Dr. Edward Peters


Updated 17 dec 2012


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"Sacrae Disciplinae Leges [is] a document of great value, not the least because it was written by the Holy Father himself."


  R. Castillo Lara, "Some reflections on the proper way to approach the Code of canon law" CLSA Proc 46 (1984) 24-40, 30.




Information on Sacrae disciplinae leges, the apostolic constitution

by which Pope John Paul II established the current Code of Canon Law


Commentary by Dr. Edward Peters



   Below is my “gloss” to (brief commentary on) the text of Sacrae disciplinae leges. Underlined texts are glossed immediately to their right. For ease of use, I have inserted paragraph numbers and highlighted some text as follows:

  • Yellow sections are deemed especially important material;

  • Blue shows references to ecclesiology;

  • Green shows express references to collegiality:

  • Orange shows references to soteriology.


1. Click here for the Vatican’s Latin text of Sacrae disciplinae leges without commentary.

2. Click here for the Vatican’s English translation of Sacrae disciplinae leges without commentary.




Original Text

(Vatican translation)



Dr. Peters’ Gloss



The highest form of legislative document the Church uses.





Title: “The Laws of Sacred Discipline”, suggestive that in the Church even law serves the universal call to holiness outlined by, most recently, the Second Vatican Council, esp. in Lumen gentium.





α Most laws in the Church do not emanate from legislative assemblies or committees (pace institutes of consecrated life in regard to rules for their own members and episcopal conferences in regard to certain regional topics); rather it comes from divinely authorized ministers, especially pope and bishops. Canon lawyers often refer to the pope as “the Legislator.”


β Also known as the 1983 Code of Canon Law, this new code replaces the 1917 Code of Canon Law, sometimes called the Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law.









α The 1983 Code is intended for use by all the People of God, not simply the hierarchy. This present salutation also differs from that used in the 1917 Code by expressly greeting all the members of the Church, and by dropping a traditional greeting to professors of canon law and their students.


β A traditional title for the pope, “Servus servorum Dei.”

[1] During the course of the centuries (α), 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 (β) 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 (γ) 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 (δ) for the first time his decision to reform the existing corpus (ε) of canonical legislation which had been promulgated on the feast of Pentecost in the year 1917.


α Ecclesiastical discipline can be dated to the time of Our Lord, of course, but canon law properly so-called can be traced back to the 4th century, and canonical sciences were established not later than the 11th century. Cdl. Gasparri’s famous Preface to the 1917 Code, and Cdl. Stickler's Preface to the 1983 Code, offer basic outlines of canonical history.


β From the first sentence of this apostolic constitution, to the last canon of the Code (1983 CIC 1752), the primary soteriological goal of canon law, “the salvation of souls,” is stressed. See also ¶ 32.


γ The official establishment of law (1983 CIC 8), even though the laws might not take effect for a (usually short) time.


δ Formal announcement of the Council came in the enc. let. “Ad Petri Cathedram”, 29 June 1959, AAS 51 (1959) 497-531.


ε A slightly inaccurate use of the term in that “corpus” usually refers to a collection of laws whose authority is determined on a case-by-case basis, whereas the binding force of laws in a “codex” is established simply by showing that the law is contained in the code.


[2] 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 (α) 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 (β) and is closely connected with it.


α The results of this synod were published in Prima Romana Synodus, A.D. MDCCCCLX, (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1960) 662 pp. It had virtually no impact on either the Council or the Code.


β i.e., canon law.

[3] 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 (α). 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 (β).


α Many canons of the 1917 Code were still perfectly functional in a pastoral context, but as a whole, the complex of norms that made up a valuable legal system in 1917 was clearly dated by the early 1960s. The mechanism included in the 1917 Code for regular updating of the canons was rarely, some would say never, used. That situation is probably not going to be allowed to happen under the 1983 Code.


β The first of several references to the crucial importance of ecclesiology (the study of the nature Church) in understanding and applying canon law.


[4] As is obvious, when the revision of the Code was first announced, the Council was an event of the future (α). Moreover, the acts of its magisterium and especially its doctrine on the Church (β) 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.


α Four plenary conciliar sessions were held 11 OCT 1962 - 8 DEC 1965. Over 2,000 bishops from around the world attended each session.



β Solid ecclesiology is vital for proper canonistics.

[5] 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.


There were a few efforts just prior to the Council to reform the 1917 Code by what amounted to a series of word-changes here and there. These suggestions were wholly inadequate to the task at hand and were quickly forgotten.

[6] 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.


An old saying holds “Ecclesia semper reformanda est”, or, the Church is always in need of renewal.




[7] 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.


The first of several references to the spirit of collegiality that marked the development of the 1983 Code. In collegial actions, all members take part in shaping the outcome, without necessarily requiring that all have equal authority in the process.

[8] This note of collegiality, which eminently characterizes and distinguishes the process of origin of the present Code, corresponds perfectly (α) 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.


α Not to be taken too literally. See ¶ 18.

[9] 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 (α), 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 (β), namely, specialists in theology, history, and especially in canon law, who were chosen from all over the world.


α This long period of collaboration in the drafting of the revised Code ran from 1966 to 1982 and is detailed in the Roman journal Communicationes, published originally under the authority of the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law, and continued to the present by its successors. It is also described in the 1983 Code Preface. The actual texts developed during this process are available in E. Peters, Incrementa in Progressu (2005), passim.


β Experts, or “periti” played a much larger role in developing the texts of canons in 1983 Code than they did for the 1917 Code.

[10] To one and all of them I wish to express today my sentiments of deep gratitude.


The sincerity of the expression is self-evident. Pope John Paul II is not a specially trained canonist (but see Did you know?). Neither was John XXIII or Paul VI.

[11] 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 Bigador, 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 (α) 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.


α There were various groupings dealing with specific areas of law such sacraments, procedures, teaching office, property, and consecrated life. These are outlined in  E. Peters, Incrementa in Progressu (2005), esp. Introductions.


[12] I am pleased to remember also the living, beginning with the present Pro-President of the commission, the revered brother, Most Rev. Rosalio 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.


WO: 22 FEB 1905 – 15 JUL 1989

[13] 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 (α). 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 (β)  and institutions throughout the whole Church.


α John Paul II could have promulgated the 1983 Code (binding, as it does, only the Latin, or Western, or Roman Church) in virtue of his authority as “Primate of the West”, but he chose to use his papal authority, and in that light he acted consistently with his later papal act of promulgating in 1990 the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.


β Healthy societies like the Church glory in the application of individual talents (or “gifts") in common projects.


[14] 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.


It is an interesting exercise to trace various modern canonical provisions back to their Old and New Testament sources. Compare, e.g., Canon 1341 with Matthew 18: 15-17. More work needs to be done in this area.

[15] 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.


The Pentateuch, or first “Five Books” of the Old Testament, set forth the Mosaic Law. One cannot help but to notice that the Second Vatican Council’s call for greater authentic use of Sacred Scripture in all facets of Church life is being honored by Pope John Paul II in his brief but insightful analysis of law in the Bible.

[16] 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.


A pivotal, beautiful, and concise explanation of the role of law in the Church. This is a wonderful response to those who feel that the Church and its members should not be “constrained by law”. St. Augustine’s famous aphorism, “Love and do what you will” should not be taken in a sense he never intended.

[17] The Code, as the principal legislative document (α) 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 (β) 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 (γ).


α All canonical analysis starts with the 1983 Code.


β Indeed, there was serious consideration given to promulgating a “Fundamental Law of the Church”, but late in the Code revision process it was decided to refrain from that idea, and instead place several of these norms in the 1983 Code itself, mostly in Books II and III. For more information on this effort, see O. Boelens, Synopsis Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis (Peeters: 2001).


γ A standard element of any legal system, regulating behavior (and not thoughts, which belong to the “internal forum”).


[18] 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.


Another crucial paragraph again linking the 1983 Code to the ecclesiological insights of the Second Vatican Council, and suggesting an important interpretative technique (1983 CIC 17), namely, that the Code needs to be understood in light of the Council. The footnotes in more recent printings of the 1983 Code include references (known as “fontes”) to where so many canons legislate on topics addressed by the Council. Law not uncommonly fails to capture in perfect language the totality of the values underlying it. That fact does not excuse leadership’s failing to strive for such perfection, nor membership’s duty to abide by the law as best it can. See esp. in this regard Bp. Jerome Hamar's comments.

[19] From this there are derived certain fundamental criteria which should govern the entire new Code (α), 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 (β).


α Some of these criteria were, in 1967, developed into 10 “Guiding Principles” to be applied in the drafting the new Code. These principles are recorded in the Preface to the 1983 Code.


β Respectively, the dogmatic and pastoral constitutions on the Church.


[20] 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.


One must always strive to see the Council as the Church sees the Council, namely, as legitimate developments on an unchanging foundation of Faith. In that light, one better understands Pope Paul VI's remark that the proper application of the revised Code (still being drafted when he said these words) would require a “novus habitus mentis”, or new ways of thinking. See also ¶ 22.


[21] 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.


The key canonical articulation of these basic rights and duties are found at 1983 CIC 208-223. The key canonical articulation of lay rights and duties are found at 1983 CIC 224-231. The whole paragraph is a summary of ecclesiological teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

[22] 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.


A more difficult task than might at first appear, for many at various levels of Church work do not understand the nature of legal systems, and consequently some make unsound demands of canon law. The pope is suggesting that law is just one more tool in ecclesiastical life, and that tools are always most effective when in accord with their design. The first step, then, is to educate the faithful as to the proper role of law in the Church, so that assignments for which law is perfectly capable are not neglected, and burdens that law cannot sustain are not imposed. See also ¶ 20.


[23] 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.


The 1917 Code had taken on something of the character of a “lame duck” when its overhaul was announced by Pope John XXIII in early 1959, and the long period of post-conciliar drafting forced many seminaries and theologates implicitly or explicitly to convey the message that canon law was by nature uncertain or unduly subject to “political” exigencies in the Church. By the early 1980s there really was a clamor for a legal system that would allow members of the Church to know what the rules were going to be. See generally Peters, “Five Things Every Bishop Needs to Know about Canon Law”.


[24] 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.


Another crucial paragraph, with much of specifically ecclesiological significance as well.

[25] 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.


Canon law is not a series of suggestions or pious goals to be considered in one’s religious decision-making process. These are binding norms issued with the authority Christ as left to of St. Peter (Matthew 16: 18-19) and his successors (1983 CIC 331).

[26] 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.


Renewed emphasis on the soteriological goal of canon law.


[27] I am pleased to entrust to all with a confident spirit (α) these considerations of mine in the moment in which I promulgate this fundamental body of ecclesiastical laws (β) for the Latin Church.


α John Paul II is calling for, and counting on, the cooperation of those for whom these laws are enacted. Remember the Psalmist’s gratitude to God for law: “He has not dealt thus with other nations; He has not taught them his decrees." (Ps 147: 20; see also Psalm 119.)


β See also notes to ¶ 17.

[28] 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.


Interesting fruits of living in accord with a sound legal system.

[29] Trusting therefore in the help of divine grace, sustained by the authority of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul (α), 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 (β), 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 (γ) those concerned, in order that it may be observed.


α This language is very similar to that used by Pope Benedict XV in promulgating the 1917 Code.


β Not, of course, in any way implying that the canons cannot be reformed by him (as indeed has already been done, e.g., in 1983 CIC 750 & 1371), or by his successors.


γ All members of the Church are called to be concerned that canon law is observed. See, e.g., 1983 CIC 209 and more narrowly, 1043 and 1069, both norms protecting sacraments with special social importance. See also ¶ 21 on communion.

[30] 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.


This paragraph establishes what is known as a “vacatio legis” (1983 CIC 8). It allows knowledge of the law to disseminate before it actually goes into effect. The 1983 Code went into force at 12:01 AM, local time, on Sunday, 27 November 1983.


[31] And this notwithstanding any contrary ordinances, constitutions, privileges (even worthy of special or individual mention) or customs.


Standard canonical language. The issue is actually more complicated that it seems, but basically this means that the 1983 Code, not the 1917 Code, and not earlier laws, is the starting place for determining what is the legal discipline in the Church.

[32] I therefore exhort (α) 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 (β) may be rendered ever easier under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church (γ).


α The use of exhortatory language here does not detract from the pope’s earlier statement (¶ 25) that canon law by its nature imposes real obligations.


β Soteriology. It is not a coincidence that it appears in the final paragraph of this constitution, and in the final canon of the 1983 Code.


γ John Paul II is well-known for his devotion to Our Lady. His motto, "Totus Tuus" (All Yours) is dedicated to her.


Given at Rome,

from the Apostolic Palace, January 25, 1983,

the fifth year of our Pontificate.


Standard canonical language.