|Dear Rev. Know-It-All,
I heard someone quoting canon law the other
day and it struck me as odd that church law has the same name as a piece
of artillery. Why would this be so? Does it have anything to
do with the wars of religion in the 16th century?
I have no idea why the guns are called
canons, but I do know why the law is called Canon law.
The word canon comes from a Semitic word
kanna meaning a rod or hollow stem. We still use the
term “measuring rod.” That is the sense of it, dragged
through Greek and Latin into English.
A canon is a device for measuring.
We have the canon of Scriptures, against
which we measure our own private inspirations. We canonize saints.
Their lives are measuring rods, living Bibles, and we measure our spiritual
progress by looking at their lives. St. Paul said, “Imitate
me as I imitate the Messiah.” We have the canon of the
Mass, that part which does not vary according to the different Sundays,
and we have canon law which lays out the usual practices and obligation
We measure local practices against a wider
standard. It is an amazing thing that, when canon law is observed,
what is done in Manila or Oberhessen or Skokie all looks fairly familiar.
In my last parish when I first arrived,
I was not welcome to say the main Mass. They had their own priest.
He didn't wear a chasuble. He had lay concelebrants. He sat
in the congregation. A visitor who was finding his way back to the
Lord came for four weeks before he realized it was a Catholic church.
Believe it or not, it took me three years to get it all straightened out.
Canon Law allows 1,100,000,000 (1.1 billion)
Catholics to respect their local traditions while maintaining unity.
You can go to a Catholic church anywhere in the world, and if they are
obeying canon law, you will recognize Rome, sweet home.
So, Delia, I hope I've been able to tell
you what you wanted to know.
Is "canon law"
a military term from the 16th century religious wars?