Any church’s or religion’s laws, rules, and regulations; more commonly, the written policies that guide the administration and religious ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church.
Since the fourth century, the Roman Catholic Church has been developing regulations that have had some influence on secular (non-church-related) legal procedures. These regulations are called canons and are codified in the Code of Canon Law (in Latin, Codex juris canonici).
The law of England, which inspired much of the law formed in the United States, was a mixture of canon law and Common Law (principles and rules of action embodied in case law rather than legislative enactments). Canon law and English common law borrowed heavily from each other throughout medieval times and together formed the basis for many of the legal procedures used in the United States. For example, canon law’s influence is still visible in the concepts of the Grand Jury, presentment (a description of a criminal offense that is based on the jury’s own knowledge), and some characteristics of U.S. marriage law.
Canon law has its origins in ancient church writings, decisions made by the general councils of local bishops, and rulings issued by the pope. These ideas were organized in the mid twelfth century by an Italian law teacher, Gratian. He sorted the collection into religious law, penal law, sacramental law, and other categories. Along with a set of decisions by the pope called Decretals of Gregory IX, Gratian’s work formed the main body of canon law for nearly eight hundred years. In 1917, Pope Benedict XV recodified (revised) the canons. Pope John Paul II reissued the Code of Canon Law in 1983 authorizing increased participation of laity in the church, recognizing the needs of disabled people, and making other changes. A related text, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, was reissued by the Holy See (the seat of papal government) in 1990.
In the Middle Ages, canon law was used in ecclesiastical courts (church) to decide many types of cases that in modern times are decided by civil courts, including criminal offenses. This was because most English Christians did not make a great distinction between secular and spiritual offenses. Crimes that were tried by the church included Adultery, blasphemy, slander, heresy (opposition to official religious views), money lending, and gambling. From the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries church courts also heard many breach-of-faith cases concerning contracts, as well as inheritance and marriage-related cases.
Criminal trial procedures in medieval church courts were the source of some features that found their way into common law. Although witnesses were considered the best source of proof of a crime under canon law, suspected offenders could also be tried because of public fame (suspicion in the community that they had committed a crime). An inquest made up of twelve men a forerunner of royal courts’ grand juries said under oath whether public suspicion existed. If none did, then a judge had no authority to proceed. After establishing public fame, the court’s next step was canonical purgation, in which the accused person swore an oath that she or he was innocent. Proof of innocence was accomplished by compurgation, in which several oath helpers would swear that they believed the oath was true. People who objected to the purgation of an accused person had the chance to prove their accusation of guilt.
The use of canon law in governmental decisions is not well documented. In the early fifteenth century, commissions of the English Parliament made use of canonical procedures and canon law experts to decide issues involving laws of war, diplomacy, and other questions. For example, Parliament’s justification for deposing King Richard II seems to have been based on papal bulls (decrees).
In modern times, the creation, interpretation, and use of the canons closely resemble those of secular law. The Episcopal Conference of Local Bishops and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops are voting bodies that set policy for the church. When policy has been codified, it is used by judges in Catholic tribunals in determining whether certain practices or requests are acceptable according to the canons. (Catholic tribunals make up the Church’s own court system, which interprets canonical policy to resolve questions of church practice.) Case law (previous rulings) is published in Roman Replies and has precedential value. Judges may also request assistance from the Canon Law Society of America, a research organization, in interpreting the canons.
Catholics who appear before a tribunal may consult canon lawyers, who are not usually secular lawyers. A canon lawyer typically completes at least two years’ worth of course work in the canons. North American canon lawyers receive their degree in canon law from one of two institutions: the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., or St. Paul University, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
By the end of the twentieth century secular law had eclipsed canon law in most aspects of public life. Interbody disagreements within the church are now often handled administratively rather than by a tribunal, but within the confines of canon law. However, the tribunal is still the only place where Catholics can secure a marriage Annulment, and each diocese must maintain a tribunal for this purpose. Divorced Catholics who have been denied an annulment can appeal as far as the Sacred Roman Rota, whose international membership is selected by the pope.
In the 1990s, some dioceses notably the Archdiocese of Denver have sought to reduce involvement by civil courts in church disputes by creating dispute resolution mechanisms and other internal mechanisms that make use of the written policies of canon law.
Beal, John P., James A. Coriden, and Thomas J. Green, eds. 2000. New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law. New York: Paulist Press.Buelt, Edward L., and Charles Goldberg. 1995. Canon Law and Civil Law Interface: Diocesan Corporations. Catholic Lawyer.
Donahue, Charles, Jr. 1992. IUS Commune, Canon Law, and Common Law in England. Paper presented at symposium, Relationships among Roman Law, Common Law, and Modern Civil Law. Tulane Law Review (June).
Gerosa, Libero. 2002. Canon Law. London, New York: Continuum.
Helmholz, R.H. 1983. The Early History of the Grand Jury and the Canon Law. University of Chicago Law Review (spring).
Jirik, Paulissa, member, Canon Law Society of America. 1995. Telephone conversation, July 31.
n. laws and regulations over ecclesiastical (church) matters developed between circa 1100 and 1500 and used by the Roman Catholic Church in reference to personal morality, status and powers of the clergy, administration of the sacraments and church and personal discipline. Canon law comprises ordinances of general councils of the church, decrees, bulls and epistles of the Popes, and the scriptures and writings of the early fathers of the church. Canon law has no legal force except within the Vatican in Rome, Italy, and in those nations in which the Catholic Church is the “official” church and where it prevails in religious matters which may affect all citizens (such as abortion and divorce). In Great Britain there is also a body of canon law dating back to pre-reformation in the 16th Century, which is used by the Anglican (Episcopal) Church. Canon law is not to be confused with professional canons, which are rules of conduct with no religious connection.