Canon Law

Canon Law

The law of the Catholic Church

Canon Law, or the law of the Catholic Church, has a long and complex history. Its roots can be found in the early Christian community, in Scripture, in the writings of the Church Fathers, and in the developing practices and customs of the Church as it expanded across the borders of the Roman Empire, especially after the Edict of Constantine.

It was, however, with Gratian (circa 1140 A.D.), the “Father of the Science of Canon Law,” that canon law actually became a discipline, separate and distinct from Theology. Today, theology and canon law are studied as separate but complementary disciplines, since the Church’s law has its foundations in the Church’s beliefs. Indeed, Pope John Paul II has noted that “canonical theory and practice always need to be informed by a sound ecclesiological understanding.”

The Church’s current Code of Canon Law was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983 and was the direct result of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Pope John Paul II has called the current Code “the final document” of this Council. Thus, the Code and the Council are intimately joined and direct the Church’s activity, both internally and in its external affairs.

The role of law in the Church, according to the Holy Father, is to provide a service “which is ultimately pastoral in nature” since “it seeks to strengthen the bonds of communion in the Church through fidelity to the Gospel and the promotion of justice.” In the application of the canonical norms, the Church is called “to bring healing and hope in fragile situations of human weakness and sin…” always keeping in mind “the pastoral nature of all Church law, while never derogating from the demands of truth.” Canon law is to become, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “an effective instrument for the continual renewal of ecclesial life.” Indeed, canon law helps provide order and discipline in the Church, it protects the rights of individuals, and it seeks to provide justice based on equity for all its members. The ultimate purpose of law in the Church is “the salvation of souls.”

For more detailed information on the history of canon law, the specific material contained in the current Code of Canon Law, and the characteristics of the new law, please see: CANON_LAW (downloadable document). 

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