Fr. Jesús Miñambres, Dean of Santa Croce’s Faculty of Canon Law, presents a diploma to Fr. Anthony Nguyen, a Benedictine priest whose monastery, Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC, Canada, runs the seminary for the archdiocese of Vancouver. He is currently teaching canon law in the seminary of Christ the King in addition to his involvement in monastic formation.
The School of Canon Law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross is widely recognized as a unique program. While other canon law programs in Rome tend to focus more on the exegetical approach to studying existing code, Santa Croce follows natural law as proposed by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Student Fr. Albert Llaveria of Spain explains the difference: “We follow a systematic model to study the law. Instead of studying the canons one by one, we try to know them as part of a whole.”
Third-year student Father Stanislav Oleshko of Ukraine is also enthusiastic about Santa Croce’s uniqueness: “Canon law at Santa Croce follows one ‘school,’ so all the professors are consistent in teaching in this way. It doesn’t mean that there are no different opinions or discussions between them – that wouldn’t be a good academic example – but it helps to have one coherent general view of canon law, which gives a hermeneutic key for interpretation in different cultural contexts.”
This approach is rooted in a historic understanding of theology and the magisterium, connected to reality. Therefore, Catholic jurists are offered a profound way of looking at law and the world.
“Let all things be done decently and in order,” says Saint Paul, and canon law is an important tool for giving the universal Church a structure within which to find harmony and order for its members. Deacon Jiso Thomas Kuttikatt appreciates this historical look and its practical goals. “Due importance is given to the history of canon law, to understand the current normative system. The mastery of the jurist should be to find the ‘What is just’ in concrete ecclesial situations.”
Why is this approach so important? One of the issues today is the rapidly-changing face of civil law, and the interactions with civil law in every country. Laws are being changed at the will of legislators and voters, and often have little connection with the unchanging realities on which the Church is based with its magisterium and theology. Canon law mirrors the Continental European approach to law, known as codice, a system based on principles. English-speaking countries use “common law”, or a developmental, normative approach. While this type of law is very flexible, it risks losing its grounding in moral principles and the reality God created. The study of canon law can open up a whole new “language” and worldview for those accustomed to common or normative law, due to the timeless structure of Thomistic natural law. And as any multilingual person will tell you, knowing multiple languages allows more flexibility and options for solving problems and for understanding complex situations.
Many canonists are also trained as civil lawyers, and many secular civil lawyers are interacting with canonists for issues of the Church – from marriage law to church closures, interpretations of themes in Vatican II, transparency and efficiency of governance. “Santa Croce is in frequent dialogue with civil lawyers, confronting the influences of these normative and positivistic approaches, where there are risks of losing touch with the foundations,” said Fr. Massimo del Pozzo, Director of Studies for the faculty. “There is also an increasing influence of the laity in the Church, whether individuals in positions of responsibility, or ‘new movements’ and communities, many of whom choose to study at Santa Croce.” Thomistic canon law studies have a great deal to offer them in terms of structure and principled guidance.