Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Thursday, July 16, 2009

CLSA Advisory Opinions, 1984-2008

One of my most cherished 'canonical collectibles' is a personal letter that Franciscan canonist Stanislaus Woywod wrote in 1939 to a priest with questions about Mass stipends. Woywod's letter has hung on my office wall for 20 years, a gentle reminder to say yes to as many requests for informal advice as I reasonably can. And then some.

Indeed, giving good answers to questions posed by the faithful has long been a staple of canonical service, and the literary genre we call today "advisory opinion" goes back several centuries in the Church (just one example being Schmalzgrueber's Consilia seu Responsa Juris from the 1720s). The service took on new importance in the twentieth century, however, as the Church transitioned from Decretal law to codified canon law. Thus, Bernardini et al., Consultationes Iuris Canonici from the 1930s or Conway's Problems in Canon Law from 1956 were invaluable in their day, and canon law reviews such as Apollinaris and The Jurist sometimes carried 'Cases & Studies' sections.

But the Woywod letter illustrates another point: while considerable canonical scholarship goes into a typical advisory opinion, such writings usually receive scant circulation. That's a pity, for too few people benefit that way from the erudition and experience contained in such opinions.

Happily, the
Canon Law Society of America has been doing something about that for, oh, about 35 years.

Since 1984, the CLSA has published on an annual basis advisory opinions on a wide variety of canonical questions. After the 1983 Code itself, and a major commentary or two, CLSA Advisory Opinions are usually the first place I turn to for insights into canonical questions. Finding a CLSA advisory opinion on point is usually good news for a researcher.

Since the CLSA began publishing these materials, some 140 canonists have contributed nearly 800 opinions on hundreds of canons. James Provost (rip) prepared the most opinions (an astounding 121, though 40 canonists--including yours truly--have published at least five), and, turns out,
Canon 1673 dealing with jurisdiction in marriage nullity cases is the most commented upon norm. Interesting.

Anyway, this summer I finished a project I started sometime ago, namely, an evaluative bibliography of CLSA advisory opinions from 1984 through 2008. I just posted an
index of the opinions (according to canon number of the Code) on my website, to help inform canonists and other researchers as to whether a CLSA advisory opinion on such-and-such a canon exists in the first place and, if so, who wrote it and when, and where the opinion appeared. For my index, I used the annual editions of the advisory opinions, but three volumes of collected opinions have been produced in recent the years.

The worth of an advisory opinion is not measured by its length (indeed, brevity is a virtue and I think at least few opinions probably should have been published as short articles somewhere else!) nor by the number of opinions that a canonist publishes (while Provost is indisputably a peritus peritorum, he is not 121 times more reliable than, say, Roch Page or Ladislaus Orsy, each of whom have contributed only one advisory opinion). For that matter, no private opinion is the last word on any given topic, and several CLSA opinions openly disagree with one another. But, with few exceptions, I think every opinion is worth consulting, if not for bolstering the approach that one might have been inclined to in the first place, then at least for alerting an ecclesiastical administrator or canonical advocate to a position he or she might have to consider in a given case.