Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


What canon law is for

  • 08 August 2018


Canon law, not usually a household term, has come into the public eye of late, especially in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.

One prominent example has been the question of the 'Pontifical secret', the prohibition of reporting information about a canonical trial in progress which is designed, like the sub iudice rule in common law, to prevent defamation of an innocent accused, and prejudice to a fair trial. (Note, this is not the same as the seal preventing a priest from revealing what he hears during the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, although some media reports have appeared to conflate the two.) Given this newfound prominence, it seems a good time to have a look at what canon law is — and what it isn't.

At its simplest, canon law is the law governing the Catholic Church. The word 'canon' (from the Greek for a measuring stick) has been used to refer to Church rules since the first century of the Christian era. While there are a number of sources for it including papal pronouncements, laws passed by bishops and bishops conferences and religious superiors, the principal ones are the Code of Canon Law 1983 (dealing with the Western or Latin Catholic Church) and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches 1990 (governing the Eastern Churches in communion with the Holy See).

The thornier question, and one which has quite reasonably provoked a lot of debate, is what canon law is for. The struggle of the Church in the ninth to 11th centuries for religious independence from the mediaeval monarchies led to the Church seeing itself as a legal entity in parallel to those states. This juridic approach to the world was given a fillip by the rediscovery of Roman law, which spurred a growth in legal science.

For these early canon lawyers, the message to the crowned heads of Europe was clear — we have our own legal system and our own rules and we won't be told who we appoint and how we act in our own sphere of competence. This 'defensive' use of canon law was spurred by the Reformation and Enlightenment, both of which were seen by many within the institutional Church as threats to both Church authority and its claim to stand as an institutional embodiment of the Christian message.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) instituted a very different understanding