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Canon law is the term used for the internal ecclesiastical law which governs various churches, most notably the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion of churches. The way that such church law is legislated, interpreted and at times adjudicated varies widely among these three bodies of churches. In all three traditions, a canon was initially a rule adopted by a council (From Greek kanon / κανών, for rule, standard, or measure); these canons formed the foundation of canon law.

Canons of the ApostlesEdit

Main article: Canons of the Apostles

The Apostolic Canons[1] or Ecclesiastical Canons of the Same Holy Apostles[2] is a collection of ancient ecclesiastical decrees (eighty-five in the Eastern, fifty in the Western Church) concerning the government and discipline of the Early Christian Church, incorporated with the Apostolic Constitutions which are part of the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection.

Catholic ChurchEdit

Main article: Canon law (Catholic Church)

Little known, the Roman Catholic Church has the oldest continuously functioning legal system in history, and specifically in the Western World,[1] predating the common and European civil law traditions. What began with rules ("canons") adopted by the Apostles themselves at the Council of Jerusalem in the First Century has blossomed into a highly complex and original legal system encapsulating not just norms of the New Testament, but key elements of the Hebrew (Old Testament), Roman, Visigothic, Saxon, and Celtic legal traditions spanning thousands of years of human experience.

In the Catholic Church, positive ecclesiastical laws, based upon either immutable divine and natural law, or changeable circumstantial and merely positive law, derive formal authority and promulgation from the Pope, who as Supreme Pontiff possesses the totality of legislative, executive, and judicial power in his person. As such, the actual subject material of the canons is not just doctrinal or moral in nature, but indeed all-encompassing of the human condition.

In the early Church, the first canons were decreed by Bishops reunited in "Ecumenical" (the Emperor summoning all of the known world's Bishops to attend) or "local" (Bishops of a regional territory) councils. Over time, these canons were concurrently supplemented with decretals of the Bishops of Rome, according to the maxim, "Roma locuta est, causa finita est" ("Rome has spoken, case is closed"), highlighting the supremacy which the Successors of St. Peter claimed from as early as Pope St. Clement I in ca. A.D. 90.

Later, they were gathered together into collections, both unofficial and official. The first systematic attempt at a collection was assembled by the Camaldolese monk Gratian in the 11th century, commonly known as "Gratian's Decree". Pope Gregory IX is credited with promulgating the first official collection of canons called the Liber Extra (1234). This was followed by the Liber Sextus (1298) of Boniface VIII, and the Clementines (1317) of Clement V.

By 1917 this body of true legislation grew into 10,000 canons, many of which rationales were extremely difficult to reconcile due to changes of circumstances across history. This difficult situation impelled Pope St. Pius X to order the creation of the first Code of Canon Law, a single volume of clearly stated laws. Under the aegis of the Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the work of the Code Commission was completed under Benedict XV, who promulgated the Code, effective in 1918. The work having been begun by Pius X, it was sometimes called the "Pio-Benedictine Code" but more often the 1917 Code. In its preparation, centuries of material from all over the globe was examined, scrutinized for authenticity by leading experts, and harmonized as much as possible with opposing canons and even other Codes, from the Codex of Justinian to the Napoleonic Code.

John XXIII initially called for a Synod of the Diocese of Rome, an Ecumenical Council, and an updating to the CIC1917. After the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican ("Vatican II") closed in 1965, it became apparent that the Code would need re-visioning in light of the Documents and theology of Vatican II. After multiple drafts and many years of discussion, Pope John Paul II promulgated the revised and presently binding Code of Canon Law for the Latin Rite or Western Rite of the Church in 1983. The Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches (CCEO) was promulgated in 1990. This is their first single volume compilation. It incorporates differences in the hierarchical, administrative and judicial fora.

St. Raymond of Penyafort (1175-1275), a Spanish Dominican priest, is the patron saint of canonists, due to his important contributions to the science of Canon Law.

Orthodox Churches Edit

The Orthodox Christian tradition general treats its canons more as guidelines than as laws, adjusting them to cultural and other local circumstances. Some Orthodox canon scholars point out that, had the Ecumenical Councils (which deliberated in Greek) meant for the canons to be used as laws, they would have called them nomoi/νομοι (laws) rather than kanones/κανονες (standards).

Greek-speaking Orthodox have collected canons and commentary upon them in a work known as the Pedalion/Πεδαλιον (rudder--so called because it is meant to "steer" the Church). However, this is not a codification, but simply a compilation of one tradition of interpretation of the canons.

Anglican Churches Edit

In the Church of England, the ecclesiastical courts that formerly decided many matters such as disputes relating to marriage, divorce, wills, and defamation, still have jurisdiction of certain church-related matters (e.g., discipline of clergy, alteration of church property, and issues related to churchyards). Their separate status dates back to the 12th century when the Normans split them off from the mixed secular/religious county and local courts used by the Saxons. In contrast to the other courts of England the law used in ecclesiastical matters is at least partially a civil law system, not common law, although heavily governed by parliamentary statutes. Since the Reformation, ecclesiastical courts in England have been royal courts. The teaching of canon law at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge was abrogated by Henry VIII; thereafter practitioners in the ecclesiastical courts were trained in civil law, receiving a Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L.) degree from Oxford, or an LL.D. from Cambridge. Such lawyers (called "doctors" and "civilians") were centered at "Doctors Commons," a few streets south of St Paul's Cathedral in London, where they monopolized probate, matrimonial, and admiralty cases until their jurisdiction was removed to the common law courts in the mid-19th century. (Admiralty law was also based on civil law instead of common law, thus was handled by the civilians too.) Charles I repealed Canon Law in 1638 after uprisings of Covenanters confronting the Bishops of Aberdeen following the convention at Muchalls Castle and other revolts across Scotland earlier that year.

Other churches in the Anglican Communion around the world (e.g., the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the Anglican Church of Canada) still function under their own private systems of canon law.

See alsoEdit



Further readingEdit

  • Robinson, Fergus and Gordon, European Legal History, 3rd ed. London: Butterworths, 2000.

External linksEdit



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