Interpreting Canon Law

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Interpret strict laws strictly

By the laws (canons) of the Church, the most liberal interpretation of the laws (canons) are required. If something is not strictly and explicitly prohibited, it is not prohibited. The laws must be interpreted in favor of human freedom. "When a law is created that seeks to establish a penalty or restrict the free exercise of rights or makes mention of an exception to the law, it must be interpreted strictly."[1]

Canon 10
Only those laws must be considered invalidating or disqualifying which expressly establish that an act is null or that a person is affected. [emphasis added]
Canon 18
Laws which establish a penalty, restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception from the law are subject to strict interpretation.
In other words, such canons apply only to those cases to which they apply explicitly--we may not reason from them analogously to create penalties, restrictions, or exceptions in cases not explicitly covered by the canons.

In dubiis libertas

"In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas."[2]

Canon 14
Laws, even invalidating and disqualifying ones, do not oblige when there is a doubt about the law. When there is a doubt about a fact, however, ordinaries can dispense from laws provided that, if it concerns a reserved dispensation, the authority to whom it is reserved usually grants it

Multiply favors, restrict burdens

"An old Roman legal principle states that favors are to be multiplied and burdens restricted. Therefore, a law bestowing a favor upon a particular group or individual should be interpreted to apply in as many situations as possible. On the other hand, a law that restricts the canonical rights of a group or individual, or otherwise imposes a burden, should be interpreted narrowly." [3]

Papal jurisdiction

"It is a canonical understanding that, among other duties, the pope serves the Church as her principal legislator."[4]


Some call canon law the "dark side of the Good News" and the "arteriosclerosis of the Mystical Body."[5]

"There is not only a desire but a necessity to utilize law in the Church today--a situation which can be highly constructive when the law is viewed as a ministry of service."[6]

"A positive impact upon the Roman law by the Church can also be observed. Examples cited can include: giving the wife a position of equality before the law, requiring mutual consent of both spouses for the validity of a marriage, and abolishing the power of the father of the life or death of his children."[7]


Kevin E. McKenna, A Concise Guide to Canon Law: A Practical Handbook for Pastoral Ministers (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2000).


  1. McKenna, 24.
  2. Wikipedia, "In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas."
  3. Pete Vere and Michael Trueman, Surprised by Canon Law, p. 9.
  4. McKenna, 4.
  5. McKenna, ix.
  6. McKenna, 3.
  7. Mckenna, 11.