What is Canon Law?

Canon law is the name for the Catholic Church's order and discipline, structures, rules, and procedures. The Catholic Church has two Codes: one for the Latin Church and one for the Eastern Catholic Churches.

What is a code? A code is a single collection of all the laws of a community in one place, promulgated by a legislator. A code is intended to be consistent, systematic, and logical.

The universal legislator of the Catholic Church is the Pope; the official language of canon law is Latin. Canon law is a tool to guide the Church as a large human institution from differing cultures and languages. In short, canon law informs the community on how to conduct themselves and protects the rights of the faithful.

Law is not new to the Church. The people of the Old Testament were very familiar with law, as the Torah ruled many parts of their lives. With the emergence of Christianity, the New Testament became a guide for the young Christian communities. In addition, some communities produced 'handbooks' that provided guidance for various aspects of Christian life. Councils, like the Council of Nicea, also provided norms. The first collections of canon law were primarily private collections of ecclesiastical laws from councils and Roman Pontiffs. In the twelfth century, a university scholar in Bologna named Gratian compiled a collection of canons called the Concorida discordantium canonum, also known as the Decretum. Through it Gratian introduced jurisprudence into canonical thought. The Decretum was the predominate canonical collection of its time and would become the foundation of the canonical tradition. This text also quickly became the standard textbook in the field. No collection of law replaced it until the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

At the time of the First Vatican Council, the leaders of the church decided that the law needed to be consolidated into one codified system. Cardinal Gasparri led the project, and the first Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1917 and was in force until 1983.

During the twentieth century, the Church and the world had undergone great changes and growth. January 25, 1959 Pope John XXIII convoked Vatican II and announced the intention to revise the 1917 Code. In some areas the Code had gotten out of date and many things were promulgated after the Code was completed, so the body of law needed to be consolidated and revised. A commission began work on the new Code after the completion of the council on November 20, 1965. The documents of Vatican II were integral to the revision of the Code and are necessary for the interpretation of the 1983 Code. Blessed Pope John Paul II promulgated the revised Code of Canon Law on January 25, 1983. This is the same code that is used to this very day.

The code is divided into seven books:

  1. General Norms
  2. People of God
  3. Teaching Office
  4. Sanctifying Office
  5. Temporal Goods
  6. Sanctions
  7. Procedures

The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches was promulgated by Blessed Pope John Paul II on October 18, 1990 for all 21 Eastern Catholic Churches.

The patron saint of canon law is St. Raymond of Peñafort, whose feast day is January 7.