among the faithful themselves.

The code also gives the faithful the "right of assembly," which means that they may found and run organizations for "charitable and religious" purposes.

Can. 215 Christ's faithful may freely establish and direct associations which serve charitable or pious purposes or which foster the Christian vocation in the world, and they may hold meetings to pursue these purposes by common effort.

The fact that this right is enshrined in the code itself means that it implies a practical application. Does the right to assembly mean that the group assembling must first receive permission from ecclesiastical superiors such as bishops? The answer is negative unless this assembly leads to the foundation of what the canons refer to as "associations of Christ's faithful" in the Church. These are not simply groupings of the faithful, but organizations that receive official recognition by Church authority. The right of assembly mentioned in Canon 215 does not mean that all assemblies or gatherings of the faithful, even those that exist on a more stable basis, need approval of Church authorities.

"Associations of Christ's faithful" are treated in Canons 298-311. The first canon in the series defines an association:

Can. 298 1 In the Church there are associations which are distinct from institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life. In these associations, Christ's faithful, whether clerics or laity, or clerics and laity together, strive with a common effort to foster a more perfect life, or to promote public worship or Christian teaching. They may also devote themselves to other works of the apostolate, such as initiatives for evangelization, works of piety or charity, and those which animate the temporal order with the Christian spirit.

One of the restrictions for associations is that the use of the term "Catholic" is restricted to those having official approbation. Some examples of such associations are "Third Orders" which are attached to many religious orders. The canons go on to distinguish between "private" and "public" associations. In all cases these organizations have some form of official approval by a Church authority.

Canon 215 does not specify a list of rights for assemblies of the faithful. Do they automatically have the right to use property owned by official Church organizations, such as parish property, school property, diocesan property, or facilities owned by religious orders? This is not specified in the canons; however, it could be reasonably argued that use of Church buildings is required to fully respect the right of the faithful to assemble. This right to assemble does not depend on whether or not Church authorities agree with the purpose of the group. It depends on the purpose of the group itself provided these purposes are not opposed to fundamental Church teaching or good order. For example, the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Canon Law Society of America are both examples of the faithful assembling for a specific purpose. Both organizations often use Church buildings for their meetings. Both organizations often discuss or debate issues that are controversial and, at times, at odds with Church discipline.

The section in the canons entitled "The Obligations and Rights of the Lay Members of Christ's Faithful" begins with a canon that sets forth the basic foundation of the mission of the lay faithful:

Can. 225 1 Since lay people, like all Christ's faithful, are deputed to the apostolate by baptism and confirmation, they are bound by the general obligation and they have the right, whether as individuals or in associations, to strive so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all people throughout the world. This obligation is all the more insistent in circumstances in which only through them are people able to hear the Gospel and to know Christ.

2 They have also, according to the condition of each, the special obligation to permeate and perfect the temporal order of things with the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, particularly in conducting secular business and exercising secular functions, they are to give witness to Christ.

This charge is especially important relative to the impact the lay faithful are expected to have in the so-called "temporal" order. This "temporal" order refers to the general ebb and flow of life. The Church exists in the world as a political organization. The lay faithful are called to use their influence as followers of Christ to help bring perfection to the world.

Since Voice of the Faithful was founded in part, in reaction to the scandals surrounding the sexual abuse of children and young people by the clergy, it might be pointed out that one of the fundamental rights set forth in this section pertains to parents and their right to educate their children.

Can. 226 2 Because they gave life to their children, parents have the most serious obligation and the right to educate them. It is therefore primarily the responsibility of Christian parents to ensure the Christian education of their children in accordance with the teaching of the Church.

By "educate" the code refers to the broad concept of "nurture." It is obvious that protection of their children from physical, spiritual or moral abuse, or reacting to such abuse, is well within the rights set forth in the canon.

Voice of the Faithful, then, is the response of a group of Catholic faithful, including persons in orders and lay, to their rights to express their opinions to the bishops, to assemble for the promotion of the good of the Church, and to protect their children. The members seek to improve the "temporal order" by calling attention to the obligations of all members of the Church to obey the civil laws, to extend Christian compassion and charity to those in need, to support those in holy orders who seek to promote the Church's teaching especially with regard to the obligation to safeguard the moral welfare of all members of the Church.

The right to express opinions and the right to assemble do not mean that these rights depend on the agreement of the Church authorities with opinions expressed. Individual members may hold opinions that are different from Church law or teaching. This does not negate the right of a group to assemble nor does it imply that the group itself espouses these ideas.





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1. To support survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

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