FROM the earliest times the determinations of the Church received the name of Canons, that is, rules directory in matters of faith and conduct. Thus we read of the Apostolic Canons, the Canons of the Council of Nice, or of Chalcedon, etc. A tendency afterwards appeared to restrict the term Canon to matters of discipline, and to give the name of dogma to decisions bearing on faith. But the Council of Trent confirmed the ancient use of the word, calling its determinations "canons," whether they bore on points of belief or were directed to the reformation of discipline.

Canon Law is the assemblage of rules or laws relating to faith, morals, and discipline, prescribed or propounded to Christians by ecclesiastical authority. The words "or laws" are added to the definition, lest it be thought that these rules are only matters of publication and persuasion, and not binding laws, liable to be enforced by penalties. The definition shows that the object of canon law is "faith, morals, and discipline;" and nothing but these is its object. "To Christians" that is, baptized persons are the subject of canon law; and that without reference to the question whether they are or are not obedient to the Church and within her pale. For theologians teach that the character imprinted by baptism on the soul is ineffaceable; and in virtue of this character the baptized are Christ's soldiers, and subject of right to those whom he appointed to rule in his fold. The unbaptised (Turks, Pagans, etc. ), speaking generally, are not the subjects of canon law. Yet it must not be supposed that the Church has no rights and no duties in regard to such persons; by the commission of Christ she has the right of visiting, teaching, and then baptizing them ("euntes docete omnes gentes, baptizando," etc.). "propounded" for some of these rules belong to the natural or to the divine law, and as such are not originally imposed by the Church, but proposed and explained by her. "By ecclesiastical authority" hence canon law is distinguished from systems of law imposed by the civil authority of States, as being prescribed by the power with which Jesus Christ endowed the Church which He founded ("qui vos audit, me audit; pasce oves meas," etc.).

Before we proceed to give a brief sketch of the history of canon law, to notice its parts, ascertain its sources, and describe its principal collections, preliminary objection, striking at the root of its authority, and almost at its existence, must be examined. It is, that the consent of the civil power in any country is necessary to give validity to the determinations of the canon law in that country. This is the doctrine of the "placitum regium," or `'royal assent;" it implies, whatever may be the form of the government, that State authorization is necessary before it can become the duty of a Christian to obey the ecclesiastical authority. On this Cardinal Soglia writes as follows: "If we inquire into the origin of the `placitum,' we shall find it in the terrible and prolonged schism which lasted from the election of Urban VI. to the Council of Constance. For Urban, lest the schism should give occasion to an improper use of Papal authority, granted to certain prelates that there should be no execution of any apostolic letters in their cities and dioceses, unless such letters were first shown to and approved by those prelates, or their officials. The rulers of European States also began carefully to examine all bulls and constitutions, in order that their subjects might not be deceived by pseudopontiffs. But these measures, it is evident, were of a precautionary and temporary character. However, when the cause ceased, the effect did not also cease; on the extinction of the schism, the Placitum did not disappear, but was retained by the civil power in many countries, and gradually extended. "At first," says Oliva, "the Placitum was applied to Papal rescripts of grace and justice given to individuals; afterwards it was extended to decrees of discipline and in the end even to dogmatic bulls." The Cardinal explains in what sense the celebrated canonist Van Espen, who was prone unduly to magnify the civil power, understood the application of the Placitum to dogmatic rescripts, and proceeds: "It is evident that this theory" ( of possible danger or inconvenience to the State if Papal bulls were published without restraint) "arose out of the suggestions of statesmen and politicians, who, as Zallwein says, out of a wish to flatter and please the princes whom they serve, and to enlarge their own and their masters' jurisdiction, as well as out of the hatred of the ecclesiastical power by which they are often animated, invent all kinds of dangers, harms, and losses, by which they pretend the public welfare is threatened, and artfully bring these views under the notice of their masters.... `If,' proceeds the same Zallwein, `the ecclesiastical sovereigns whom Christ hath set to rule over the Church of God, were to urge their "placitum" also, whenever political edicts are issued, which, as often happens, are prejudicial to the ecclesiastical state, hostile to ecclesiastical liberties, opposed to the jurisdiction of the Pontiff and bishops, and aggressive against the very holy of holies, what would the civil rulers say?' Following up the argument, Govart says, `If a prince could not be said to have full power and jurisdiction in temporals, were his edicts to depend on the "placitum" of the Pope and bishops, and could their publication be hindered by others; so neither would the Pope have full power in spirituals, if his constitutions depended on the "placitum" of princes, and could be suppressed by them. Wherefore if, in the former case, whoever should maintain the affirmative might justly be said to impugn the authority of the prince, so and a fortiori in the second case must the supporter of such an opinion be said to undermine with sinister intention the Papal authority, or rather to destroy it altogether.' The sum of the argument is, that `by the "placitum regium" the liberty of the ecclesiastical `magisterium' and government divinely entrusted to the Church is seriously impaired, the independence of the divinely appointed primacy destroyed, and the mutual intercourse between the head and the members intercepted. Therefore, if the Church, to guard against still greater evils, endures and puts up with the "placitum," she never consents to or approves of it.'"

From the point of view of the interest of the laity, and the Christian people generally, it is obvious that the lovers of true liberty must disapprove of the "placitum." It is impossible that the Church, or the Roman Pontiff as the mouthpiece of the Church, should issue any decree or have any interest inimical to the welfare of the general Christian population in any State. Any obstacles, therefore, which governments may interpose to the free publication and execution of ecclesiastical rescripts cannot arise from solicitude for the public welfare. Whence, then, do they arise, or have they arisen? Evidently from the arbitrary temper of kings, the jealousies of nobles, and the desire of bureaucrats to extend their power. These two latter classes, at least all but the noblest individuals among them, are usually predisposed to hamper the action of the Church and the clergy, lest their own social influence should be diminished relatively to that of the latter. This is no interest which deserves to engage popular sympathies, but rather the contrary.

HISTORICAL. Jurisdiction is implied in the terms of the commission of binding and loosing which Christ gave to the Apostles, and especially to Peter. While Christians were few and apostles and others who had "seen the Lord " were still alive, the apostolic authority could be exercised with little help from written documents or rigid rules. As these early conditions passed away, the necessity of a system of law, in order to ensure uniformity, equity, and perspicuity in the exercise of the Church's jurisdiction, could not but become increasingly manifest. After the Apostles had passed away, having devolved upon the bishops all of their authority which was not limited to them in their apostolic character, each bishop became a centre of jurisdiction. In deciding any cases that might be brought before him, he had three things to guide him Scripture, tradition, and the "holy canons," that is, the disciplinary rules which Church synods, beginning with the Council of Jerusalem, had established. Many of these primitive canons are still preserved for us in the collection known as the Apostolical Canons, although, taken as a whole, they are of no authority. Till Christianity conquered the imperial throne, questions of jurisdiction and law did not come into prominence; after Constantine the case was very different. The Council of Nice, besides its dogmatic utterances, framed a quantity of canons for the regulation of Church discipline, which, along with those of Sardica, were soon translated into Latin, and widely circulated in the West. An important step toward codification and uniformity of procedure was taken at the end of the fifth or early in the sixth century, when Dionysius Exiguus, under the direction of Popes Anastasius and Symmachus, made a large compilation of canons for the use of the Latin Church. In this he included fifty of the Apostolic canons, translated from the Greek, considering the rest to be of doubtful authority; the canons of Chalcedon, with those of which that Council had made use; the canons of Sardica, and a large number promulgated by African councils; lastly, the decretal letters of the Popes from Siricius to Anastasius II. The next collection is that supposed to have been made by St. Isidore of Seville, early in the seventh century. About A.D. 850, a collection of canons and decretals appeared, seemingly at Mayence which were ostensibly the compilation of Isidore of Seville. In an age of great ignorance, when criticism was neither in favor nor provided with means, it is not wonderful that this collection, which invested with the spurious authority of recorded decisions a system of things existing traditionally, indeed, but liable to constant opposition, passed speedily into general recognition and acceptance. Six centuries passed before it was discovered that these pseudoIsidorian or False Decretals, as they are now called, were to a great extent a forgery. Nevertheless, as Cardinal Soglia remarks, the collection contains in it nothing contrary to faith or sound morals; otherwise its long reception would have been impossible; nor does the discipline which it enjoins depend for its authority upon this collection, but either upon constitutions of earlier and later date, or upon custom, "quae in rebus disciplinaribus multum valet."

Many collections of canons were made and used in national churches between the date of Dionysius Exiguus and that of the author of the "Decretum." In Africa there was the Codex Africanus (547) and the "Concordantia Canonum" of Bishop Cresconius (697); in Spain the chapters of Martin, Bishop of Braga (572), beside the work by Isidore of Seville already mentioned; in France, a Codex Canonum, besides the capitularies of the Merovingian and Carlovingian kings. Passing over these, we come to the celebrated compilation by Gratian, a Benedictine monk (1151), which the compiler, whose main purpose was to reconcile the inconsistencies among canons of different age and authorship leaning on the same subject entitled "Concordantia discordantium Canonum," but which is generally known as the "Decretum of Gratian." Having brought our historical sketch to the point where ecclesiastical law, no longer perplexed by the multiplicity of canons of various date and place and more or less limited application, begins to provide herself with a general code a "corpus juris" applicable to the whole Catholic world, we drop the historical method and turn to the remaining heads of the inquiry.

Canon law consists of precepts of different kinds. Hence it is divided into four parts precepts of the natural law, positive divine precepts, directions left by the Apostles, and ecclesiastical constitutions. Upon each of these Cardinal Soglia discourses solidly and lucidly in the second chapter of his Prolegomena.

With regard to the sources whence these precepts flow, they might strictly speaking, be reduced to three God, who impresses the natural law upon the conscience, and reveals the truths which men are to believe; the Apostles; and the Supreme pontiffs, either alone or in conjunction with the bishops in general councils. Canonists, however, find it more convenient to define the sources of canon law in the following manner: 1. Holy Scripture; 2. Ecclesiastical tradition; 3. The decrees of councils; 4. Papal constitutions and rescripts; 5. The writings of the Fathers; 6. The civil law. On this last head Soglia remarks that "many things relating to the external polity of the Church have been borrowed from the imperial enactments of Rome, and incorporated in the canon law."

The Collections of canon law, considering it as a system in present force and obligation, commence with the "Decretum of Gratian" already mentioned. This great work is divided into three parts. The first part, in 101 "Distinctions," treats of ecclesiastical law, its origin, principles, and authority, and then of the different ranks and duties of the clergy. The second part, in thirtysix "Causes," treats of ecclesiastical courts, and their form of procedure. The third part, usually called "De Consecratione," treats of things and rites employed in the service of religion. From its first appearance the Decretum obtained a wide popularity, but it was soon discovered that it contained numerous errors, which were corrected under the directions of successive Popes down to Gregory XIII. Nor, although every subsequent generation has resorted to its pages, is the Decretum an authority to this day that is, whatever canons or maxims of law are found in it possess only that degree of legality which they would possess if they existed separately; their being in the Decretum gives them no binding force. In the century after Gratian several supplementary collections of Decretals appeared. These, with many of his own, were collected by the orders of Gregory IX., who employed in the work the extraordinary learning and acumen of St. Raymond of Pennafort, into five books, known as the Decretals of Gregory IX These are in the fullest sense authoritative, having been deliberately ratified and published by that Pope (1234). The Sext, or sixth book of the Decretals, was added by Boniface VIII. (1298). The Clementines are named after Clement V., who compiled them out of the canons of the Council of Vienne (1316) and some of his own constitutions. The Extravagantes of John XXII., who succeeded Clement V., and the Extravagantes Communes, containing the Decretals of twentyfive Popes, ending with Sixtus IV. (1484). complete the list. Of these five collections namely, the Decretals, the Sext, the Clementines, the Extravagants of John XXII. and the Extravagants Common the "Corpus Juris Ecclesiastici " is made up.

To these a very important addition has to be made in "Jus novissimum" modern law. Under this head are comprised the canons of general councils since that of Vienna, contained in great compilations such as those of Labbe and Harduin, and the Decretal Letters of Popes, published in the form of Bullaria, and coming down (in the case of the great Turin Bullarium of 1857) to the pontificate of Pius IX. The decisions of Roman congregations and of the tribunal of the Rota also form part of this modern law. The rules of the Roman Chancery, first formulated by John XXII. and now numbering seventytwo, are everywhere of authority, provided that they do not conflict with a contrary law, a clause in a Concordat, or a legitimate custom. Lastly, the Concordats, or treaties entered into by the Holy See with various countries for the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs, constitute special systems of law for those countries.

In England, as in other European countries, the canon and civil law were studied together before the Reformation, and formed a code, applicable not only to spiritual suits but to the large class of mixed cases, which was enforced in the Church courts. Provincial constitutions were passed from time to time by different archbishops of Canterbury, but from their increasing number and the want of a methodical arrangement, many of them were gradually forgotten or neglected. A great service, therefore, was rendered to the English Church of his day by William Lyndewode, chaplain to Archbishop Chicheley and
official of the Court of Arches, who collected and arranged (about 1425), under the title of "Provinciale," the constitutions of fourteen archbishops of Canterbury, from Stephen Langton to Chicheley, classifying them according to their subjects in five books, in imitation of the Decretals of Gregory IX. To this collection the constitutions of the legates Otho (1237) and Othobon (1262) were subsequently appended. These English constitutions, and canon law generally (except so far as modified by the statutes and canons which consummated the Anglican schism, and raised the reigning sovereign being an Anglican Protestant, 1702 to the headship of the national church, are stil1 recognized as authoritative in Anglican ecclesiastical courts.

Return to Contents

Return to home page.