Code of Canon Law

  • Promulgated by Pope John Paul II
  • 1983 AD
  • Apostolic Constitution


IntroductionDuring the course of the centuries, the Catholic Church has been accustomed to reform and renew the laws of canonical discipline so that, in constant fidelity to her divine Founder, they may be better adapted to the saving mission entrusted to her. Prompted by this same purpose and fulfilling at last the expectations of the whole Catholic world, I order today, January 25, 1983, the promulgation of the revised Code of Canon Law. In so doing, my thoughts go back to the same day of the year 1959, when my Predecessor of happy memory, John XXIII, announced for the first time his decision to reform the existing corpus of canonical legislation which had been promulgate on the feast of Pentecost in the year 1917.


Such a decision to reform the Code was taken together with two other decisions of which the Pontiff spoke on that same day, and they concerned the intention to hold a Synod of the Diocese of Rome and to convoke the Ecumenical Council. Of these two events, the first was not closely connected with the reform of the Code, but the second, that is, the Council, is of supreme importance in regard to the present matter and is closely connected with it. If we ask ourselves why John XXIII considered it necessary to reform the existing Code, the answer can perhaps be found in the Code itself which was promulgated in the year 1917. But there exists also another answer and that is the decisive one, namely, that the reform of the Code of Canon Law appeared to be definitely desired and requested by the same Council which devoted such great attention to the Church. As is obvious, when the revision of the Code was first announced, the Council was an event of the future. Moreover, the acts of its magisterium and especially its doctrine on the Church would be decided in the years 1962-1965; however, it is clear to everyone that John XXIII's intuition was very true, and with good reason it must be said that his decision was for the good of the Church in the long term. Therefore, the new Code, which is promulgated today, necessarily required the previous work of the Council; and although it was announced together with the Ecumenical Council, nevertheless it follows it chronologically, because the work undertaken in its preparation, since it had to be based upon the Council, could not begin until after completion of the latter. Turning our mind today to the beginning of this long journey, that is, to that January 25, 1959, and to John XXIII himself who initiated the revision of the Code, I must recognize that this Code derives from one and the same intention, which is that of the renewal of the Christian life. From such an intention, in fact, the entire work of the Council drew its norms and its direction. If we now pass on to consider the nature of the work which preceded the promulgation of the Code, and also the manner in which it was carried out, especially during the Pontificates of Paul VI and of John Paul I, and from then until the present day, it must be clearly pointed out that this work was brought to completion in an outstandingly collegial spirit; and this not only in regard to the material drafting of the work, but also as regards the very substance of the laws enacted. This note of collegiality, which eminently characterizes and distinguishes the process of origin of the present Code, corresponds perfectly with the teaching and the character of the Second Vatican Council. Therefore the Code, not only because of its content but also because of its very origin, manifests the spirit of this Council, in the documents of which the Church, the universal "sacrament of salvation" (cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, nos. 1, 9, 48), is presented as the People of God and its hierarchical constitution appears based on the College of Bishops united with its Head. For this reason, therefore, the bishops and the episcopates were invited to collaborate in the preparation of the new Code, so that by means of such a long process, by a method as far as possible collegial, there should gradually mature the juridical formulas which would later serve for the use of the entire Church. In all these phases of the work there also took part experts, namely, specialists in theology, history, and especially in canon law, who were chosen from all over the world. To one and all of them I wish to express today my sentiments of deep gratitude. In the first place there come before my eyes the figures of the deceased Cardinals who presided over the preparatory commission: Cardinal Pietro Ciriaci who began the work, and Cardinal Pericle Felici who, for many years, guided the course of the work almost to its end. I think then of the secretaries of the same commission: Very Rev. Mons. Giacomo Violardo, later Cardinal, and Father Raimondo Bidagor, S.J., both of whom in carrying out this task poured out the treasures of their doctrine and wisdom. Together with them I recall the Cardinals, the archbishops, the bishops and all those who were members of that commission, as well as the consultors of the individual study groups engaged during these years in such a difficult work, and whom God in the meantime has called to their eternal reward. I pray to God for all of them. I am pleased to remember also the living, beginning with the present Pro - President of the commission, the revered brother, Most Rev. Rosalío Castillo Lara, who for a very long time has done excellent work in a task of such great responsibility, to pass then to our beloved son, Mons. Willy Onclin, whose devotion and diligence have greatly contributed to the happy outcome of the work, and finally to all the others in the commission itself, whether as Cardinal members or as officials, consultors and collaborators in the various study groups, or in other offices, who have given their appreciated contribution to the drafting and the completion of such a weighty and complex work. Therefore, in promulgating the Code today, I am fully aware that this act is an expression of pontifical authority and, therefore, it is invested with a "primatial" character. But I am also aware that this Code in its objective content reflects the collegial care of all my brothers in the episcopate for the Church. Indeed, by a certain analogy with the Council, it should be considered as the fruit of a collegial collaboration because of the united efforts on the part of specialized persons and institutions throughout the whole Church. A second question arises concerning the very nature of the Code of Canon Law. To reply adequately to this question, one must mentally recall the distant patrimony of law contained in the books of the Old and New Testament from which is derived, as from its first source, the whole juridical - legislative tradition of the Church. Christ the Lord, indeed, did not in the least wish to destroy the very rich heritage of the Law and of the Prophets which was gradually formed from the history and experience of the People of God in the Old Testament, but He brought it to completion (cf. Mt. 5:17), in such wise that in a new and higher way it became part of the heritage of the New Testament. Therefore, although St.Paul, in expounding the Paschal Mystery, teaches that justification is not obtained by the works of the Law, but by means of faith (cf. Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16), he does not thereby exclude the binding force of the Decalogue (cf. Rom. 13:28; Gal. 5:13-25; 6:2), nor does he deny the importance of discipline in the Church of God (cf. 1 Cor. chapters 5, 6). Thus the writings of the New Testament enable us to understand still more the importance itself of discipline and make us see better how it is more closely connected with the saving character of the evangelical message itself. This being so, it appears sufficiently clear that the Code is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace and the charisms in the life of the Church and of the faithful. On the contrary, its purpose is rather to create such an order in the ecclesial society that, while assigning the primacy to faith, grace and the charisms, it at the same time renders easier their organic development in the life both of the ecclesial society and of the individual persons who belong to it. The Code, as the principal legislative document of the Church, founded on the juridical - legislative heritage of Revelation and Tradition, is to be regarded as an indispensable instrument to ensure order both in individual and social life, and also in the Church's activity itself. Therefore, besides containing the fundamental elements of the hierarchical and organic structure of the Church as willed by her divine Founder, or as based upon apostolic, or in any case most ancient, tradition, and besides the fundamental principles which govern the exercise of the threefold office entrusted to the Church itself, the Code must also lay down certain rules and norms of behavior. The instrument, which the Code is, fully corresponds to the nature of the Church, especially as it is proposed by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in general, and in a particular way by its ecclesiological teaching. Indeed, in a certain sense, this new Code could be understood as a great effort to translate this same doctrine, that is, the conciliar ecclesiology, into canonical language. If, however, it is impossible to translate perfectly into canonical language the conciliar image of the Church, nevertheless, in this image there should always be found as far as possible its essential point of reference. From this there are derived certain fundamental criteria which should govern the entire new Code, both in the sphere of its specific matter and also in the language connected with it. It could indeed be said that from this there is derived that character of complementarily which the Code presents in relation to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, with particular reference to the two constitutions, the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium and the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes. Hence it follows that what constitutes the substantial "novelty" of the Second Vatican Council, in line with the legislative tradition of the Church, especially in regard to ecclesiology, constitutes likewise the "novelty" of the new Code. Among the elements which characterize the true and genuine image of the Church, we should emphasize especially the following: the doctrine in which the Church is presented as the People of God (cf. Lumen gentium, no. 2), and authority as a service (cf. ibid., no. 3); the doctrine in which the Church is seen as a "communion," and which, therefore, determines the relations which should exist between the particular Churches and the universal Church, and between collegiality and the primacy; the doctrine, moreover, according to which all the members of the People of God, in the way suited to each of them, participate in the threefold office of Christ: priestly, prophetic and kingly. With this teaching there is also linked that which concerns the duties and rights of the faithful, and particularly of the laity; and finally, the Church's commitment to ecumenism. If, therefore, the Second Vatican Council has drawn from the treasury of Tradition elements both old and new, and the new consists precisely in the elements which we have enumerated, then it is clear that the Code also should reflect the same note of fidelity in newness and of newness in fidelity, and conform itself to that in its own field and in its particular way of expressing itself. The new Code of Canon Law appears at a moment when the bishops of the whole Church not only ask for its promulgation, but are crying out for it insistently and almost with impatience. In actual fact the Code of Canon Law is extremely necessary for the Church. Since, indeed, it is organized as a social and visible structure, it must also have norms: in order that its hierarchical and organic structure be visible; in order that the exercise of the functions divinely entrusted to her, especially that of sacred power and of the administration of the sacraments, may be adequately organized; in order that the mutual relations of the faithful may be regulated according to justice based upon charity, with the rights of individuals guaranteed and well defined; in order, finally, that common initiatives, undertaken for a Christian life ever more perfect may be sustained, strengthened and fostered by canonical norms. Finally, the canonical laws by their very nature must be observed. The greatest care has therefore been taken to ensure that in the lengthy preparation of the Code the wording of the norms should be accurate, and that they should be based on a solid juridical, canonical and theological foundation. After all these considerations it is to be hoped that the new canonical legislation will prove to be an efficacious means in order that the Church may progress in conformity with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and may every day be ever more suited to carry out its office of salvation in this world. I am pleased to entrust to all with a confident spirit these considerations of mine in the moment in which I promulgate this fundamental body of ecclesiastical laws for the Latin Church. May God grant that joy and peace with justice and obedience obtain favor for this Code, and that what has been ordered by the Head be observed by the members. Trusting therefore in the help of divine grace, sustained by the authority of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, with certain knowledge, and in response to the wishes of the bishops of the whole world who have collaborated with me in a collegial spirit; with the supreme authority with which I am vested, by means of this Constitution, to be valid forever in the future, I promulgate the present Code as it has been set in order and revised. I command that for the future it is to have the force of law for the whole Latin Church, and I entrust it to the watchful care of all those concerned, in order that it may be observed. So that all may more easily be informed and have a thorough knowledge of these norms before they have juridical binding force, I declare and order that they will have the force of law beginning from the first day of Advent of this year, 1983. And this notwithstanding any contrary ordinances, constitutions, privileges (even worthy of special or individual mention) or customs. I therefore exhort all the faithful to observe the proposed legislation with a sincere spirit and good will in the hope that there may flower again in the Church a renewed discipline; and that consequently the salvation of souls may be rendered ever easier under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church. Given at Rome, from the Apostolic Palace, January 25, 1983, the fifth year of our Pontificate. From the time of the primitive Church it has been customary to collect the sacred canons into one book to facilitate a knowledge of them as well as their use and observance especially by sacred ministers, since “no priest is permitted to be ignorant of the sacred canons” as Pope Celestine warned in a letter to the bishops of Apulia and Calabria (July 21, 429: cf. Jaffe,2 n. 371; Mansi IV, col. 469). His words are echoed by the Fourth Council of Toledo (633), which prescribed the following after the restoration of ecclesiastical discipline in the kingdom of the Visigoths once the Church had been freed from Arianism: “Priests are to know the sacred scripture and the canons” because “ignorance, the mother of all errors, is especially to be avoided by priests of God” (can. 25: Mansi X, col. 627). In fact during the first ten centuries nearly everywhere there flourished countless collections of ecclesiastical laws. These private collections contained norms issued especially by the councils and the Roman Pontiffs as well as other norms taken from lesser sources. In the middle of the twelfth century, this mass of collections and norms, not infrequently contradicting one another, was put in order again through the private initiative of the monk Gratian. This concordance of laws and collections, later called the Decretum Gratiani, constituted the first part of that significant collection of laws of the Church which, in imitation of the Corpus Iuris Civilis of the Emperor Justinian, was called the Corpus Iuris Canonici and contained the laws which had been passed during two centuries by the supreme authority of the Roman pontiffs with the assistance of experts in canon law called glossators. Besides the Decree of Gratian, in which the earlier norms were contained, the Corpus consists of the Liber Extra of Gregory IX, the Liber Sextus of Boniface VIII, the Clementinae, i.e. the collection of Clement V promulgated by John XXII, to which are added the Extravagantes of this pope and the Extravagantes communes, decretals of various Roman pontiffs never gathered in an authentic collection. The ecclesiastical law which this Corpus embraces constitutes the classical law of the Catholic Church and is commonly called by this name. To this corpus of law of the Latin Church corresponds to some extent the Syntagma canonum or oriental corpus of canons of the Greek Church. Subsequent laws, especially those enacted by the Council of Trent during the time of the Catholic Reformation and those issued later by various dicasteries of the Roman Curia, were never digested into one collection. This was the reason why during the course of time legislation outside the Corpus Iuris Canonici constituted “an immense pile of laws piled on top of other laws.” The lack of a systematic arrangement of the laws and the lack of legal certainty along with the obsolescence of and lacunae in many laws led to a situation where church discipline was increasingly imperiled and jeopardized. Therefore during the preparatory period prior to the First Vatican Council, many bishops asked that a new and sole collection laws be prepared to expedite the pastoral care of the people of God in a more certain and secure fashion. Although this task could not be implemented through conciliar action, the Apostolic See subsequently addressed certain more urgent disciplinary issues through a new organization of laws. Finally, Pope Pius X, at the very beginning of his pontificate, undertook this task when he proposed to collect and reform all ecclesiastical laws and determined that the enterprise be carried out under the leadership of Cardinal Pietro Gasparri. The first issue to be resolved in such a significant and difficult undertaking was the internal and external form of the new collection. It was decided to forego the method of compilations of laws whereby individual laws would have been expressed in the extensiveness of the original text; rather the modern method of codification was chosen. Hence texts containing and proposing a precept were expressed in a new and briefer form. However, all of the material was organized in five books which substantially imitated the system of Roman law institutes on persons, things and actions. The work took twelve years with the collaboration of experts, consultors and bishops throughout the Church. The character of the new Code was clearly enuntiated in the beginning of canon 6: “The Code generally retains the existing discipline although it introduces appropriate changes.” Therefore it was not a case of enacting a new law but rather a matter of arranging in a new fashion the operative legislation at that time. After the death of Pius X, this universal, exclusive, and authentic collection was promulgated on May 27, 1917 by his successor Benedict XV; it took effect on May 19, 1918. Everyone hailed the universal law of this Pio-Benedictine Code, which made a significant contribution to the effective promotion of pastoral ministry throughout the Church, which in the meantime was experiencing new growth. Nevertheless, both the external situation of the Church in a world which had experienced sweeping changes and significant shifts in customs within a few decades as well as progressive internal factors within the ecclesiastical community necessarily brought it about that a new reform of canon law was increasingly more imperative and was requested. The Supreme Pontiff John XXIII clearly recognized the signs of the times, for when he first announced the Roman Synod and the Second Vatican Council, he also announced that these events would be a necessary preparation for undertaking the desired renewal of the Code. Shortly after the Ecumenical Council had begun, the Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law was established on March 28, 1963 with Cardinal Pietro Ciriaci as president and Monsignor Giacomo Violardo as secretary. However, the cardinal members of the Commission in a meeting with the president on November 12 of that same year agreed that the true and proper efforts of the Commission should be deferred and should commence only at the conclusion of the Council. The reform was to be carried out according to the decisions and principles to be determined by that same Council. Meanwhile on April 17, 1964 Paul VI added seventy consultors to the Commission established by his predecessor John XXIII; he subsequently named other cardinal members and consultors from all over the world to participate in the expediting of the project. On February 24, 1965 the Supreme Pontiff named Rev. Raimondo Bidagor, S.J. the new secretary of the Commission since Monsignor Violardo had been promoted to the office of secretary of the Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments; on November 17 of the same year the pope appointed Monsignor fiilliam Onclin as adjunct secretary of the Commission. After the death of Cardinal Ciriaci, Archbishop Pericle Felici, former general secretary of Vatican Council II, was named pro-president on February 21, 1967. On June 26 of that same year he became a member of the Sacred College of Cardinals and subsequently assumed the office of president of the Commission. Since Father Bidagor ceased functioning as secretary of the Commission on November 1, 1973 on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Most Reverend Rosalio Castillo Lara, S.D.B., titular bishop of Praecausa and coadjutor bishop of Trujillo, Venezuela, was named the new secretary of the Commission. On May 17, 1982 he was appointed pro-president of the Commission upon the premature death of Cardinal Felici. On November 20, 1965, just before the closing of the Second Vatican Council, there was a solemn session of the Commission in the presence of the Supreme Pontiff Paul VI, at which were present the cardinal members of the Commission, the secretaries, consultors and officials of the Secretariat appointed in the meantime. This session publicly inaugurated the work of the Code Commission. The allocution of the Supreme Pontiff laid the foundations of the whole enterprise to a certain extent. It was recalled that canon law flows from the nature of the Church, that it is rooted in the power of jurisdiction entrusted to the Church by Christ, and that its purpose is to be viewed in terms of the care of souls in view of external salvation. Furthermore, the character of church law was illustrated; its necessity was vindicated against the more common objections; the history of the progress of law and its collections was alluded to; and especially there was highlighted the urgent need of a new reform of the law to respond to the ongoing need of appropriately adapting church discipline to changing circumstances. The Supreme Pontiff further indicated to the Commission two elements which should underly the whole revision effort. First of all it was not simply a matter of a new organization of the laws as had occurred at the time of the Pio- Benedictine Code; but rather it was also and especially a matter of reforming the norms to accommodate them to a new mentality and new needs even if the old law was to supply the foundation for the work of revision. Careful attention was to be paid to all the decrees and acts of the Second Vatican Council since they contain the main lines of legislative renewal either because norms were issued which directly affected new institutes and ecclesiastical discipline, or because it was necessary that the doctrinal riches of the Council, which contributed so much to pastoral life, have their consequences and necessary impact on canonical legislation. Repeatedly in allocutions, precepts and decisions during the following years, the two above mentioned elements were recalled to the minds of the Commission members by the Supreme Pontiff, who continued to oversee the whole enterprise from on high and assiduously pursue it. If the subcommissions or study groups were to carry on their work in a methodical fashion, it was necessary above all that there be identified and approved certain principles which would serve as guidelines during the process of revising the whole Code. The central committee of consultors prepared the text of a document, which, at the request of the Supreme Pontiff, was submitted to the examination of a general session of the synod of bishops in October 1967. The following principles were approved nearly unanimously.