"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, March 30, 2015

Canon Law and Episcopal Authority

I recently attended a colloquium with Judge Michael Talbot, chief justice of the Michigan Court of Appeals and also the chairman of the Review Board for the Archdiocese of Detroit. He gave utterly fascinating insights into how, as a civil lawyer in private practice and then a judge in Michigan for decades, he had to learn a radically different legal culture when he entered the world of canon law and began dealing with ecclesiastical organs and tribunals attempting to root out clerical sexual abuse. The differences he discussed were very considerable--sometimes a cause for wonder, sometimes a cause for despair. But fascinating nonetheless.

In our discussion, I raised with him some of the early canons about clerical abuses, and their complete intolerance for any of this activity (even consensual activity). He noted that unlike Anglo-American law, canon law does not have a healthy doctrine of stare decesis and thus legal precedent does not carry the same weight. As a result, earlier canons can safely be ignored. As I was reflecting on this, it occurred to me that this may well be because canon law is concerned above all with the salvation of souls, and thus there are substantial theological reasons behind this different legal culture.

But this is not to say that precedent is irrelevant, or past canons carry no weight. No Eastern Christian would say that. But what weight should they have? Which canons are still important today, and which can safely be left behind? A new book, set for release this summer, will help us grapple anew with old canons still of enormous relevance to Orthodox-Catholic relations and the vexed question of the papacy. Did the papacy ever function as an "appellate court" as it were in the early Church, hearing cases from patriarchates and dioceses unable to resolve them independently? That question has long needed more consideration, and in Christopher Stephens, Canon Law and Episcopal Authority: The Canons of Antioch and Serdica (Oxford, 2015) it should at long last get it. 

About this book we are told:
Christopher Stephens focuses on canon law as the starting point for a new interpretation of divisions between East and West in the Church after the death of Constantine the Great. He challenges the common assumption that bishops split between "Nicenes" and "non-Nicenes," "Arians" or "Eusebians." Instead, he argues that questions of doctrine took second place to disputes about the status of individual bishops and broader issues of the role of ecclesiastical councils, the nature of episcopal authority, and in particular the supremacy of the bishop of Rome.

Canon law allows the author to offer a fresh understanding of the purposes of councils in the East after 337, particularly the famed Dedication Council of 341 and the western meeting of the council of Serdica and the canon law written there, which elevated the bishop of Rome to an authority above all other bishops. Investigating the laws they wrote, the author describes the power struggles taking place in the years following 337 as bishops sought to elevate their status and grasp the opportunity for the absolute form of leadership Constantine had embodied.

Combining a close study of the laws and events of this period with broader reflections on the nature of power and authority in the Church and the increasingly important role of canon law, the book offers a fresh narrative of one of the most significant periods in the development of the Church as an institution and of the bishop as a leader.

Part One: The Canons of Antioch
1. The Canons of Antioch and the Dedication Council
2. The Canons of Antioch in Context
Part Two: Antioch and Serdica
3. The Dedication Council
4. Serdica, Rome, and the Response to Antioch
Part Three: Canon Law and Episcopal Authority
5. Law, Authority, and Power
6. Constantine, Control and Canon Law

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