Interpretation (canon law)

Interpretation (canon law)

In relation to the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, canonists give rules for the exact interpretation and acceptation of words, in order that decrees may be correctly understood and the extent of their obligation determined.

Who can give an interpretation?

In general, the authentic interpretation of a law may be made by the legislator, or his successor or superior, but when this is not the case recourse must be had to what is called magisterial, or doctrinal, interpretation. It is for this latter mode that rules have been formed.

Interpreting the words

The words of a law must be understood according to their usual signification, unless it is certain that the legislator intended them to be taken in another sense. When the words are not ambiguous, they must not be twisted into some far-fetched meaning. If the intention of the legislator is known, the interpretation must be according to that, rather than according to the words of a law, even though they seem to have another sense, because the words are then said not to be nude, but clothed with the will of the lawgiver.

When a law is conceived in general terms, it is presumed that no exception was intended; that is, where the law makes no exception, interpreters are not allowed to distinguish. In all interpretations, however, that meaning of the words is to be preferred which favours equity rather than strict justice. An argument can be drawn from the contrary sense of the words, provided that nothing follows which is absurd, inappropriate, or contradicted by another law. The provisions of a previous statute are not presumed to be changed beyond the express meaning of the words of a new law.

When a law is penal, its words are to be taken in their strictest sense and not to be extended to their cases beyond those explicitly mentioned; but when a law concedes favours, its words are to be interpreted according to their widest sense. "In contracts, words are to be taken in their full [plena] meaning, in last wills in a wider [plenior] sense, and in grants of favours in their widest [plenissimi] interpretation" (c. Cum Dilecti, 6 de donat.). When there is a doubt as to the meaning of the words, that sense is to be preferred which does not prejudice the rights of a third person.

No words of a law are ever presumed to be superfluous. In interpreting a law the words must be considered in their context. To give a meaning to words that would render a law useless is a false interpretation. When the words of a law are in the future tense, and even when they are in the imperative mood concerning the judge, but not concerning the crime, the penalty is understood to be incurred, not "ipso facto", but only after judicial sentence. When the words of a law are doubtful the presumption is in favour of the subjects, not of the lawgiver.

References

*Ethelred Taunton, "The Law of the Church" (London, 1906), s.v.;
*Lucius Ferraris, "Bibl. can.", V (Rome, 1889), s.v. Lex.


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