Just Where Did Canon Law Come From?

 Part I: The Code of 1917

There are more things Canon Law is not than it is.  Canon Law did not come from God like the Commandments.  There is something to be said for those things that came directly from God.  When Moses came down from the mountain with those tablets and the Commandments on them, that was pretty impressive.  It is still the only law the Catholic Church has that traces itself back to God. It is the oldest legal system in the world.

There are mentions of Canon Law throughout Church history, frequently around the Councils that were held.  At that time Canon Law was not so much codified as collected into volumes that were both private and public.  Many pay homage to Gratian and his Decretum of the 12th Century.  The Decretum was compiled as a legal textbook.  It’s purpose was to harmonize the many different and contradictory collections that were floating around everywhere in civil and canon law at the time. 

Many of the lives of the saints write-ups will say this he or that he was a “canon lawyer”. (Not a calling for women in those days of history).  A good example of this is Saint Alphonse Liguori founder of the Redemptorists..  But there was no actual codification of Canon Law until the Code of 1917, known as the Pio Benedictine Code of Canon Law.

 It was Pope Pius X who ordered the codification of canon law in 1904.  His successor, Pope Benedict XV promulgated the Code in 1917 when it was finally completed and agreed upon, to take legal effect in May, 1918.  This Code was never fully translated into English (officially) to force all scholarly discussion to take place in Latin.  Talk about control freaks?  The effect was that only the Latin text had force of law.  If this Code is of interest to you, the only publication you should be looking at is The Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law by Edward N. Peters.  His work on this is monumental.  Anything you could possibly want to find out about the 1917 Code is there, including a complete translation in English.  Also, you can Check his website on this at     http://canonlaw.info/masterpage1917.htm       

The Pio Benedictine Code did not last long, only until 1983.  When you consider the age of the Church….  That is not long at all.  Understand, unlike civil law, what was written in 1917 was pretty much the law until 1983 when it was abrogated by the 1983 Code of Canon Law, or the Johanno-Pauline Code of Canon Law.  There were no court decisions (Common Law) or subsequent legislation that directly affected this Code.  In Civil Law attorneys need to scour the internet almost daily for the latest judicial decisions and legislation to keep up with the laws of state and country.  There were five ways the 1917 Code could be changed, all with very erudite names.  But in the end they were used very infrequently and, of course, issued in Latin.

So that is absolutely all you need to know about the Code of 1917.  As the Irish say, It’s done and dusted.  The next big thing is our current Code, the Code of 1983. And I will talk about that in my next post.

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