canon law

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canon law

canon law, in the Roman Catholic Church, the body of law based on the legislation of the councils (both ecumenical and local) and the popes, as well as the bishops (for diocesan matters). It is the law of the church courts and is formally distinguished from other parts of ecclesiastical law, such as liturgical law. However, when liturgical law overlaps with canon law, canon law normally prevails. Canon law has had a profound influence on the law of countries where the Roman Catholic Church has been the state church. In the Middle Ages the church courts had very wide jurisdiction—e.g., in England, control of the law of personal property—and because they were well regulated, they tended to attract many borderline cases that might also have been heard by the developing royal courts (see benefit of clergy).

Catholics of Eastern rites have their own separate codes of canon law, approved by the Roman Catholic Church. The term “canon law” is also used for ecclesiastical law in churches of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical (1603) was a collection of rulings, not based on the old canon law, but given equal force with the canon law.

The Canon Law Code

The Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church, which became effective in 1983, is a revision of the Codex juris canonici [code of canon law], promulgated in 1917. The code itself, the culmination of centuries of legal growth, consists of 1,752 canons in seven books and supersedes all previous compilations. It does not contain all canon law, which continues to grow, but it is the base of the present-day law, and the study of canon law consists mainly in mastering the code and its application. Canon law lays down rules for the governance and regulation of the clergy and the church, including such matters as the qualifications, duties, and discipline of the clergy and the administration of the sacraments (more particularly the laws regarding holy orders and the sacrament of marriage). Canon law embraces both general laws applicable in the church universal, such as those on requirements for the priesthood and those on marriage, and local laws applicable only in certain dioceses.

Compilations of Canon Law

The early law grew particularly from the canons of church councils, from the letters of bishops regarding church discipline and governance, and later from papal letters, called decretals, that settled matters of ecclesiastical government and discipline. After the 4th cent. this legislation grew profuse, and attempts to collect and correlate the laws began early (see Constitutions, Apostolic). These collections were private in that they seem not to have been authorized by the popes. They also contained material that was not genuine, as in the case of the False Decretals. It was not until the middle of the 12th cent. that the great genius of the canon law, Gratian, following after Ivo of Chartres, applied the methods of Roman law in bringing order out of the chaos of conflicting and uncoordinated legislation. His Concordia discordantanium canonum (c.1140) or Decretum Gratiani [Gratian's Collection of Decrees] became the basis for future compilations of the law.

The first decretal compilations authorized by the popes appeared in the 13th cent. Important among these later “official” collections were the Extravagantes or Liber extra of Gregory IX, so named because they were outside Gratian; the collection issued (1298) by Boniface VIII called Liber sextus [the sixth book] because it added to the five books of decretals promulgated by Gregory; the collection promulgated (1317) by John XXII, drawn mostly from the constitutions of Clement V at the Council of Vienne and called the Clementinae; the work commonly called Corpus juris canonici, which in 1500 combined all the preceding with the Extravagantes of John XXII and the Extravagantes communes (decretals from Boniface VIII through Sixtus IV that were not included in previous collections) and was to be the fundamental work in canon law for centuries. The Council of Trent (1545–63, with interruptions) by its decrees concerning the church and church discipline was a landmark in canon law.

Church legislation had become considerably confused by the time St. Pius X announced (1904) the undertaking of the Codex juris canonici. This was drafted by a commission of cardinals headed by Cardinal Gasparri. In 1917, when the code was finished, a permanent commission of cardinals was set up to interpret it. In 1959, Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council and announced a revision of the code of 1917. In 1963 he appointed a pontifical commission for the revision; the revised code became effective in 1983.


See J. A. Abbo and J. D. Hannan, The Sacred Canons (2d rev. ed. 1960); S. Kuttner, Harmony from Dissonance: An Interpretation of Medieval Canon Law (1960); R. Metz, What Is Canon Law? (1960); T. L. Bouscaren and A. C. Ellis, Canon Law (4th rev. ed. 1966).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Canon Law


the totality of decisions of church councils and papal decrees.

Canon law reflected the fact “that the church was the all-embracing synthesis and the most general sanction of the existing feudal domination” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch, 2nd ed., vol. 7, p. 361). The first codification of canon law was undertaken in the 12th century by the Bolognan monk Gratian, who wrote the treatise Concordia discordantium canonum, which became significant as a source of law. In 1582, during the rule of Pope Gregory XIII, an enlarged and revised edition of Gratian’s treatise called the Corpus juris canonici was published. The jurisdiction of church courts was especially broad in the Middle Ages, which was a period marked by the strengthening of the bond between church and state. A significant number of nonreligious (chiefly civil) legal matters were within clerical jurisdiction, including marriage and family affairs, property questions, and even criminal cases. Correspondingly, the norms of canon law were not limited to the organization and relations within the church, but they embraced various branches of law.

As absolutism developed and secular courts increased in importance, the sphere of activity of canon law gradually became more restricted until it was finally fixed under the bourgeois social structure. Thus the Code of Canon Law of 1917 published by Pope Benedict XV regulates only matters within the church. The norms contained in this code can be considered legal only to the extent that they are recognized as compulsory by any given state.

In the Orthodox Church, canon law is considered to be the totality of canon rules established chiefly at church councils. A significant part of these rules was included in the ecclesiastical law that was in effect in tsarist Russia.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

canon law

the law governing the affairs of a Christian Church, esp the law created or recognized by papal authority in the Roman Catholic Church
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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