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Legal history of the Catholic Church

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Title: Legal history of the Catholic Church  
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Subject: Canon Law, 1983 Code of Canon Law, Auditor (ecclesiastical), Apostolic constitution, Ad tuendam fidem
Collection: Canon Law (Catholic Church), Canon Law Codifications, Canon Law History, Legal History
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Legal history of the Catholic Church

This article is part of the series:
Legislation and Legal System of the Catholic Church

The legal history of the Catholic Church is the history of what is claimed to be the oldest continuously functioning internal legal system in Western Europe,[1] much later than Roman law but predating the evolution of modern European civil law traditions. The history of Latin canon law can be divided into four periods: the jus antiquum, the jus novum, the jus novissimum and the Code of Canon Law.[2] In relation to the Code, history can be divided into the jus vetus (all law before the Code) and the jus novum (the law of the Code, or jus codicis).[2] Eastern canon law developed separately.


  • Jus Antiquum 1
  • Developments since the Council of Trent 2
    • Jus Novissimum 2.1
    • Jus Codicis 2.2
      • Pio-Benedictine law 2.2.1
      • Johanno-Pauline law 2.2.2
      • Oriental law 2.2.3
  • Timeline 3
  • References 4

Jus Antiquum

The most ancient collections of canonical legislation are certain very early Apostolic documents, known as the Church Orders: for instance, the Didache ton dodeka apostolon or "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles", which dates from the end of the first or the beginning of the 2nd century; the Apostolic Church-Ordinance; the Didascalia, or "Teaching of the Apostles"; the Apostolic Canons and Apostolic Constitutions. These collections have never had any official value, no more than any other collection of this first period. However, the Apostolic Canons and, through it, the Apostolic Constitutions, were influential for a time in that later collections would draw upon these earliest sources of Church law.[3]

It was in the East, after Constantine I's Edict of Milan of toleration (313), that arose the first systematic collections. We cannot so designate the chronological collections of the canons of the councils of the 4th and 5th centuries (314-451); the oldest systematic collection, made by an unknown author in 535, has not come down. The most important collections of this epoch are the Synagoge kanonon, or the collection of John the Scholastic (Joannes Scholasticus), compiled at Antioch about 550, and the Nomocanons, or compilations of civil laws affecting religious matters (nomos) and ecclesiastical laws (kanon). One such mixed collection is dated in the 6th century and has been erroneously attributed to John the Scholastic; another of the 7th century was rewritten and much enlarged by the schismatical ecumenical patriarch Photius (883).

In the Western Church one collection of canons, the Collectio Dionysiana, exercised an influence far beyond the limits of the country in which it was composed. This collection was the work of Dionysius Exiguus, who compiled several collections that now go under the name Dionysiana. Dionysius appears to have done most of his work shortly after the year 600.[4] His collections contain his own Latin translation of the canons of the ancient third-, fourth- and fifth-century councils, excerpts from a (probably) confected collection of African canons (which Dionysius calls the Registrum ecclesiae Carthaginensis), and a collection of (38) papal letters (Epistolæ decretales) dating from the reign of Pope Siricius (384-398) to that of Anastasius II (died 498). The influence of this Italian collection grew enormously during the seventh and eighth centuries, especially in England and France. It was continuously enlarged and modified, the most famous modification being a version supposedly send by Pope Adrian I to Charlemagne in 774 and therefore known today as the Collectio Dionysio-Hadriana.

Besides the Dionysiana Italy also produced two 5th-century Latin translations of the Greek synods known as the Corpus canonum Africano-Romanum and Collectio prisca, both of which are now lost though large portions of them survive in two very large Italian collections known as the Fulgentius Ferrandus (died c. 546), and the Concordia canonum of Cresconius Africanus, an adaptation of the Dionysiana (about 690). In Gaul many important collections were produced, like the collection known today as the Concilium Arelatense secundum and, at the beginning of the 6th century, the Statuta Ecclesiæ antiqua, erroneously attributed to Africa. Also from Gaul/France are the collections known today as the Collectio canonum quadripartita and the Libri duo de synodalibus causis composed by Regino of Prüm. Gaul/France also produced two immensely important collections known as the Collectio canonum vetus Gallica (compiled in Lyons about 600) and the Collectio canonum Dacheriana (about 800), the latter so called from the name of its editor, Luc d'Achéry. The Collectio canonum Hibernensis or Irish collection of canons, compiled in the 8th century, influenced both England, Gaul and (though much later) Italy.[5] Unlike almost every other region, England never produced a 'national' collection, though English personnel played an important role in copying and disseminating Irish and Italian collections in Germany and France.[6] Around the year 700 there developed in either England or Germany a collection of penitential canons attributed to Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury (died 690). This collection marked a major advance in the development of penitential-canonical collections, which had already been in development for centuries especially within the Irish church. Collection like the one attributed to Theodore were known as penitentials, and were often rather short and simple, most likely because they were meant as handbooks for the use of confessors. There were many such books circulating in Europe from the seventh to the eleventh century, each penitential containing rules indicating exactly how much penance was required for which sins. In various ways these penitentials, mainly Insular in origin, came to affect the larger canon law collections in development on the continent.[7]

Iberia (i.e. Spain) possessed the Capitula Martini, compiled about 572 by Martin, Bishop of Braga (in Portugal), and the immense and influential Collectio Hispana dating from about 633, attributed in the 9th century to St. Isidore of Seville. In the 9th century arose several apocryphal collections, viz. those of Benedictus Levita, of Pseudo-Isidore (also Isidorus Mercator, Peccator, Mercatus), and the Capitula Angilramni. An examination of the controversies which these three collections give rise to will be found elsewhere (see False Decretals). The Pseudo-Isidorian collection, the authenticity of which was for a long time admitted, has exercised considerable influence on ecclesiastical discipline, without however modifying it in its essential principles. Among the numerous collections of a later date, we may mention the Collectio Anselmo dedicata, compiled in Italy at the end of the 9th century, the Libellus de ecclesiasticis disciplinis of Regino of Prum (died 915); the Collectarium canonum of Burchard of Worms (died 1025); the collection of the younger St. Anselm of Lucca, compiled towards the end of the 11th century; the Collectio trium partium, the Decretum and the Panormia of Yves of Chartres (died 1115 or 1117); the Liber de misericordia et justitia of Algerus of Liège, who died in 1132; the Collection in 74 Titles — all collections which Gratian made use of in the compilation of his Decretum

Developments since the Council of Trent

Jus Novissimum

After the Council of Trent, an attempt to secure a new official collection of church laws was made about 1580, when Gregory XIII charged three cardinals with the task. The work continued during the pontificate of Sixtus V, was accomplished under Clement VIII and was printed (Rome, 1598) as: "Sanctissimi Domini nostri Clementis papæ VIII Decretales", sometimes also "Septimus liber Decretalium". This collection, never approved either by Clement VIII or by Paul V, was edited (Freiburg, 1870) by Sentis. In 1557 the Italian canonist Paul Lancelottus attempted unsuccessfully to secure from Paul IV, for the four books of his "Institutiones juris canonici" (Rome, 1563), an authority equal to that which its model, the "Institutiones" of Emperor Justinian, once enjoyed in the Roman Empire. A private individual, Pierre Mathieu of Lyons, also wrote a "Liber Septimus Decretalium", inserted in the appendix to the Frankfort (1590) edition of the "Corpus Juris Canonici". This work was put on the Index.

Jus Codicis

Pio-Benedictine law

At the First Vatican Council several bishops asked for a new codification of the canon law, and after that several canonists attempted to compile treatises in the form of a full code of canonical legislation, e.g. de Luise (1873), Pillet (1890), Pezzani (1894), Deshayes (1894), Collomiati (1898–1901). Pius X determined to undertake this work by his decree "Arduum sane munus" (19 March 1904), and named a commission of cardinals to compile a new "Corpus Juris Canonici" on the model of the codes of civil law. The 1917 Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC, Code of Canon Law) was the first instance of a new code completely re-written in a systematic fashion, reduced to a single book or "codex" for ease of use. It took effect on 29 May 1918. It had 2,414 canons.

Johanno-Pauline law

In 1959, Pope John XXIII announced, together with his intention to call the Second Vatican Council and a Synod of the Diocese of Rome, that the 1917 Code would be completely revised.[8][9] In 1963, the commission appointed to undertake the task decided to delay the project until the Council had been concluded. After Vatican II closed in 1965, it became apparent that the Code would need to be revised in light of the documents and theology of Vatican II. After decades of discussion and numerous drafts, the project was nearly complete upon the death of Paul VI in 1978. The work was completed in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. The revision was promulgated by the apostolic constitution "Sacrae Disciplinae Leges" on 25 January 1983, taking effect on 27 November 1983.[10] The subjects of the Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC, Code of Canon Law) are the world's 1.2 billion Catholics of what the Code itself calls the Latin Church. It has 7 books and 1,752 canons.

Oriental law

Main articles: Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, Eastern canonical reforms of Pius XII

Distinct from this are the Eastern Catholic Churches. These Eastern Rites within the Catholic Church have a separate code of canon law, called the Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium (CCEO, Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches) which incorporates certain differences in the hierarchical, administrative, and judicial fora.


Jus antiquum

Jus novum

  • 1317—John XXII added to it the last official collection of Canon law, the "Liber Septimus Decretalium", better known under the title of "Constitutiones Clementis V", or simply "Clementinæ"

Jus novissimum

  • 1566—Pius V begins a project to unify the collection of law. He wanted to ensure the use of authentic and reliable versions of the libri legales so that the administration of justice did not depend on the version of Gratian that a particular canonical court used. He assembled a committee of great canon law scholars who became known as the Correctores Romani. The Correctores were guided by Antonio Agustín of Spain. Pope Pius V did not live to see this project to completion.
  • 1580 — Gregory XIII promulgates the finished version of the above (enforced until 1917)

Jus codicis

  • 1904—Pius X appoints a commission to compile a code of canon law for the Latin Church
  • 1918—The 1917 Code comes into legal effect[12]
  • 1959—John XXIII announces that the 1917 Code would be completely revised.[8][9]


  1. ^ Dr. Edward N. Peters,, accessed Jul-1-2013
  2. ^ a b Manual of Canon Law, pg. 13, #8
  3. ^ Paul Fournier and Gabriel Le Bras, Histoire des Collections Canoniques en Occident depuis les Fausses Décrétales jusqu’au Décret de Gratien, 2 vols. (Paris, 1931), vol I, pp. 16-17
  4. ^ On the controversial date of the Dionysian collections, see E. Wirbelauer, ed., Zwei Päpste in Rom: der Konflikt zwischen Laurentius und Symmachus (498–514), Studien und Texte, Quellen und Forschungen zur antiken Welt 16 (Munich, 1993), p. 121.
  5. ^ David N. Dumville, "Ireland, Brittany and England: Transmission and Use of the Collectio canonum Hibernensis", in Catherine Laurent and Helen Davis (eds.), Irlande et Bretagne : vingt siècles d'histoire, Actes du colloque de Rennes, 29-31 mars 1993 (Rennes, 1994), pp. 84-85.
  6. ^ M. Elliot, Canon Law Collections in England ca 600–1066: The Manuscript Evidence, unpubl. PhD dissertation (University of Toronto, 2013).
  7. ^ Fournier and Le Bras, Histoire des Collections Canoniques en Occident, vol I, pp. 51-62.
  8. ^ a b John XXIII, allocution Questa festiva (25 Jan. 1959), AAS 51 (1959) pp. 68-69
  9. ^ a b, "Legislative History of the 1983 Code of Canon Law"; accessed June-7-2013
  10. ^ Pope John Paul II (1983-01-25). "Sacrae Disciplinae Leges"Apostolic Constitution . Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 2007-04-08. 
  11. ^ Benedict XV, Ap. Const. Providentissima Mater Ecclesia of 27 May 1917
  12. ^ Benedict XV, Ap. Const. Providentissima Mater Ecclesia of 27 May 1917
  13. ^ John Paul II, Ap. Const. Sacrae Disciplinae Leges
  14. ^ 1983 Code, canon 6 §1, 1°
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