The Rights and Obligations of the Laity

(Fr. John Abraham)

The theme of Rights and Obligations of the Laity is new in Canon Law. Although c.87 of the Old Code spoke of the rights and duties of Christians, it did not offer a list of those rights and duties. They were to be surmised from different part of the Code. The present Code from c.208-231 (i.e.24 canons) explicitly states the rights and duties of all Christ’s faithful and lay members of Christ’s faithful. However, the Legislator did not want to offer a rigorous systematic listing of rights and duties of Christ’s faithful. Hence already at the outset, he states that additional duties and rights do exist which are stated in other canons of the Code.

Many canonists have taken upon themselves the task of looking for groupings and connections between the 24 canons. This has surely helped in illuminating the contents of the individual elements. However, since the theme is very vast the complex in its theological implications and has numerous problems related to it, it would be unreasonable to attempt to present an exhaustive treatment of the subject. My intent and the circumstances allow only a modest presentation.

By this title I of Bk.II,Part I “The obligations and rights of Christ’s Faithful”, the code makes a declaration with the force of law about the fundamental rights of the faithful stemming from divine, natural and positive law, through baptism. These rights and obligations pertain to constitutional law and rank more highly than non-constitutional canons. They have precedence over human norms not in conformity with them. Every effort is to be made by competent authorities to see that these rights are recognized and guaranteed.

1) The first right declared in the first canon of this title says “there is a genuine equality of dignity and action among all of Christ’s faithful.” This is the principle of “radical or fundamental equality”, (same words are used in L.G. #). Speaking of this “principle of radical equality”, Dr. Javier Hervada the holder of the chair of canon law at the university of Navarre, Pamplona, writes: “the principle of radical equality means that all those who have received baptism are equal members of the faithful. One is not a member of the faithful to a greater degree for having received the sacrament of Orders or an ecclesiastical office. The rights of the faithful have the same force and enforceability for all: that which corresponds to what is just. Thus for example the obligation to the hierarchy is not more enforceable than the respect of a fundamental right. The obedience which the faithful owe to the hierarchy is as just and as much a right as the respect the hierarchy owes to the rights of the faithful.”

The equality is with regard to “dignity of the baptized”. Equality regarding the enforceability of the law and an equal vocation to sanctity. However not all the faithful have all the same rights and obligations. There is the principle of variety existing side by side to the principle of equality.

2) The juridical right of Christian parents to educate their children in the faith; and the moral right to spread the gospel to reach all people of all times and places (c.211).

3) Canon 212 #2 speaks of the right to be heard. Right to make individual and collective requests- orally or in writing. There is no obligation to grant the request unless it involves a true right.

4) Canon 212 #3 acknowledges the right of free speech and public opinion within the Church. Although science, skill and prestige are required to exercise the right justly- the right springs from being one of the faithful and not because of the science, skill or prestige. There are limits to this right.

a) Integrity of faith and customs (there is no free opinion concerning matters of faith authentically taught by the magisterium – according to the varying degrees of binding authority).

b) The exercise of this right must take into account the common good and dignity of individuals.

c) If the exercise of this right leads to the breach of another right, the rights of free opinion and free speech do not exist.

5) Laity have the right to be assisted by the pastors in the administration of sacraments, preaching of the word and other means of sanctity according to their need and vocation. This right does not give rise to an obligation in justice between all the faithful and all the sacred ministers. It does give rise to an obligation if the minister is appointed to an office or to a church community of a structural system linking the clergy and lay people. Unduly delaying the receipt of the sacraments or forcing one to receive in a form nor determined by law is a breach of this right. (eg. delaying baptism, or forcing one to receive holy communion in the hand).

6) Canon 214 specifies the right to worship God in one’s own rite and the right to one’s spirituality. By this right the competent authority has the obligation to establish pastoral structures wherever there are sufficient members of this rite.

7) Right of association and the right to hold meetings are mentioned in c.215. The establishment of associations the right to enrollment in those that already exist, and the statutory and administrative independence of association is brought out in this canon. The ends of the association must be in harmony with the vocation of the faithful.

8) The right to promote apostolic enterprise(eg. publishers, dispensaries, educational centers, radio, T.V. centers etc. c.216). Permission is required from ecclesiastical authority to use the name ‘catholic’. To call a school ‘catholic’ written permission is required from competent ecclesiastical authority (c.803).

9) Right to receive Christian formation within the church. This right does not refer directly to state and secular teaching institutions. This is the natural right to education and culture. There is the obligation of the hierarchy and catholic teaching institutions to provide the best formation to the faithful.

An aspect of this right is the right to the faithful to study the sacred sciences including a study at the highest university level without discrimination for reasons of state of life, gender or any other condition.

10) Canon 218 speaks of the right to engage freely in research and to express prudently the research obtained. Ways proper to scientific honesty and using means proper to scientific research are imperative when the expression would give rise to scandal or confusion.

This right is not absolute and should not lead to excessive interpretations. Reverence and obedience to the magisterium limits this right.

11) The right to choose a state or life. This is not just absence of coercion. This right prohibits preventing to choose a state of life, or marriage by injustice, not just then coercion (eg. by unjust impediments). The canon is put in this way to avoid it being interpreted as a fundamental right to be admitted to sacred orders or a particular institute of consecrated life. “Freedom to make a personal decision in the case where this consent would be necessary in order for the choice to be implemented.

12) The obligation not to unlawfully harm the good reputation a person enjoys and the right of every person to protest his or her privacy springs from the natural law (not just from baptism).

It is a law of the natural order. It is illicit and unethical to bring to light a person’s defects and offences and thus damage his or her good reputation. When the superior good of individuals of society and to the Church is at stake, penal sanctions may involve publicity, but it is lawful to start penal action if the right exists and it is exercised correctly. Calumny, denunciation, insults, slander and the spreading of ruours are all contrary to this right.

13) Canon 222 #1 speaks of the right to a judicial protection of one’s rights by means of a process. # 2 speaks of the right to be judged with justice and equality. # 3 speaks of “nulla poena sine lege”. This is not a principle of divine or natural law, but a human law. Hence no canonical penalties can be inflicted except in accordance with the law.

14) Canon 227 # 1 speaks (a) right to religious freedom for the layman in civil society. (b) right to freedom in secular matters within ecclesiastical society.

A baptized person is a lay person in the canonical sphere. He is also a citizen in the civil sphere. The faithful should learn to distinguish carefully the rights and duties they have as belonging to the Church and those that fall on them as members of the human society (L.G.#36).

Convergence – secular matters have a moral dimension and are subject to the law of God (natural law and positive divine law). Christians in every temporal affair should be guided by christian conscience since even temporal activity cannot be withdrawn from God’s dominion. Christians should Christianize the world. Hence the hierarchical structure of church intervenes in secular matters through its teaching on faith and moral rules that govern human conduct. It provides the faithful with the necessary means to sanctify the world. This intervention is not to give conclusive rules or solutions to secular problems (this is proper to civil society and citizens) but to give a moral and spiritual influence.

Where the organization evolution and development of secular life is concerned, the freedom of the lay person prevails. This right to religious freedom within the state is indispensable for just governance of

relations between civil society and church. Freedom to lay persons in secular matters is of fundamental importance. If this right is not respected it leads to intervention of clerics in secular matters, which is a form of clericalism. It is an affront to the freedom of lay people and an abuse of clerical functions. Canon 228 speaks of “habiles sunt” rather than rights. Those found suitable, capable to be admitted to, ecclesiastical offices and functions.

15) Canon 229 speaks of the right of lay people to receive doctrinal instruction. This is fundamental right and not just “habiles sunt” or capability.

16) Canon 230 # 1,2,3 speak of right of lay people in the exercise of munera sanctificandi. Laymen whose age and talents need the requirements prescribed by the decree of the bishop’s conference can be given the stable ministry of lector and acolyte. They have no right for sustenance or remuneration. (2) Lay people have the right to receive a temporary assignment to the role of lector or acolyte. The right to exercise the role of commentator cantor etc. (3) When needs of the Church require and ministers are not available, lay people can function as lectors, exercise the ministry of the word, preside over liturgical prayers, confer baptism, distribute holy communion according to provisions of the law. The need and lack of sufficient clerics is required for lucidity.

17) Canon 231. The right of those lay people who dedicate themselves exclusively to church service, or apostolic works permanently or for a fixed period of time. Eg. doctors who cooperate with missionaries, leaders of apostolic institutes/association who dedicate themselves full time # 2 speaks of the measure of remuneration. “The means and instruments prescribed by secular law should be used in determining the means and instruments to be established for the maintenance and social security of these lay people. Those giving service of a purely technical/professional nature are to receive salary governed by secular law”.


1) Obligation to preserve communion with the Church at all times even in external actions. Obligation to be diligent in responsibilities to the universal and particular church to which they belong.

2) The obligation to make a whole hearted effort to lead a holy life according to his or her own condition (c.210).

3) To help whole heartedly by the growth of the Church and its continual sanctification (c.210). Both these are specified in the same canon because they are interdependent and include on another. One’s sanctification and growth is sanctifying the Church and making her grow. This refers to the obligation to participate in the sacraments and other means of salvation.

4) The obligation of evangelization and missionary activity (c.211).

5) The obligation of obedience to the sacred pastors in their exercise of governing and teaching. To be “conscious of one’s own responsibility” means that obedience must not be given simply because it is demanded but because what is ordered is lawful. When what is lawful is ordered, it must be obeyed in a

spirit of collaboration. Juridically only that obedience demanded by legal justice can be demanded (c.212 #1).

6) Canon 222 #1 speaks of the obligation of the laity to

a) Provide for the needs of the Church so that church has available to it those things that are necessary—

1) For divine worship

2) For works of postulate

3) For works of charity

4) For support of its ministers.

b) Canon 222 #2 refers to the natural obligation incumbent on all where justice is concerned. The moral obligation of the Christian regarding charity towards the poor. These two paragraphs refer to (a) love of God (Jn.13:34) (b) love of neighbour.

Canon 223 cautions that in the exercise of one’s rights, the common good of the Church the rights of others and one’s duties towards others should be taken care of.

Canon 225 #1 pertains to the obligations of the lay faithful to undertake the apostolate that flows from baptism. This is a moral rather than a judicial obligation. Juridically it is the right to freedom. Its exercise cannot be imposed or prevented. Juridically the hierarchy should support it, endow it with spiritual principles and assistance, direct it towards the common good of the church and see that doctrine and order are observed. (A.A. #24). This secular apostolate may be individual or associated.

A) Individual apostolate

1) Is personal, spontaneous action flowing from the testimony of Christian life?

2) Written or oral diffusion of catholic doctrine.

3) Personal/private conversation towards Christianization of the family/professional or social life.

B) Associated apostolate

1) Right to form associations for different apostolic ends.

2) Right to form and run at their own discretion, enterprises and other works of apostolic inspiration having a civil or canonical structure. (A.A.#24). The Code also gives various forms of canonical status which the associations may enjoy in Title IV of part I of BK. II people God.

Canon 225#2 gives a moral obligation. The sanctification of the temporal order is the specific and characteristic mission of the lay faithful.

Canon 226 #1 the moral obligation of spouses to build up the people of God through conjugal love, procreation, and the network of familial and social relationships of which the nuclear family is a part. The family is seen as the centre of Christian influence. This right includes:

1) Freedom of spouses to procreate and educate their children, in relation to ecclesiastical hierarchy and civil society (i.e. right with regard to third persons).

2) Freedom of parents and children with respect to religious life and growth.