Education Capsule

Presented by Mary Lou Burke

July 29, 2002




The Roman Catholic Church is a highly organized community and "CANON LAW" is the name for its Church order, discipline, its structures, rules and procedures.

Every Church, although based on what its members believe to be divine revelation, is also a human institution and as such requires rules.

Laws are products of reason and they are directed toward the common good of the society for which they are given. "CANON" comes from the Greek word kunon, which means rod or ruler. It came to mean a rule of conduct. "CANON LAW" is an unfortunate English translation of Latin ius canonicum, there is not an exact English equivalent. Canon law includes both order and discipline.

Canon law presents norms of conduct, not the content of faith, for actions not beliefs. It governs the external order of the Church. Church rules were shaped by its internal needs, surrounding cultures and the pressure of changed circumstances. The evolutionary process was anything but smooth. Rule making is a process usually stimulated in periods of Church reform.

All through history with wars, heresies, revolutions, various forms of laws were defined but in March 1904, Pope Pius X began the reorganization of canon law. The last official collection was that of Pope John XXII in 1317. To direct this effort he chose curial canonist Pietro Gasparri. He worked for 10 years organizing, sifting and reformulating the canons. Work was completed at the end of 1914, but Pius X died and World War I broke out, so it was promulgated on Pentecost 1917 and contained 2,414 canons. It furthered the centralization of papal and episcopal levels and reinforced an extreme uniformity of practice in the Church. It began to get 'out of date' in the fast changing world. Changes were made in the rules but were not inserted into the Code.


SACRED SCRIPTURE---both Old and New Testament authors were cited as the highest authorities in matters of church discipline.

NATURAL LAW --- structures or values which are considered to be of the very essence of things, e.g. monogamy in marriage, truth in speech.

CUSTOM --long standing practices e.g. Sunday observance, celebration of Easter.

COUNCILS --periodic gatherings of leaders of local churches called synods or councils.

FATHERS of the CHURCH --- writing of many authors in early centuries were revered and taken to be authoritative.

POPES -- letters and responses sent by Bishop of Rome were received with special respect.

BISHOPS -- when leading bishops made pastoral judgments or rules for their dioceses.

RULES of RELIGIOUS ORDERS -- constitution and rules evolved from groups and influenced the generalRules of the Church.

CIVIL LAW--enactments of Roman emperors, kings or legislatures on matters that affect religion.

CONCORDANTS --formal international agreements between the Holy See and national governments.

The Code of Canon Law contains literary forms. Not everything in the canon is law. Canons may look alike but contain several different kinds of writing. Recognition of the literary form is needed to interpret the meaning of the cannon.


NEW CODE OF CANON LAW ---1983 (1752 canons)

The foundations for the new code were based in the DOGMATIC CONSTITUTION ON THE CHURCH, LUMEN GENTIUM, which proclaimed the overriding dignity of the People of God.

The issue of marriage was taken up in the PASTORAL CONSTITUTION on the CHURCH IN THE MODERN WORLD, GAUDIUM ET SPES. It replaced the biblical pattern; God has given a mate to man to relieve his solitude, then procreation followed. The equality of man and woman were affirmed in unmistakable terms. The understanding of marriage appears now in a broad religious context through the doctrine of covenant.

PASTORAL CARE -- Pastoral care should be the hall mark of the Code. "PASTORAL" speaks of the biblical image of the shepherd and the sheep. When in the Bible, the image of shepherd and his flock comes up, it signifies a total dedication to the welfare of the flock; solicitude for every single sheep, especially those gone astray. The whole Code has a pastoral orientation, it is the overall care of the Church for the faithful. When doubt exists whether a "pastoral" or legal approach is correct, the pastoral approach should be chosen.

The Code is divided into seven books or sections:

  1. GENERAL NORMS (cc 1-203) the first book contains building blocks for the whole canonical system. These canons define the terms. Persons, instruments and powers employed in the rest of the Code.
  2. PEOPLE OF GOD (cc 204-746) Central and largest and most important part of the Code. It reveals the constitution of the Church. Members and their rights and duties are set forth first, than ordained ministry and the associations of the faithful. Hierarchy is described, pastors and parishes are outlined as well as religious institutes.
  3. TEACHING FUNCTION (cc 747-833) the various persons responsible for preaching, catechesis, missionary action and Catholic schools.
  4. SANCTIFYING FUNCTION (cc 834-1253) the second longest and most important book. It contains canonical discipline of the sacraments, and other acts of divine worship and other items, altars, cemeteries, days of feast and fast.
  5. TEMPORAL GOODS OF THE CHURCH ( cc 2354-1310) shortest look, rules for acquisition and disposition and administration of church monies, lands and buildings as well as wills and bequests.
  6. SANCTIONS OF THE CHURCH (cc 1311-1399) acts considered crimes in the church and the appropriate punishments for them.

PROCEDURES ( cc 1400-1752) treats judicial process used for trials in church courts.