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Fifteen Years of Canon Law in the Philippines (1983-1998):  An Overview
by: Javier Gonzalez, OP

MANY people in the Philippines may still remember the year 1983 for a variety of reasons, especially for having been the year in which the political event of Ninoy Aquino's assassination took place.  But what I am sure is that very few, if any, will remember 1983 for having been the year in which the revised Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church was promulgated.

It could not be otherwise.  After all, a Code of laws—even the code of the Church—cannot surely be the dominant concern of millions of people, many of them furthermore living in a precarious situation!

The 1983 Code of Canon Law was most welcome here in the Philippines by those bishops, priests and scholars who had been awaiting it for years. However, for the vast majority of Filipino Catholics, the Code's appearance did not cause great impact, due mainly to ignorance about it

And yet, whether acknowledged or not, the promulgation of the 1983 code of Canon Law constituted a momentous event in the Church's life. On one hand, it marked the end of a long process of revision: Nineteen years were left behind of laborious efforts, of unending consultations, of hundreds of meetings and thousands of pages written and re-written by experts in an attempt not only to update the previous 1917 Code, but also to translate the spirit and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council into canonical language.  Not in vain the new Code was described as "the last document or he Second Vatican Council". On the other hand, it consolidated the renewal process going on in the life of the Church.

1998.  Fifteen years have passed since then. Years that, in the ecclesial context of the Philippines, have been accompanied by lights and shadows, achievements and failures. The commemoration of [he 15th anniversary of the promulgation of the Code is a wonderful occasion to evaluate the main facts and events that have taken place in the Philippines In the process of implementing the new Code. Also the actuation of those prominent institutions which have been its protagonists. This will lead us in turn to identify some needs and to suggest some eventual solutions.


The main facts or events that have taken place in the life of the church in the Philippines since 1983 and which are related to the implementation of the Code are following among others:

a)  At the national level,

  • The celebration of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippine, (PCP-II), held In 1991, which was a major step in the pastoral-canonical implementation of both the Vatican II and the 1983 Code of Canon Law;
  • The actuation of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), which, through its Commission on Canon Law, has issued specific norms on matters where the Code requested its intervention;
  • The creation of National Appellate Tribunal, now in operation for the whole country, whose personnel are appointed by the Episcopal Conference;
  • The mutual agreement on some issues regarding Church-State relations (e.g. on Education, Marriage, Penalties, Drugs, Taxes, Employment, Constitutional amendments, etc.) between the CBCP and the Philippine Government;
  • The incessant activity of the Faculty of Canon Law of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, which along the years continue to impart canonical knowledge as well as to issue corresponding degrees to its students; thus making its contribution nationwide;
  • The creation of the Canon Law Society of the Philippines (CLSP), in 1992, which is starting already to produce some of its intended fruits. The society is gathering this year (1998) in Puerto Princesa (Palawan) to celebrate its sixth year of existence.

b)  At  the diocesan level,

  • The holding of some Diocesan Synods and Provincial Councils, during which bishops, priests and laity assembled together reviewed diocesan structures and policies, thus bringing their  diocesan programs in line with the new legislation;
  • The creation of new diocesan bodies and organisms (e.g. the finance and pastoral councils), following the directives of the Code;
  • The institution and reorganization of lay ministers and ministries, specially liturgical, eucharistic and catechetical;
  • The creation of some First Instance diocesan tribunals, although on this regard a negative point is the fact that many dioceses do not have yet a First Instance ecclesiastical tribunal.

c)  At the parochial level,

  • The creation of new structures and the solidification of some existing ones;
  • The aggregation of new councils;
  • The institution/organization of lay ministries and apostolates;
  • The implementation of new pastoral and formation programs;
  • The introduction of innovative policies regarding administration-reception of sacraments;
  • The pursuing, in general, of new attitudes following the directives of the Code.

d)  At the personal level,

  • The awareness of a number of bishops about the need of preparing a sufficient number of competent canon lawyers in their dioceses, mainly in view of establishing diocesan tribunals;
  • An increasing number of priests, theology students and even laity have manifested personal interest in pursuing canonical studies.  Many of them because they need the qualifications to carry out some special assignments; others because they have discovered in the Code a "Manual of practical theology," a much needed tool for their professional and pastoral activities.

All these points would deserve ample study. But given our limitations of time and space it is impossible for us to analyze them here one by one.


1.  The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines

A solemn liturgical celebration at the Manila Cathedral, on January 20, 1991, marked the opening of the second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP-ll).  It was a gathering of extraordinary importance, not only for the uniqueness of its composition [94-Bishops, 18O Vicars General and Episcopal Vicars, 21 Major Superiors, 12 Rectors or Presidents of Catholic Universities, 24 Rectors of Major Seminaries and Deans of Theology and Canon law, and 52 Lay Faithful], but also for the relevance of the topics discussed.

As Canon lawyers, we may ask:  Was he Code of Canon Law of any relevance to the Council?  Certainly, it was.  In the first place the formalities of the PCP-II celebration (letters of request, selection of participants, rescripts of approval, elections, date of effectiveness, etc.) were molded and executed in accordance with the provisions of canon law.  Secondly, not only the formalities, but the very celebration of the PCP-ll was somehow determined by the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law (cf. Summary of the Acts, par. 1). Thirdly, a fact that speaks of itself, most footnotes of the Council's Decrees contain references to canons:  e.g. on the Sacraments of Penance and Confirmation, Catechesis, Missionary thrust, Seminary formation, Political activities of the clergy, Ecumenism, Christian spirituality, Relations among bishops, priests, religious and laity, Fundamental rights, Lay apostolate, Temporal concerns, Diocesan/parish marriage programs, Schools, Communion/collaboration among the People of God, Religious life, Apostolate, Freemasonry, etc.  This alone shows the influence of the Code of Canon Law in the Council's doctrinal content as well as the pastoral approach of the Code itself.

2.  The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines

Best known for the initials CBCP, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines is now 53 years old.  Born in 1945 as the Catholic Welfare Organization (CWO), it adopted its present name in 1967.  Today the CBCP remains as the national organization of the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines.

The CBCP has presently five Departments, each of them with sub-commissions. Two among the latter are of our interest, namely, the Commission on Canon Law, which is under he Department of Doctrine and Religious Affairs, and the National AppeIIate Tribunal, which under the Department of External Affairs.

    a)  The Commission of Canon Law started as a simple Committee, in 1958. When the new Code was promulgated, in 1983, the Commission was tasked with formulating the complementary norms for the Philippines. The Commission's proposals were first approved by the CBCP and later, on September 27, 1985, confirmed by the Holy See with some revisions. For the last fifteen years, with Abp. Manuel Salvador and Abp. Alberto Piamonte as chairman, Commission has been tasked to do studies and make recommendations to the CBCP to promote and organize updating seminars on Canon Law for bishops, priests, religious and laity; to assist dioceses in preparing personnel for the chancery, for the matrimonial tribunal, and in general to look after canonical matters.

    b) The National Appellate Tribunal. The Superior Court of Appeals established at the University of SantoTomas in 1957 remained in operation till 1972 when, upon request of the CBCP, Rome granted that each tribunal of first instance could act as tribunal of second Instance to the other tribunals established in the country. This arrangement was superseded by the establishment of a single national Court of Appeals at Manila in 1984. Although placed under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Manila, the appointment of personnel belongs to the Episcopal Conference.

3. The UST Faculty of Canon Law

Towards the end of the 17th century, the University of SantoTomas obtained the Brief "Inscrutabili" from lnnocent XI, dated August 7, 1681, whereby the Faculty of Canon Law was erected. And except for a brief period of time (1726-1732), the University has always possessed this Faculty, empowered to grant academic degrees even up to this day.  With its incessant activity In imparting canonical knowledge to its students whether by way of classes or by Symposia, the Faculty has played a major role in the implementation of the new Code.

Archival statistics give out a total of 4,616 enrolled students for the period 1734-1898 and 318 graduates for the period 1734-1882.  Present-day data shows a total of 516 students enrolled in the Faculty from 1942 to1998, of which 182 from the S.Y. 1983-1984.

Of the many alumni priests of the faculty of Canon Law in the 20th century, by passing many outstanding clerics, parish priests, seminary professors, administrators in their dioceses, the following are those who have reached the heights of the episcopacy: Bishops Santiago Sancho, Sofronio Hagbang, Casimiro Lladoc, Vicente Ataviado, Carmelo Morelos, Mariano Gaviola, Antonio Mabutas, Alberto Piamonte, Oscar Camomot, Jesus Tuquib, Antonio Tobias, Francisco San Diego, Leonardo Medroso, Manolo de los Santos and perhaps others.

4. The Canon Law Society of the Philippines

An offshoot of the spirit of the new Code is the foundation in 1993 of the Canon Law Society of the Philippines or CLSP with its secretariat in Intramuros. The Society's aims are "to render pastoral service to the Christian Faithful through Canon Law; to promote the on-going of, and research in, canonical science and allied sciences towards fostering the knowledge and practice of Canon Law; and to facilitate the interchange of canonical findings and opinions, observations and proposals among the members and with the other Canon Law Societies." (Statutes)

With the encouragement and initial funding of Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, a meeting was held at Villa San Miguel (Manila) on January 7, 1993—feast of St. Raymond of Pennyafort, patron saint of canon lawyers—to prepare for what would be the first convention of the Society.  From then the Society has carried out a policy of organizing an annual convention in order to discuss contemporary issues affecting the local church and to exchange ideas on the practlcal application of the canonical legislation. Antipolo (1993) Tagaytay (1994), Cabanatuan (1996) Cagayan de Ore (1997) and Puerto Princesa (1998) have been so far the cities where such conventions have been held.

The CLSP being still in its infancy, this is not yet the time to talk about the achievements of the past, but rather about the plans for the future. A good number of issues, however, have been discussed during the annual Conventions (open also to the laity), some resolutions formulated, activities organized, etc., and little by little the Society is becoming known by the people.

To help in carrying out its aims, in 1995 the Society launched an official newsletter entitled The CLSP Gazette, which is published twice a year.  In the same line,  at present, more ambitious project of the CLSP is the publication of a scientific canonical review entitled Philippine Canonical Forum.


1)  Using the Code as instrument of communion

The Code of Canon Law is not an end in itself, but only a means to serve an end, which incidentally is the Church herself, contemporarily defined in terms of communion.

How and in what way can the 1983 Code be an instrument of communion in the life of the Church at its various levels, in the particular context of the Philippines? The answer cannot be other than "in the two main ways, in which normally canon law serves ecclesial communion," namely: (a) By making its very existence possible. (This is done primarily by creating order in the ecclesial community through well formulated norms); and (b) By contributing to its postoral fecundity. The 1983 Code was from the very beginning meant to be a means to create normatively a "pastoral government" necessary for the Church to grow. That is why the principles valid for the universal Church have to take "flesh and bones" in each particular local Church. The task of deciding what is pastorally urgent or convenient in each time and place in the life oftheChurch binds in conscience pastors and faithful "pro sua parte et suo modo".

I do not think that the Code, with Its tremendous potentialities, has been sufficiently "exploited" by the clergy and laity alike in the building up communion in the particular church at the various levels. This would require not only a correct understanding of the canons but also a proper use of them. I do believe the Code could become a magnificent tool of communion in the hands especially of diocesan Bishops.

2) Canonical formation of clergy and laity

Parallel with what St. Jerome said about the Scriptures and Christ, we can say that "ignorance of canon law is ignorance of the Church".  If this is true, how little known the Church is!  And how great it is the need to do something for people to get an adequate knowledge of the canonical legislation!

Speaking from the present-day Philippine situation, it is not the law that is in crisis but rather our perception and understanding of it. The unpopularity of the law is in most cases the fruit of ignorance and misunderstandings. The plain fact is that bishops and priests need solid canonical formation for the pastoral fecundity of their work: the reception of Holy Orders are never a substitute (less an excuse) for what can be acquired by serious study. The religious Congregations, especially of Sisters, are in dire need of having sufficient number of their members academically equipped with canonical studies and degrees. The laity, finally, need today more than ever to have a good knowledge of the law of the Church, since throngs of them in his part of the world are actively involved in ministries, even collaborating in the governance of the Church.

Something has to be done to remedy the situation. The fact that most members of the People of God hardly know anything about canon law should make us feel somehow guilty.  The day is not far when the laity will complain and blame us far having not facilitated their access to such knowledge.  What is at stake is not just an adequate knowledge of canon law, but also through it,  proper understanding of the Church, with the consequent empowerment for each person to live out his or her call t0 salvation in the Church.

3)  The Constitution of Ecclesiastical Tribunals

A good number of dioceses in the Philippines do not have yet a Diocesan First Instance Matrimonial Tribunal, which could take charge not only of the matrimonial cases, but also of other canonical procedures, such as 'secularization' of priests, beatification process, etc. Bishops need these tribunals to exercise properly their judicial power.

The main obstacle for the creation of such tribunals is the lack of competent personnel, not only of juris-periti (experts) but also juris-prudentes (practitioners), for judicial activity positively contributes to matrimonial ministry only if it is carried out with ability, with tine sacerdotal spirit, and at the service of objective truth considered in the light of the Gospel and the Magisterium of the Church.

In the Philippines efforts have been exerted to help solve the situation, as seen in the following decisions taken in the past recent years: a) Permission to the Bishops to entrust the cases to a single judge; b) Permission by the CBCP for qualified lay persons—male or female—to be appointed judges in collegiate tribunals; c) The possibility to appoint a common judicial vicar for the resolution of documentary and formal marriage cases (CBCP Res., Jan. 25-27, l989).

4) Collaboration between Church-State

The 1987 Philippine Constitution states that "The separation of Church and State shall he inviolable."  The principle has received ample support, but it is still a principle needing practical, Concrete application.

Thinking of the last fifteen years, the relations the Church and the State in the Philippines, in general, have not been bad. Furthermore, there have been moments of excellent harmony and collaboration (like for instance, during the drafting of the 1987 Constitution). Given the vast majority of Catholics, the Church's stands continue to be influential in the political life of the Country.

Among the current issues regarding Church-State relations we could mention a long list of them. For instance on Constitution amendment (Cha-cha) Share and Care Apostolate for Poor Settlers (SCAPS), tax exemption of Churches, Magna Carta of Students, Employment, Drugs, Penalties for rapists, Family Privacy, Foreign missionaries, Tribal ancestral lands, TV or radio franchise, Protection of Filipino women, Voting and Elections, Pornography, Children's legitimacy, Psychological incapacity in marriage.  Administrative issues, Death penalty. Sex education, etc.

My personal view is that, in order to make dialogue and collaboration more effective, it would be better if a set of "concordated" agreements were mutually signed. I am not advocating for the old monolithic concordatarian system, which hardly allowed any flexibility. I am rather thinking of a modern, flexible system where partial agreements on particular matters (for Instance, on Marriage, on Church patrimony, Clergy maintenance, Military assistance, Religious education in schools, etc.) are separately signed and periodically reviewed. This system, experimented already in other countries, seems to provide a more effective collaboration and to remove some unhealthy tensions.


Based on what has been said and on an evaluation of the present situation, we will advance some recommendations for possible concrete actions.

- That the CLSP become more aggressive in carrying out canonico-pastoral programs and contribute effectively to disseminate the knowledge of Canon law through the promotion of studies and research.

- That the CBCP enters into separate, partial agreements between the local Church and the State on particular matters, such as religious education in public schools, recognition of marriage and of  court sentences, maintenance of Church's patrimony and of the clergy, military chaplaincy, keeping of religious patrimony, taxes, etc.

- That the CBCP through its Committee on Canon Law continues to intervene in the formulation of particular laws in those areas of Church discipline where it can enact laws and other binding decisions.

- That Diocesan Synods (and Provincial Councils) be held in every diocese, since they are an excellent opportunity for clergy and laity to discuss together matters of common interest for the diocese.

- That diocesan bishops support the creation of ecclesiastical tribunals in their dioceses by providing their members preparation opportunities and work incentives. The tribunal personnel in turn should show commitment and dedication.

- That local Ordinaries encourage and even facilitate the enrollment of some selected members of the laity in formal Canon law courses in order to acquire the proper academic degrees (MA, License or Doctorate in canon law).

- That Religious Superiors, especially of Sisters, include canonical subjects in their on-going formation courses, and send some members to formally pursue studies in Canon law and get the corresponding degrees.

- That in Seminaries as well as in programs for the continuing formation of the clergy, canon law be taught in well structured programs, in such a way that the norms correctly interpreted, are appreciated as an effective means of pastoral action, in fidelity to Christ and his Church. On this regard, and to facilitate things, the CLSP could be commissioned to prepare a uniform canon law textbook.

- That the laity be affirmed and encouraged to actively participate in the life of the Church through associations and ministries at both diocesan and parochial levels. *


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