Canon is a Latin word meaning “rule.” A canon is an established rule, or body of rules, for guidance. Canon law is the body of laws governing the Catholic Church.
History of Canon Law
Canon law, the oldest continuously functioning legal system in the western world, is the legal system of the Catholic Church. It affects virtually every aspect of the faith life of nearly one billion Catholic Christians throughout the world.
The Catholic Church had collections of canon law during the first millennium, but the first body of canon law to be widely accepted was Gratian’s Decree, assembled about AD 1140 by the Italian Camaldolese monk Gratian, lasted nearly eight centuries. Gratian’s Decree basically summarized the first one thousand years of Catholic canon law. It looked like this:
In much the same way as additional books were added to the Torah, more books were added as the centuries passed until the Corpus Iuris Canonica (Body of Canon Law) was complete.
Early in the twentieth century, Pope St. Pius X commissioned and approved an updating called the Codex Iuris Canonica. However, he did not live to see it published, which is why Pope Benedict XV published it in 1917. But because Pope St. Pius X and Pope Benedict XV each had a crucial part in it, the 1917 Codex Iuris Canonica is often called the Pio-Benedictine Code.
The Current Edition 1983
Pope Benedict XV The 1917 edition was superseded by the current Codex Iuris Canonica, Code of Canon Law, published by St. John Paul II in 1983. Some provisions highlighting the Pope’s supreme authority include:
Canon § 331 states: The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”
How then do we know that a particular man is the Pope? Canon 332 §1 answers: “The Roman Pontiff obtains full and supreme power in the Church by his acceptance of legitimate election together with episcopal consecration. Therefore, a person elected to the supreme pontificate who is marked with episcopal character obtains this power from the moment of acceptance. If the person elected lacks episcopal character, however, he is to be ordained a bishop immediately.”
Who is the authentic interpreter of Canon law? Canon 16 §1 says, “The legislator authentically interprets laws as does the one to whom the same legislator has entrusted the power of authentically interpreting.” St. John Paul II was the legislator at the time of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, meaning he and his successors are the most qualified to interpret it. Canon 333 § 3 says, “No appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.”
Canon 338 §1 states: “It is for the Roman Pontiff alone to convoke an ecumenical council, preside offer it personally or through others, transfer, suspend, or dissolve a council, and to approve its decrees.” St. John XXIII called Vatican II, and Pope Paul VI approved its decrees.
Lay Catholics who wish to know more about the Canon Law may enjoy reading Surprised By Canon Law: 150 Questions Laypeople Ask About Canon Law.