Or, at least, having some knowledge of it and protecting the right of churches to operate within the bounds of canon law.
As opposed to secular law, of course.
The idea first came to mind when I observed the large amount of hate (or mockery or disdain or loathing) being heaped upon the Sabellian heretic Kim Davis. Davis, if you have been happily unaware, is a county clerk in the USA who decided to stop issuing marriage licences on the grounds that said licences would have her name on them, and the US gov’t considers certain couples eligible that she, a member of the (oneness) Solid Rock Apostolic Church, does not consider eligible. She resisted a court order, went to jail, was subsequently released.
I think a proper concept of canon law would give someone like Kim Davis a way out. Or she should just quit her job, if secular law and canon law have diverged to such a degree that she feels that doing her job in secular law involves too many uncanonical activities. With an understanding of the concept of canon law — that the church has certain regulations that she follows for the ordering of the body of its members — the Christian can say, ‘I may not like what the secular legislation concerning marriage says, but my church is still free to regulate and order marriage as it sees fit.’
In fact, before any thought of same-sex marriage had passed through anyone’s minds, the Roman Catholic Church (and, formerly, most Protestant denominations) already considered certain persons ineligible for marriage under canon law who were eligible under secular law — divorced people whose divorced spouse was still living and who hadn’t successfully got their previous marriage annulled.
In a world that favours pluralism, Christians should probably stop trying to enforce our regulations on everyone but seek, instead, to uphold the right to live in our peculiar way, in peace with those around us — similar, in fact, to the way Orthodox Jews and other conservative religious minorites live.
Alternatively, if one believes that same-sex marriage will completely tear apart the fabric of society (I think no-fault divorce, thoughtless marriages, and adultery are probably far worse than same-sex marriage), one should petition politicians and seek out clear and articulate and non-angry ways to express why, exactly, same-sex marriage is bad for our countries. But this is not the same as unilaterally deciding not to issue marriage licences, which results in a victory for no one.
But Christians aren’t the only people canon law can save. As this post by Scott Eric Alt demonstrates, knowing canon law can help people interpret what on earth the Roman Catholic Church and its Pope are up to. The aforementioned post is about Pope Francis’ ‘Year of Mercy’, wherein those women who are under excommunication for abortions can have the excommunication lifted by normal, auricular confession to a parish priest, rather than going through the hierarchy to a bishop.
This offer of mercy has been gravely misunderstood, largely because people have no knowledge of Roman canon law, and because they have no concept of canon law to begin with. If we accept that such a thing as canon law exists for the regulation of the church, then we have to realise that when the pope legislates any aspect of church life, he is not getting involved in American politics, but trying to find a way to order the lives of Catholics that will be consonant with the tradition and with their spiritual wellbeing.
The Roman Catholic Church believes that abortion is a sin called infanticide. Regardless of what the secular law says, this fact will never change. What can change are the regulations concerning what to do when someone has committed this sin, and — as it turns out — only some people are excommunicated. The pope is trying to extend mercy and love to people who have been excluded by the church’s current regulations. He is not lobbying western governments to change secular law; he is extending mercy through the channels of canon law.
Through coming to understand the concept of canon law, those not bound by it can find ways that they can extend mercy to their bizarre neighbours who have this other set of regulations to live by. This would be much better than the shrill nature of current Internet discourse, where both Left and Right holler at each other and seek to drown each other out and silence each other and ridicule each other.
And for those Christians who fear that I am recommending that we ‘give up’ ‘the fight’, it depends what ‘fight’. If we want to see a decrease in abortions, or a return to ‘traditional’ marriage (which goes far beyond mere heterosexual monogamy), we should be seeking to bring people to the King of Love, to the foot of the Cross, where they can be washed clean by the blood of Jesus and submit themselves to His rule. The current state of affairs just paints us as hatemongers and misogynists.