Some time in the next few months Pope John Paul II will issue a historic document, the result of two decades of work and consultation, that will affect the life of every Roman Catholic from conception to the grave.
The precise wording of the church's new code of canon law -- its first revision in 65 years -- will be determined by the pope and a circle of close advisers. But its broad outlines were sketched here last week by Catholic scholars and officials who have been watching the shift of every comma.
Meeting for their annual convention, members of the Canon Law Society of America, who will interpret and administer the new laws for the American church, were optimistic that the code will provide the legal framework to carry forward reforms envisioned by the Second Vatican Council 20 years ago.
Among the changes the new canon law is expected to institutionalize are lay preachers, altar girls and a new type of church court where members can settle disputes with their bishops. In the opinion of some church officials, the new code will also contain a few time bombs. One that requires church oversight of religion teachers in Catholic colleges could wreak havoc on American Catholic higher education.
Unlike American civil law, the law of the Catholic Church is subject to a wide and flexible interpretation, like the Roman law on which it is based. Speaker after speaker at the meeting here emphasized the need for wisdom, sensitivity and compassion in interpreting the new code.
It "is like a beautiful, alluring woman, who can be wooed and won or can be lost," said Rev. Thomas J. Lynch of Hartford, a former CLSA president who added that the new code "all depends on the canonists who are going to be interpreting it."
Working from the draft completed by an international commission in Rome last year, church officials expect the new code to differ from the 1917 version in these ways:
* The role of lay members would be broadened, reflecting Vatican II's characterization of the church--lay members, priests and bishops together -- as "the people of God," in contrast to earlier emphasis on an authoritarian, hierarchical church. Under the new code, lay members may take more significant roles in church liturgy, including preaching.
* Protestants would no longer be viewed as bad Catholics, as the 1917 code sees them. The new code offers the possibility that under certain circumstances Protestants may receive holy communion and anointing (formerly known as the last rites) from a Catholic priest.
* The code would provide for a new structure of administrative tribunals, which would function as appeals courts in disputes between a parish and its bishop, for example, or between a priest and his bishop. Under the present law, the only recourse in such disputes is an appeal to the Vatican, which will still remain the court of last resort.
* The role of women would be expanded, less by what is said in the new code than by what got dropped from the old code. Expected to be missing from the new code is a provision in the 1917 version expressly prohibiting females from assisting the priest at the altar during mass. Under the assumption that what is not forbidden is permitted, church officials foresee a growing corps of altar girls as well as altar boys.
The code will make little difference in the way annulments are handled, since the special procedures that American church officials developed more than a decade ago to streamline this process have, for the most part, been written into the new code.
But the new code also is expected to stipulate that every decision for an annulment granted by a diocesan tribunal must be reviewed by another tribunal. The Rev. James Provost, executive director of the Canon Law Society of America, estimates that it will add "about a month" to the time it now takes to get an annulment.
* The new code would stipulate that the civil law on wages and employment conditions in each nation where the church exists becomes canon law for the church there. Civil courts in this country have been reluctant to apply civil laws to religious institutions for fear of church-state entanglement. When the new code is promulgated, employes of a Catholic institution who believe their employer is violating the law of the land could take their case to the church court.
For American church leaders, probably the most troublesome provision of the new code is one requiring everyone teaching about Catholic faith or theology in an institution of higher education to have a "canonical mission," or permission to teach, from the local bishop. Within the American university tradition, control over faculty members from outside the institution is viewed as compromising academic freedom.
The enforcement of this requirement would "threaten the integrity of the entire American Catholic higher education system," said the Rev. Michael C. Connolly of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. "Rather than safeguard the orthodoxy of Catholic teaching, the implementation of this legislation would, in fact, destroy the ability of the American collegiate enterprise to survive."
The canonical mission requirement could also jeopardize some federal funding, which totaled $500 million to Catholic colleges in 1980.