Understanding Catholic Code Of Canon Law

by Apologetics, History of the Church

What is Canon Law? 

The current law governing the Catholic Church is the 1983 Code of Canon Law. This Code, promulgated by His Holiness St. John Paul II replaced the 1917 Code of Canon Law. The Code is a system of laws and principles which regulates the organization and governance of the Catholic Church. Canon Law orders and directs the activities of the Church, in almost every conceivable facet of life. 

History of Canon Law

Jus Antiquor – The Old Law

Whenever the Apostles promulgated rules and regulations to follow, this was law for early Christians. As time went on, these pronouncements became Apostolic Canons and Apostolic Constitutions. Each Ecumenical Council of the Church, beginning with Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, added Constitutions and/or Canons to the body of the Church’s law. Along the way, each pope also issued various laws through the form of edicts and bulls (including the motu proprio – issued “by his own hand” and his own authority). 

Gradually, the collection of laws grew and grew. They were compiled over centuries by various popes and churchmen. However, these laws were assorted and sometimes not even compiled systematically. For the collections that were systematic, it was not possible for the whole Church, worldwide, to be aware of every single law. In other words, the laws were not standardized across the whole Church. 

Jus Novum – The New Law

In the 11th Century, a monk named Gratian set to work to work on The Concordance of Discordant Canonswhich is now known as Gratian’s Decree (Decretum Gratiani). The Decretum was a monumentally important innovation in Canon Law. Each diocese would, of course, have its own local laws. Over the next couple hundred years, the decrees of popes and canons of the councils were collected into more official documents and promulgated by the popes. The most official of these texts was the Corpus Juris Canonici (Body of Canon Law).

Jus Novissimum – The Newest Law

After the Council of Trent, a new official collection of church laws was started by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580. The task continued under Pope Sixtus V and was finally printed under Pope Clement VIII in 1598. However, this collected was not officially approved by Pope Clement VIII or his successor.

Jus Codicis – Codified Law

At the First Vatican Council, several bishops asked for a new code of the canon laws. Pope St. Pius X set to work in synthesizing a new Code of Canon Law as a new Corpus Juris Canonici. The new code was systematized and had 2,414 canons. It was finished under Pope Benedict XV and was known as the 1917Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC, Code of Canon Law). Considering the Second Vatican Council and the new Constitutions and Decrees to come, there was a call by Pope St. John XXIII to revise the 1917 Code. There were numerous drafts and discussions in the 1960s and 70s, but the project was not finished until the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II in 1983. This 1983 Code of Canon Law was greatly shorted from 2,414 to 1,752 canons. 

The 1983 Codex Iuris Canonici is the official universal law for the Latin Church (the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church – approximately 1.2 billion people). There is a separate code of canon law for the Eastern Churches of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II in 1990.

Canon Law is a Legal System

The Roman Catholic Church’s Canon Law is a fully functioning legal system. There is a legal code, principles of interpretation, penalties, petitioners, respondents, courts, attorneys, judges, and the like. To work effectively in a tribunal of a diocese or in the Roman Rota (the tribunal at the Vatican), a person would need to attain the ecclesial degrees mirroring a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate (J.C.B., J.C.L., and J.C.D.). Because these degrees are highly specialized, advanced degrees in civil law or theology would need to be attained first. 

The common law system of England and the United States is “adversarial” which features such as a single judge and a jury. However, Canon Law is “inquisitorial” – a collegiate panel of judges investigate the case at hand and enquire about the truth.  

What is the Purpose of the Church’s Law?

The purpose of the Church’s law is the salvation of souls. The term law is not explicitly defined in the Code of Canon Law but the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the definition: 

“an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by the one who is in charge of the community and reformulates it as ‘a rule of conduct enacted by competent authority for the sake of the common good (CCC 1951).’”

The 1983 Code of Canon Law states the salvific end of the law explicitly by stating: “… the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes (CIC, 1752).” 

The Church’s Law exists to lead souls to Christ and to Heaven. Apart from this, it has no meaning and purpose. There is much more to say about Canon Law, of course. You could get three separate academic degrees and still not know everything. What is important to take away here is that the 1983 Code of Canon Law is binding on Catholics of the Latin Rite. We are bound, under pain of sin, to follow the prescripts and laws therein contained, knowing always that it is for our eternal good. Thanks be to God for this gift. 

email newsletter subscription sign up Catholic Link

Image: Photo by Reuben Teo on Unsplash

Keep Searching, Keep Learning

Our Newest Articles:

5 Causes For Sainthood You Need To Know About

5 Causes For Sainthood You Need To Know About

We are all called to sainthood, aren’t we? But somehow, when reading about the saints, we can easily feel distant, different from these great figures who experienced hardships, fought against oppression, founded religious communities, endured torture for the Name of...

5 Things To Do Before Your Anger Becomes A Sin

5 Things To Do Before Your Anger Becomes A Sin

We all have experienced anger.  Everyone has been on the receiving end of somebody else’s anger.  Anger is a response, a reaction when our ego is being attacked, a reaction when what we want to happen happened otherwise, or a demand for justice because we...

Search Catholic-Link

You have Successfully Subscribed!