What is Canon Law?

Pope Benedict XV
Pope Benedict XV

This year marks the centenary of a very significant development in the life of the Catholic Church. On 27 May 1917, Pope Benedict XV promulgated the first Code of Canon Law, which drew together the vast body of Church legislation stretching back to at least the mid-twelfth century.

In fact law in the Church, and thus that upon which many of those medieval collections were based, has a much longer history. Not only do we recall the Ten Commandments and the moral law given by Christ, but also the “canons” of the early Church councils. The decisions of these councils became the law by which the Church of the first millennium was governed.

Law in the life of the Church falls into several categories. We know, of course, about Natural Law; those things binding on all of mankind, given us by God.

There is also Positive Law, which is either human positive law or divine positive law. This does not necessarily mean “positive” as opposed to “negative,” but rather law that is posited, or put in place by a particular source of authority (human or divine).

Human Positive Law is legislation that is put in place for the right ordering of a society, in this case the Church. The source of this law is man, and in the Church this is the proper legal authority in question (i.e., the Roman Pontiff or the Diocesan Bishop).

Divine Positive Law, on the other hand, is legislation that is put in place for the right ordering of a society, in this case the Church, by divine mandate. The source of this law is God, and thus Divine Positive Law cannot be dispensed. A good example of this is the Sunday Obligation. This is found in the present Code of Canon Law at Canon 1247, and is based on the divine precept of the Ten Commandments:

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy
(Ex. 20:8)

A person cannot be dispensed from this obligation of Divine Positive Law, but equally they are not bound by it if their circumstances truly preclude its fulfilment (no Priest is available; adverse weather conditions exclude the possibility of travel; sickness; etc.) Pope Boniface VIII affirmed this by his maxim Nemo potent ad impossiblile obligari —No one is obliged by the impossible.

St Peter's Church, Rome

Within the realm of Human Positive Law we can further distinguish between those man-made laws that are human and ecclesiastical. “Human” here refers to the law governing the state (i.e., civil or common law) and “ecclesiastical” refers to the law governing the Church. The Code of Canon Law refers to ecclesiastical law (which is, remember, Human Positive Law) as “merely ecclesiastical laws” (Canon 11).

These bind all those baptised in the Catholic Church or received into it, who possess the use of reason and, unless otherwise stated, have completed seven years of age. These laws are not to be understood as “merely,” in the sense of unimportant or optional, but rather their source is “merely” ecclesiastical, not divine. Furthermore these laws can be either universal (for all places) or particular (for a specific diocese, community, or territory). These laws can be dispensed by one with the proper authority for dispensation.

observing the Church

In 1983 Pope Saint John Paul II codified a new Code of Canon Law, which is described as a fruit of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and draws heavily on the principles given voice by the Council. In contrast to the earlier Code, the 1983 Code concerns only the Latin Church, and a new Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches followed in 1990. Pope Francis has recently brought about a closer harmony between these two codes in various areas, including marriage law.

Law in the Church, however, is not limited to these codes. It is found in certain customs, special law (such as that governing the Roman Curia), particular law of dioceses, proper law of religious communities, apostolic constitutions, concordats between the Holy See and states, authentic interpretations of law, and liturgical law (which is, in fact, the largest source of law in the Church).

All of this can seem rather complicated and unnecessary—it seems a very long way from a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth! But law has been since the beginning, and remains, essential to the Church’s life. Much of the Church’s law is revealed by God himself, and the rest is established within the understanding that the Church is nothing less than the Mystical Body of Christ.

No law in the Church is therefore arbitrary, and obedience of all of the laws of the Church help to order each of us, and all of us, in the life of virtue necessary for the effective reception of God’s grace. In other words, living the law is not a burden but the response of the disciple to the Master; the response of one who is loved to the one who is Love itself.


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