In its origins canon law consisted of the enactments of councils or synods of bishops, and the Anglican and Orthodox Churches so restrict it today. The Roman Catholic Church also recognizes the authority of the pope to make universal law and that certain customary practices may acquire the force of law. The Roman Catholic Church has by far the most elaborate body of law and, to provide training in it, has chartered graduate faculties in a number of universities throughout the world. The doctorate in canon law requires at least four years of study beyond the Bachelor of Arts degree. Each diocese has a Church court or tribunal staffed by canon lawyers. In modern times diocesan Church courts have dealt almost exclusively with marriage nullity cases.
The full range of canon law in contemporary times may be seen in the Roman Catholic Church, which promulgated a revised Latin code in 1983. Promulgated by the authority of Pope John Paul II, this code consists of seven books for a total of 1,752 canons. Each book is divided into titles, but in the larger books the titles are grouped in parts and even in sections. A Code of Canons of the [Roman Catholic] Eastern Churches was promulgated in 1990.
Book One, “General Norms”, includes 203 canons under 11 titles: ecclesiastical laws (definition and application); custom; general decrees and instructions; individual administrative acts (precepts, rescripts, privileges, and dispensations); statutes and rules of order; physical and juridic persons; juridic acts; the power of governance; ecclesiastical offices; prescription; and the computation of time.
Book Two, “The People of God”, is, from a theological perspective, the most significant book. Its 543 canons are organized in three parts: “The Christian Faithful”, “The Hierarchical Constitution of the Church”, and “Institutes [communities] of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life”. Among the Christian faithful a distinction is made between clergy and laity, and their respective rights and duties are spelled out. The hierarchical constitution of the Church establishes the supreme authority (the Roman pontiff and the college of bishops, the synod of bishops, the cardinals, the Roman Curia, and papal legates) and the particular churches (dioceses, archdioceses [ecclesiastical provinces], episcopal conferences, as well as parishes and deaneries). Part Three regulates the various types of religious communities: institutes of consecrated life (for example, Jesuits, Franciscans, Visitation nuns), secular institutes (for example, Opus Dei), and societies of apostolic life (for example, Paulists, Sulpicians, Vincentians).
Book Three, “The Church’s Teaching Mission”, consists of 87 canons concerned with preaching, catechizing, missionary activity, Christian education, publications, and the profession of faith.
Book Four, “The Church’s Sanctifying Role”, regulates in 420 canons the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, penance, the anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony. The canons prescribe the proper minister for each, the necessary dispositions on the part of the recipient, and the ceremonial to be observed. The second part of the book discusses other religious acts: sacramentals (for example, blessings and exorcisms); the Liturgy of the Hours, or divine office; funerals; devotion to the saints (sacred images and relics); vows and oaths. The third part is concerned with sacred places (churches and cemeteries) and sacred times (holy days and days of fast and abstinence).
Book Five, “The Temporal Goods of the Church”, regulates property in 57 canons: its acquisition, administration, and alienation. It also deals with pious wills and pious foundations.
Book Six, “Sanctions in the Church”, consists of 89 canons concerned with ecclesiastical penalties such as excommunication, interdict, and suspension. Various crimes and offences are listed with specific sanctions attached. Types of delicts (or offences against the law) are as follows: apostasy, heresy, and schism (against religion and the unity of the Church); physical violence, incitement to disobedience, and unauthorized alienation of property (against ecclesiastical authorities and the liberty of the Church); simulation of the sacraments, unauthorized ordinations, and violation of the seal of confession (usurpation of ecclesiastical functions); falsification of Church documents and injury of a person’s good name; clerics engaging in business or trade or attempting marriage (against special obligations); homicide and abortion (against human life and liberty).
Book Seven, “On Processes”, treats procedural law in 353 canons. Every diocesan bishop is required to appoint a judicial vicar, or officialis, who is to have ordinary jurisdiction over all cases except those that the bishop may reserve to himself. Other officials include the promoter of justice and the defender of the bond (relating to holy orders and matrimony). The tribunal of second instance, or court of appeal, is the archdiocesan, or metropolitan, court. The pope, as the supreme judge for the whole Roman Catholic world, may hear cases himself. The ordinary tribunal for receiving appeals to the Holy See is the Roman Rota. The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura is competent to hear complaints against a sentence of the Rota or any act of an ecclesiastical administrative power alleging error of law or procedure. The code concludes with a section on administrative procedure. In each diocese an office or council may be permanently established to resolve disputes arising from the exercise of an administrative authority in the Church. A special procedure is provided for the removal and transfer of pastors.
Laws of the Church as well as those of the state bind their subjects in conscience. The obligation in conscience does not arise immediately from the laws themselves but from the divine plan, in which people are envisioned as living in both a civil and an ecclesiastical society. Church and state are the judges of what is necessary to realize the common good. Their laws carry a legal obligation of greater or lesser weight, depending on the importance of specific statutes in achieving that end.
The Code of Canon Law itself lays down certain principles of interpretation. Laws that impose a penalty, for example, or restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception from the law are to be strictly interpreted. In canon law, unlike common law, an interpretation given by a court in a judicial sentence does not set a precedent; it has no force of law and binds only those people affected. For an authentic interpretation of the code, a special Roman commission was established in 1917.