The common perception of Pope Francis is that he is a Pope without much time for laws, preferring a more freewheeling “pastoral” approach in his leadership. This public impression notwithstanding, the Francis pontificate has seen a number of important legal reforms, including major revisions to the way marriage tribunals operate, how diocesan bishops are held to account, and, of course, the ongoing structural reforms of the Roman Curia. All signs suggest that the changes will keep coming.
Today Pope Francis issued a new Apostolic Letter, issued motu proprio, in which he introduced changes to some eleven canons of the Code of Canon Law. The general thrust of the reforms is to bring certain aspects of the Code of Canon Law, which governs the Latin Church (the West, broadly speaking), into line with the provisions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.
The changes mostly deal with how Latin rite dioceses pastorally provide for Eastern Catholics, and in some instances Orthodox Christians, within their territory, especially where no Eastern hierarchy exists. This includes, for example, an explicit affirmation that only a priest can conduct marriages where one of the parties is Eastern; the priestly blessing being a requirement for validity in the Eastern Churches, but not in the Latin rite, where a deacon can preside.
None of the changes are, per se, groundbreaking. All of the requirements which have now been incorporated into the Latin Code were already substantially present in the Eastern Code, and in many cases the changes amount to verbatim inclusions of Eastern law, or harmonizing of legal terminology.
The Eastern Code, which was promulgated in 1990 and which applies to the twenty-plus Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome, was drafted with a particular sensitivity to inter-Church relationships, both at the institutional and individual level. In contrast, the Latin Code, which was wholly revised in 1983, contained rather less nuance and detail in such matters, simply because in the overwhelmingly Latin West there was no need.
While the letter from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts which accompanied the new motu proprio stresses that the new changes were under consideration since the reign of St John Paul II and formally begun under Benedict XVI, the reforms were definitely given a sense of urgency by recent geo-political events.
In the text of the motu proprio, Pope Francis says that the changes have been made essential by ever-increasing global migration, which has seen large communities of different Eastern Churches arrive in the West. While not explicitly stated, the obvious single greatest cause for this reality is the forced exodus of Eastern Christians from their ancient homes in countries like Iraq and Syria.
Since the time of Benedict XV, who set up what was to become the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, the Holy See has been at pains to find ways to preserve the unique patrimony and cultural identity of the different Eastern Churches, especially against the risk of the “Latinization” of Eastern communities in predominantly Latin areas.
These latest reforms do not represent a real change in how Latin bishops and priests should care for Eastern communities living in their midst, rather they make clearer for them how best this is to be done and recognize the increasingly urgent pastoral demand – something we have recently seen in England with the establishment of the new Syro-Malabar Eparchy in Preston. Pope Francis himself has had first-hand experience of these issues; he served as the Ordinary of the Latin Ordinariate set up to care for all the Eastern Catholic faithful in Argentina.
Hopefully the new norms will give Latin pastors confidence in welcoming new arrivals into the wider Catholic community and give greater coherence to their efforts to care for Eastern faithful, with whose rich traditions they may not be familiar.