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Introduction to Canon Law. Pastoral Leadership Program Track A 2006-2007. What is Canon Law?. Canon law is the body of laws and regulations made by or adopted by an ecclesiastical authority, for the government of the Christian (Catholic) Church and its members.

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introduction to canon law

Introduction to Canon Law

Pastoral Leadership Program

Track A


what is canon law
What is Canon Law?

Canon law is the body of laws and regulations made by or adopted by an ecclesiastical authority, for the government of the Christian (Catholic) Church and its members.

‘Canon’ comes from the Greek word, kanon, which means a rule or practical direction.

The Code of Canon Lawis a collection of the laws and regulations of the universal Roman Catholic Church for those of Latin rite.

history of canon law body of laws made or adopted by an ecclesiastical authority
History of Canon Law(body of laws made or adopted by an ecclesiastical authority)
  • Canon law is not a static system of rules and regulations, but one which has evolved and which continues to evolve. Some laws are made in response to a particular question, others are adopted from other communities or legal systems.
  • Although usually promulgated by a Church ‘authority’, the law of the Church is shaped by the internal needs of the Church, its interaction with other churches and cultures, and changes in the circumstances of its members.
Enacting and enforcing rules is an integral part of Church renewal. It is as we react to and learn from our surroundings, respond to challenges by other faiths and communities, and adopt new ways that the Church evolves.

By looking at different periods in the history of the Catholic Church, we can discern the role that Canon Law played in the Church’s development, and conclude that we too are living in a period of reform.

the early church 1 st 4 th centuries
The Early Church(1st- 4th centuries)
  • After the New testament, the earliest form of Church law was the recorded customs of the early Christian communities.
  • These customs addressed the way that sacraments were administered, ecclesiastical leaders were elected, and resolved conflicts and disputes which troubled the early church.
the early church cont
The Early Church (cont.)
  • During this time a synodal or conciliar process developed, wherein church leaders from a particular area or region would come together to discuss and find a common solution to questions of doctrine and discipline. These conclusions were then communicated to other churches.
One of the most important influences during this time was the law of the Roman Empire. The Christian community was an often-persecuted minority religious group congregated in the major urban centers of the empire, and while free to develop its own structures, the lives of its members were organized by Roman Law. Thus when new structures or means of resolution were needed, these were often imported from the Roman legal code (i.e. diocese and province originally referred to subdivisions in the Empire).
the years of empire 4 th to 8 th centuries
The Years of Empire(4th to 8th Centuries)
  • When Constantine officially made Christianity the religion of state (Edict of Milan in 313), the Church found itself in a position of power and privilege, and was gradually able to negotiate a balanced alliance with secular rulers wherein the Church had autonomy in matters of faith, clerical discipline, liturgy, and the administration of church goods. At the same time , the Church upheld the authority of the imperial government in matters outside of its personal competence.
During this time the church grew vastly, spreading beyond the urban centers into the countryside and villages. The Bishop became the sole authority in each diocese, with presbyters sent to lead outlying communities.
  • The consequent development of Church rules and practices depended heavily on the law of the empire, culminating with the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800.
  • Because of the importance of Rome as the capital of the empire, the Bishop of Rome gradually evolved into a figure of central authority (the primacy of the See of Rome and the Pope as successor of Peter).
feudalism 8 th to 12 th centuries
Feudalism(8th to 12th centuries)
  • As the Roman empire crumbled and the northern Europeans (primarily Germanic) rose to prominence, the customary emphasis of their legal systems gradually gained prominence. Unlike the Roman legal system, these people did not depend on written law but on oral customs. In order to obtain force, these customs had to be rooted in the life of the people they were meant to compel.
A system of benefices developed, whereby a pastorate was ‘gifted’ to a priest by the local lord, and the revenue of the lands attached to the parish became his in payment.
  • The ‘privatization’ of Church offices (which included the appointment of bishops and abbots) was gradually brought to an end as a result of the ‘lay investiture controversy’ and the Gregorian reform. The College of Cardinals was created and given the exclusive power to elect the pope.
the classical period 12 th to 14 th century
The Classical Period(12th to 14th century)
  • Due in part to the strength of the papacy following the investiture controversy, this was period of great development in canon law.
  • The popes claimed broader legislative, judicial, and administrative powers, resulting in the promulgation of rules and decisions, which were then collected and studied. Four ecumenical councils also produced canonical regulations to be studied and codified.
the classical period
The Classical Period
  • Scholars of canon law turned again to Roman law, supplementing the existing canons with laws taken from the Roman system.
  • As popes and bishops relied on canon law to underpin their authority and actions, Pope Gregory IX promulgated a collection of decretals in 1234, making this the first official and exclusive source of rules for the whole Church.
reform 14 th 18 th centuries
Reform(14th-18th Centuries)
  • The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century combined with other factors to erode the authority of the Roman Catholic Church
  • Significantly, Luther announced his defiance of papal authority by burning books of canon law, claiming that they had achieved greater importance for church authorities than the ‘commands of God’.
  • Since the classical period, canon law had become increasingly distanced from its pastoral purpose.
  • Slowly recognizing the need for reform, Pope Paul III convened a general council in Trent.
  • In addition to doctrinal clarifications, the work of the Council of Trent focused on decrees designed to bring about Church reform.
  • The results of the council included the restoration of the power of the episcopate, new regulations on the clergy, the reform of the rules for contracting marriage, and a renewed emphasis on pastoral needs.
In addition to this change and renewal in canon law, the missionary activity of the Church and the ‘discovery’ and exploration of new worlds led to new growth in the development of canon law as the missionaries encountered circumstances which required solutions to disciplinary problems, as well as guidance in resolving other tensions and dialogues with native cultures.
the modern world the 19 th century
The Modern World (the 19th century)
  • As opposed to the years surrounding the investiture controversy, by the nineteenth century the Church was no longer engaged in a battle for supremacy with secular leaders, but rather was engaged in a battle for survival.
  • The result of the enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the development of the modern secular state was that church authorities had to fight to retain enough freedom and leverage to continue to provide the opportunity to worship and offer witness.
the modern world
The Modern World
  • This time saw a return of the struggle over the primacy of the Pontiff, with some arguing for the establishment of national churches, led by bishops possessed with full power and recognized as successors of the apostles. These bishops would cooperate with the pope in the governance of the universal church. The argument was ended and the supremacy of the papacy was established by the First Vatican Council in 1870.
1917 code of canon law first half of the 20th century
1917 Code of Canon Law(first half of the 20th century)
  • Called the Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law because it was started by Pius X in 1904 and completed under Benedict XV in 1914 (1917).
  • This was to be the first official collection of canons since 1317.
  • Since that time, the number of canons had become vast and they had never been systematically arranged or placed in chronological order.
This was the first ‘code’ rather than collection of canons, reflecting a desire to create a carefully constructed and conceptually sound system of law.
  • With its promulgation on Pentecost of 1917, all previous canonical enactments were set aside. The norms found in the Pio-Benedictine Code came into effect the following year.
Significantly, the Code reflected the drive to centralize the authority of popes and bishops, and dictated an extreme uniformity in church practice.
  • On the positive side, the Code provided clear answers to pastoral and spiritual questions. On the negative, such concrete directions quickly became outdated as the requirements for ministry in the modern world changed.
the new code 2 nd half of the 20 th century
The New Code(2nd half of the 20th century)
  • Process of revising the Code begun in 1959 by Pope John XXIII.
  • Commission for revision began shortly after the convening of the Second Vatican Council and finished with the promulgation of the New Code by Pope John Paul II in 1983.
Process began with the delineation of ten principles for the revision of the Code.
  • The emphasis of these principles was on the need for a pastoral emphasis in canon law, an increased autonomy for diocesan bishops, and a respect for the rights of all persons. Penal law and prohibitions were reduced to a minimum.
today 21 st century
Today(21st Century)
  • Should we currently expect another revision of the Code of Canon Law?
theology and canon law
Theology and Canon Law
  • What is the relationship between theology and canon law?
  • Theology and canon law are two distinct, but harmonious, disciplines, each aimed towards the building up of the Body of Christ.
  • The primary source of theology is the words and deeds of God as revealed to us.
  • The primary source of canon law is rules created by human agents who have been granted authority in the Church (bishops and popes)
The role of a theologian is to discern values for the Christian community, based on revealed truths.
  • The role of the canon lawyer is to create and interpret norms of action to help the Christian community attain the values identified by the theologians.
  • The norms contained within canon law should be seen as only one means to attain those values, and should be set aside when new means or means better suited to the particular circumstances arise.
Canon law must depend on theology for its inspiration, while theology ought to look to canon law to elucidate concrete activities that enhance the life of the Christian community.
key points of lesson one
Key Points of Lesson One
  • The rules contained in the Code of Canon law do not represent a static system of Church governance, but a constantly evolving collection of guidelines that are subject to change and interpretation.
  • Canon law seeks to provide norms of action for obtaining the values enunciated in the Word of God, as interpreted by human agents who are the shepherds of the Church.
possible paper topics
History of Canon Law

In what ways are we now in a reform period, and what , if any, role is canon law playing in this reform?

What are some of the significant changes in the law between the 1917 and 1983 Codes of Canon Law?

Theology of Canon Law

In your own opinion, describe what the relationship between theology and canon law should be.

What effects might a closer relationship between theology and canon law have on future revisions of the Code of Canon Law?

Possible Paper Topics