The Catholic University of America

The Place of Law in the Church
Address by Monsignor Lawrence G. Wrenn
at the Johannes Quasten Medal Ceremony
December 6, 2000

Thirty years ago a best selling novel told the story of a man named Chance who had never gone to school and who could neither read nor write. From the time he was a little boy he had worked as a gardener in a large house in Manhattan. His mother had died in childbirth and his father was a "pater ignotus" as we used to say, so Chance was an orphan. The story is set in about 1970 at which time Chance is probably in his forties. When Chance isn't gardening he's watching television, and television is literally his only contact with the outside world. In his entire life he has never once set foot outside that Manhattan house with the big garden out back.

But then the owner of the house dies and Chance is forced to leave the house, so he takes the owner's valise, packs it up with some of the owner's clothes, walks out the front door and down that street in New York. He only goes a short distance, however, when he is injured slightly when a chauffeur-driven limousine backs into him. The limo is owned by Benjamin Rand, the chairman of the board of a major financial institution and friend of the president of the United States. And within the next few days Chance gets to meet the Secretary General of the U.N., the Soviet ambassador to the United States and the president himself. Most of the time Chance doesn't have the faintest idea what these people are talking about. But when he is asked a question he responds with some folksy observation about gardening like "In a garden growth has its season;" and everyone thinks he's speaking metaphorically and insightfully about the economy; so very quickly Chance comes to be regarded as a brilliant, decisive leader; exactly what the country and the world need.

The book, as many of you recognize, was written by Jerzy Kosinski and was called Being There.[1] Well, when Father Steve Happel telephoned a couple of months ago to talk about the Quasten lecture, it was this book that came immediately to mind. I felt that some gigantic mistake had been made in selecting the likes of me to receive this distinguished honor. Especially, perhaps, on this hundredth anniversary of Father Quasten's birth. But there is, of course, one qualification I do have and that is "Being There." I've been active in the field of church law for almost forty-five years now; so I've been "being there" for a long time and, thank God, I'm still here and still enjoying it, and am more grateful that I can tell you for your extraordinary kindness in extending to me this honor.

But more importantly, the selection of a canonist as this year's lecturer and medallist is, I trust, a demonstration of the School's esteem for the discipline of canon law in general and more especially perhaps for the hundreds of canon lawyers, each in his or her own little corner of the Church in America, who are working, in various ways, to obtain justice for their people. One cannot help but think, furthermore, that it does honor to our beloved Jim Provost who did so much both for this University and for the field of canon law throughout the world.

So let me try to offer a few thoughts this afternoon on the place of law in this wonderful Church of ours.

The Grand Inquisitor

In 1879 Feodor Dostoyevsky wrote his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the course of that novel Ivan Karamazov tells his younger brother, Alyosha, a story which is loosely based on St. Matthew's account of the temptation of Christ[2] where the devil urges Jesus first to turn stones into bread, then to bank on the angels for protection against injury, and finally to assume power over all the kingdoms of the earth. The story, which Ivan calls "The Grand Inquisitor", takes up only about twenty pages in a novel of almost 900 pages,[3] but it has, as it were, taken on a life of its own, and has long been considered a masterpiece. Lionel Trilling, for example, wrote: "Of 'The Grand Inquisitor' it can be said almost categorically that no other work of literature has made so strong an impression on the modern consciousness or has seemed so relevant to virtually any speculation about the destiny of man. ... No other modern literary work has speculated on human fate in terms so grandiose."[4]

The story is set in Seville, Spain during the height of the Inquisition when, as Ivan says, "fires were lighted every day to the glory of God, and in the splendid auto da fe, the wicked heretics were burnt." One day, in the midst of all these executions, Jesus came, to be with his beloved people. This opening scene about the coming of Jesus, despite its length, deserves, I think, to be quoted more or less in full. It sets the stage for everything that follows, and, except for some minor editing, it goes like this:

[ext] He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him. ...The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him. He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out His hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with Him, even with His garments. An old man in the crowd, blind from childhood, cries out, 'O Lord, heal me and I shall see Thee!' and, as it were, scales fall from his eyes and the blind man sees Him. The crowd weeps and kisses the earth under His feet. Children throw flowers before Him, sing, and cry hosannah. 'It is He--it is He!' all repeat. 'It must be He, it can be no one but Him!' He stops at the steps of the Seville cathedral at the moment when the weeping mourners are bringing in a little open white coffin. In it lies a child of seven. ... At the urging of the crowd the mother says to him, 'If it is Thou, raise my child' and the man says to the child 'Maiden, arise' and the maiden arises.

There are cries, sobs, confusion among the people, and at that moment the cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light. He is not dressed in his gorgeous cardinal's robes, as he was the day before, when he was burning [almost a hundred of] the enemies of the Roman Church--at this moment he was wearing his coarse, old, monk's cassock. At a distance behind him come his gloomy assistants and slaves and the 'holy guard.' He stops at the sight of the crowd and watches it from a distance. He sees everything; he sees them set the coffin down at the feet of the mysterious one, sees the child rise up, and his face darkens. He knits his thick gray brows and his eyes gleam with a sinister fire. He holds out his finger and bids the guards take Him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to Him, that the crowd immediately make way for the guards, and in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead Him away. The crowd instantly bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old inquisitor. He blesses the people in silence and passes on. The guards lead their .prisoner to the close, gloomy vaulted prison in the ancient palace of the Holy Inquisition and shut Him in it. The day passes and is followed by the dark, burning 'breathless' night of Seville. The air is 'fragrant with laurel and lemon.' In the pitch darkness the iron door of the prison is suddenly opened and the Grand Inquisitor himself comes in with a light in his hand. He is alone, the door is closed at once behind him. He stands in the doorway and for a minute or two gazes into His face. At last he goes up slowly, sets the light on the table and speaks.

'Is it Thou? Thou'? But receiving no answer, he adds at once, 'Don't answer, be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? I know too well what Thou wouldst say. And Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thou hadst said of old. Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us? For Thou hast come to hinder us, and Thou knowest that. But dost Thou know what will be tomorrow? I know not who Thou art and care not to know whether it is Thou or only a semblance of Him, but tomorrow I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics. And the very people who have today kissed Thy feet, tomorrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire. Knowest Thou that? Yes, maybe Thou knowest it,' he added with thoughtful penetration, never for a moment taking his eyes off the Prisoner.[end ext]

In reading these opening lines one senses immediately that what we have here is a dramatic, explicit confrontation between good and evil, between God and Satan, and the eyes of the two protagonists tell all. Light and power shine from the eyes of Jesus and their radiance stirs the hearts of the people, while the Inquisitor's eyes are sunken, and though initially there is a gleam of light in them, the gleam quickly turns into a sinister fire. So, the issue is joined; the battle has begun. And ultimately, as we shall see, at least according to one reading of the story, it will be a battle over jurisdiction in the Church, over who will rule and how. It will, in short, be a battle over the quality and place of law in the Church.

But let me continue with the story. After the initial face off, the Grand Inquisitor then goes on to condemn Jesus for the way Jesus handled what we, but not the Grand Inquisitor, call the three "temptations" of Christ. The Grand Inquisitor calls them not 'temptations' but 'questions,' and he regards those questions as beyond brilliant. "The statement of those three questions" he says "was itself the miracle,' and he asks Jesus, "dost Thou believe that all the wisdom of the earth united could have invented anything in depth and force equal to the three questions which were actually put to Thee then by the wise and mighty spirit in the wilderness?"...For in those three questions, he says, "the whole subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together into one whole."

According to the original gospel account, of course, the devil is portrayed as trying to seduce Jesus with three very personal temptations. The Inquisitor, however, gives an entirely different spin to the event. For him they were not three personal temptations at all; they were, rather, three amazing, cosmic opportunities which, if only they had been seized, would have won for Jesus the allegiance of every person ever to be born and enabled him to achieve an Earthly Paradise for every human being. Jesus, however, because of his naively exaggerated regard for human freedom and human dignity, failed to seize the moment. The one-time opportunity was lost and history was thereby changed forever.

As regards the first question about turning the stones into bread, if only Jesus had agreed to do that, then, says the Inquisitor to Jesus, mankind would "run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though forever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread." If only Jesus had done that, he would have held the human race in the palm of his hand and they would have done whatever he asked. Jesus, however, rejected that offer because he did not want to buy people's faith or bribe them. He wanted to leave them free to follow him or not. And he trusted that, with God's grace, every person is capable of being his disciple.

With the second question the devil suggested that Jesus could throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple and count on a miraculous and flamboyant rescue by angels. Had Jesus done that, says the Inquisitor, people would have flocked to him because they are "foolish children" who love miracles more than they love God himself, but again, says the Inquisitor to Jesus, "Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on miracle" but "I swear, man is weaker and baser by nature than Thou hast believed him--Thou Who hadst loved him more than Thyself."

And finally Jesus is offered dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth but that too he rejects because he has no wish to be a Caesar or a Ghengis-Khan who subdues people and treats them like dogs. "Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar's purple" said the Inquisitor, "Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and given universal peace." But Jesus knew that there was no true peace without human freedom and human dignity, and he rejected this offer of Satan as well.

And so, says the Cardinal Inquisitor, since Jesus made those fateful and foolish decisions, we (meaning the Roman Catholic hierarchy) we have had to correct the work of Jesus (that's the word the Cardinal uses several times: "correct") we have had to correct the work of Jesus. And the Cardinal Inquisitor says to Jesus, "We have taken the sword of Caesar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him" (meaning Satan). "Listen," he says, "we are not working with Thee but with him."

In correcting the work of Jesus, what they came up with was the Spanish Inquisition; which was law at its worst, a law where those accused did not know who their accusers were and so could not confront or challenge them, where the accused were obliged under oath to incriminate themselves,[5] where many informants were themselves criminals, where there was no counsel and no defense and where people were tortured and burned at the stake by the hundreds. As represented in the story of "The Grand Inquisitor," furthermore, the whole philosophy of the "correctors," those who were correcting the work of Jesus, was to deceive the people, whom they regarded as "weak, pitiful children," and to persuade them, (and this is a quote) "to persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us." This, according to Ivan's story (or poem, as he called it), this was the entire basis and foundation of their legal system.

Well this, in brief, is the legend of the Grand Inquisitor. But what specifically is it saying to us about the place of law in the Church? Four things, I think.

First and most fundamentally it is clearly, although implicitly, accepting the truth of the axiom ubi societas, ibi ius. It is, in other words, recognizing the fact that in every society there will always be some kind of law. Secondly it is making the point that where good law is lacking, bad law will rush in to fill the vacuum; indeed, within an ecclesial society, where good Christian law is absent, the devil's law will quickly take its place. Thirdly (and this is by far the most important point) it is telling us that, for Jesus, the absolutely indispensable principle upon which law should be based is this: that, come what may, whatever the consequences, human dignity and legitimate human freedom are always and everywhere to be protected. According to the legend, indeed, it was precisely Christ's refusal to dilute or skirt this sacred principle that accounts for the human race being where it is today, with our dignity and freedom more or less intact, it is true, but at the same time, with so much suffering, hunger, violence, squabbling religions, and rampant destruction of the environment plaguing the world.

Nevertheless, in the grand scheme the fact is that preserving human dignity and human freedom is, on balance, more important, more essential than eradicating the negative consequences that necessarily flow from that freedom. And right between the lines of the Karamazov story our fourth point is being made, namely, that when the Church establishes its system of governance, it must have always before its eyes that principle that Jesus considered so inviolable: that, come what may, human dignity and legitimate human freedom are always and everywhere to be protected. For without that principle in place the Church's law will be a disastrous failure and will only impede our witnessing to the Gospel.

What then can be said about the state of the Church's law at this turn of the twenty-first century? Does our present law, our Code of Canon Law adequately respect and honor the freedom and dignity of the human person? Given the fact that, from the very beginning of the process of revising the prior code, it was understood that the teachings of the Second Vatican Council would be a principal guide and inspiration in the drafting of the new code, and given the fact that the council, especially perhaps in its final document, Dignitatis humanae, spoke so eloquently about human freedom and dignity, one would expect that those teachings would indeed be incorporated into the new code. And so they were. Not in every instance, perhaps, but in general, I think, to an acceptable degree.

Listen, for example, to just a few of the canons in the 1983 code that speak of human freedom and dignity. All of these canons, incidentally, are brand new with the 1983 code; none of them was found in the 1917 code.

[ext] c. 208: From their rebirth in Christ, there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality regarding dignity and action by which they all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ according to each one's own condition and function.

c. 212 §3: According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, (the Christian faithful) have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

c. 218: Those engaged in the sacred disciplines have a just freedom of inquiry and of expressing their opinion prudently on those matters in which they possess expertise, while observing the respect due to the magisterium of the Church.

c. 386 §2: Through [more] suitable means (the diocesan bishop) is firmly to protect the integrity and unity of the faith to be believed, while nonetheless acknowledging a just freedom in further investigating its truths.

c. 768 §2. (Those who proclaim the divine word are) to impart to the faithful the doctrine which the magisterium of the Church sets forth concerning the dignity and freedom of the human person, the unity and stability of the family and its duties, the obligations which people have from being joined together in society, and the ordering of temporal affairs according to the plan established by God. [end ext]

These five canons, just a sampling of the many canons that touch on the subject, illustrate, I hope, the Church's deepening awareness and appreciation of the crucial position that the freedom and dignity of the human person must occupy in the law of the Church. The Church seems well aware now that a profound respect for the human person, for every human person, is an absolutely essential ingredient in the making of good Christian law.

But even good law, good Christian law, is, of course, only one element, one dimension of the Church. For a closer look at where that element fits into the larger picture, we turn our attention now to an interesting "odd couple" in the Church, namely, the law and the prophets. Let me first offer a few examples from the Gospels.

The Odd Couple

St. Matthew, in his account of the Transfiguration, described Jesus as taking Peter, James and John up a high mountain by themselves, and once there, the face of Jesus shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light, and then suddenly Moses and Elijah were there, conversing with Jesus.[6] Moses and Elijah : Moses, as has often been pointed out, representing the law; Elijah representing the prophets. The law and the prophets.

Jesus once told a story about a rich man who ignored the plight of a poor man whom he passed daily outside his gate. Both died and their fates were reversed. The rich man then asked Abraham to send someone to warn his family lest they end up as he did, saying: "If someone were to rise from death and go to them, then they would turn from their sins." But Abraham said: "If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets (Moses once again representing the law, if they will not listen to the law and the prophets), they will not be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead."[7] The law and the prophets.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." To fulfill the law and the prophets. And then Jesus immediately launches into that long series of "You have heard it said--But I tell you," during which he calls us to a higher standard regarding such matters as killing, adultery, divorce, revenge, and general respect for our neighbor.[8] But this clearly was only one of the ways that Jesus was fulfilling the law and the prophets.

And one final example. One day some Pharisees gathered around Jesus, and one of them, a scholar of the law, tested Jesus by asking: "Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest? Jesus said to them, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it. You should love your neighbor as yourself." And then Jesus says, "On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets."[9]

The law and the prophets. An odd couple if ever there was one. Like television's Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, or the film's Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau. The law and the prophets are the Church's own Felix and Oscar. In what sense? Well, like Felix (which incidentally means "the happy one") the law searches for neatness and preciseness whereas prophecy is too passionate to be concerned about such matters. The law also favors a relatively tight ship and going by the book on the ground that it is fairer and more even handed, while prophecy favors a looser, more adaptable structure in order to meet new challenges and to remain more fully open to the Spirit. The law tends to overlook or accept the faults of the society (in this case, the Church) and to concentrate instead on its basic health and soundness, whereas prophecy tends to be outspoken about failings within the group, in the earnest hope of improving it. The law accentuates authority; prophecy accentuates freedom. The law is stable; prophecy is dynamic. The law is characterized by patience; prophecy by a sense of urgency.

But perhaps the most important thing about the law and the prophets is not their oddness but their coupleness. They are, it is true, an odd couple, but above all they are a couple. They respect and support each other and even bring out the best in each other. And it would be a sad Church indeed, as Jesus, I think, was telling us, were one to dominate the other.

There are many examples of how law and prophecy approach an issue differently but let me mention just one, the college of cardinals, an institution that has been around for a thousand years or so. The law, that is to say, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, devotes eleven canons to the subject. These canons outline the nomination, rights, duties, ranks, obligations, and privileges of cardinals. There is no fault finding here. Basically the institution is accepted as a useful one, and the canons seem to want to keep it that way. They strive only to provide some helpful regulations.[10] Prophecy, on the other hand, sees problems. In his book, The Reform of the Papacy, Archbishop John Quinn pointed out that there are three major problems with the college of cardinals, first, that it is a college within a college and, in practice, often makes the rest of the college of bishops a college of second rank; second, that the relationship between cardinals and the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches is awkward and potentially offensive to the patriarchs; and third, that, viewed ecumenically, the limiting of voting eligibility to cardinals in a papal election would undoubtedly prove a considerable hurdle to the union of all Christians, especially for those churches where lay persons customarily participate in the election of bishops.[11]

Clearly both of these approaches, both the law and the prophets, provide a great service to the Church, and, at the same time, they actually complement each other. The tendency, perhaps, is to concentrate excessively on the differences between law and prophecy, on their oddness, so to speak, but the fact is that they are a real couple.

Much the same point was eloquently made in the famous section eight of Lumen gentium, the first paragraph of which absolutely begs to be quoted here. It reads:

[ext] Christ, the one Mediator, established and ceaselessly sustains here on earth His holy church, the community of faith, hope, and charity, as a visible structure. Through her He communicates truth and grace to all. But the society furnished with hierarchical agencies and the Mystical Body of Christ are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things. Rather they form one interlocked reality which is comprised of a divine and human element. For this reason, by an excellent analogy, this reality is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. Just as the assumed nature inseparably united to the divine Word serves Him as a living instrument of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the communal structure of the Church serve Christ's Spirit, who vivifies it by way of building up the body (cf. Eph. 4:16). [end ext]

While it is true that, strictly speaking, this paragraph from Lumen gentium is talking about the coupling or integration not of the law and the prophets but of "the visible assembly" and "the spiritual community", nevertheless the principle stated in the paragraph, it seems to me, also applies, perhaps even equally, to the law and the prophets, so that they too, as Lumen gentium says: "form one interlocked reality."

Which brings to mind a kind of vision that Pope John Paul II had some years ago. What he envisioned was a triangle, what he called "an ideal triangle" of books. At the top, of course, was sacred scripture, "the eternal book of the Word of God, the center and heart of which is the Gospel." This naturally is at "the summit of transcendent eminence", said the pope. But at the two lower angles of the triangle were the acts of the Second Vatican Council on the one side and the Code of Canon Law on the other. And these two books, said the pope, these two books are "a very valid and significant combination."[12]

So the pope calls them "a very valid and significant combination" but they could also be called, I think, an odd couple. Because obviously the code represents the law whereas the documents of Vatican II represent the voice of prophecy. The pope's vision, therefore, is , if I may say so, almost a variation on the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration event.

Concluding Remarks

Let me conclude finally with some summary observations:

1. Law is necessary in the Church, not only because ubi societas, ibi ius, but also because law, as one half of the law-prophecy team, is one of the two great dimensions of ecclesial life.

2. Law plays a modest role in the life of the Church, first in the sense that it finds both its foundation and its justification in theology; and secondly in that the extent or amount of law in the Church should be as limited as possible[13] in accord with the example set by the apostles and elders at the Council of Jerusalem when they said, "It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves to impose no burden on you beyond what is necessary."[14]

3. Church law should always be respectful of human dignity and human freedom by being "animated by charity and ordered to justice", and when it does that, says Pope John Paul II, "the law lives, il diritto vive."[15]

Monsignor Wrenn is the Judicial Vicar of the Metropolitan Court of the Province of Hartford. Lecture given December 6, 2000 on occasion of his reception of Johannes Quasten Medal.


[1]Jerzy Kosinski, Being There (New York: Grove Press, 1970).

[2]Matthew 4: 1-11.

[3]Feodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, undated)."The Grand Inquisitor" appears on pages 270-291.

[4]Lionel Trilling, The Experience of Literature (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967) 482.

[5]Compare this situation with canon 1728 §2 indicating that an accused in a criminal process is not bound to confess the delict and that an oath cannot be administered to him or her.

[6]Matthew 17: 1-4.

[7]Luke 16: 30-31.

[8]Matthew 5.

[9]Matthew 22: 34-38.

[10]Canons 349-359.

[11]John R. Quinn, The Reform of the Papacy (New York: Crossroad, 1999) 140-153.

[12]Communicationes 15 (1983) 16.

[13]Rosalio Castillo Lara, "Il posto del diritto canonico in una visione conciliare della Chiesa," in Iustus Iudex (Essen: Ludgerus Verlag, 1990) 9-14.

[14]Acts of the Apostles 15: 28.

[15]Communicationes 15 (1983) 15.