Our new bishop has a J.C.L.; what it means

Bishop Zarama has a lifelong love of learning and a passion for knowledge. He earned a degree in philosophy and theology from the Marian University in Pasto, Colombia, and went on to the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, to earn a degree in Canon Law.

But what is canon law?

Similar to the way the Constitution is the supreme law of the United States, Canon Law is the body of laws for the Catholic Church. The present 1983 Code of Canon Law is the collection of legal principles that govern our Church body and is outlined and sectioned in accordance with different facets of the Church. For example, Book II (People of God), Part I (The Christian Faith), Title II in the 1983 Code of Canon Law deals with “The Obligations and Rights of the Lay Christian Faithful.” Other articles and sections detail responsibilities of clergy, lay ministers and the pope.

In the early history of our Church, there were countless collections of ecclesiastical laws. These collections often combined directives from popes with local norms and traditions. During those early days of the Church, these collections caused problems because they often contradicted one another and confused members of the Church.

In the 12th century, a Benedictine monk named Gratian compiled these private collections to help create the first and most complete document of laws and regulations related to the Church. The document he created became known as the Decretum Gratiani, which paved the way for canon law as we know it today.

As the Decretum Gratiani went through several drafts and gained many additions over centuries, it became clear to Church leadership that a new organizational system was needed. Pope Pius X directed a new compilation to mirror Roman law, arranging rules and regulations into the outline form common in western law today. That Code of Canon Law was promulgated, or published, in 1917 and took effect in 1918. This was the first official comprehensive codification of canon law.

In 1959, Pope John XXIII called for the revision of canon law. In 1983, the Code of Canon Law was promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Those revisions represent the current code used in Roman churches today. (A separate, but similar, Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches was issued in 1990.)

It is not necessary to be ordained or be a consecrated religious to earn a degree in Canon Law; however, the degree requires incredible dedication to the field. There are just over 20 Pontifical Universities in the world that award this advanced degree. Prerequisites for admission to the degree program include graduate course work in theology and philosophy, a strong foundation of fundamental canon law and a firm grasp of Latin.

The seven books of 1,752 canons, or laws, within the 1983 Code of Canon Law regulate hierarchal and international matters and are also used in functional ways every day. For example, Canon 226, 1, outlines responsibilities of marriage: “According to their own vocation, those who live in a marital state are bound by a special duty to work through marriage and family to build up the people of God.”

Canons that follow include statements people may remember from wedding vows and baptisms, including the directive to lovingly accept children and the responsibility to educate them and raise them in the faith. 

Canon Law is the foundation of how decisions are made, and it outlines the core of our responsibilities in our Church body.

As Pope John Paul II wrote in the Apostolic Constitution, Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, which introduced the 1983 Code, “The Code of Canon Law is extremely necessary for the Church. Since the Church is organized as a social and visible structure, it must also have norms.”

Just as Christ fulfilled and helped bring the laws the Old Testament to fruition, the canons aim to fulfill and help foster our communion with God by guiding our relationships with one another and with the Church as an institution.