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"Sacrae Disciplinae Leges [is] a document of great value,
not the least because it was written by the Holy Father
R. Castillo Lara, "Some reflections on the proper
way to approach the Code of canon law" CLSA Proc 46
(1984) 24-40, 30.
on Sacrae disciplinae leges, the apostolic constitution
which Pope John Paul II established the current Code of Canon Law
by Dr. Edward Peters
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:
sections are deemed especially important material;
shows references to ecclesiology;
shows express references to collegiality:
shows references to soteriology.
Click here for the
Vatican’s Latin text of Sacrae
disciplinae leges without commentary.
Click here for the Vatican’s English translation of Sacrae
disciplinae leges without commentary.
highest form of legislative document the Church uses.
“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.
THE SUPREME PONTIFF(α)
JOHN PAUL II
CODE OF CANON LAW
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.”
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.
THE REVERED BROTHERS, CARDINALS, ARCHBISHOPS, BISHOPS,
PRIESTS, DEACONS, AND TO
THE OTHER MEMBERS OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD
SERVANTS OF GOD
A PERPETUAL RECORD
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.
traditional title for the pope, “Servus servorum Dei.”
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
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
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.
official establishment of law (1983 CIC 8), even though the
laws might not take effect for a (usually short) time.
announcement of the Council came in the enc. let. “Ad
Petri Cathedram”, 29 June 1959, AAS 51 (1959) 497-531.
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.
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
and is closely connected with it.
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.
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
which devoted such great
attention to the Church
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
That situation is probably not going to be
allowed to happen under the 1983 Code.
first of several references to the crucial importance of ecclesiology
(the study of the nature Church) in understanding and
applying canon law.
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
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.
plenary conciliar sessions were held 11 OCT 1962 - 8 DEC
1965. Over 2,000 bishops from around the world attended each
ecclesiology is vital
for proper canonistics.
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
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.
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.
old saying holds “Ecclesia semper reformanda est”,
or, the Church is always in need of renewal.
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
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.
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.
to be taken too literally. See ¶ 18.
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.
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.
or “periti” played a much larger role in
developing the texts of canons in 1983 Code than they did
for the 1917 Code.
To one and all of them I wish to express today my sentiments
of deep gratitude.
sincerity of the expression is self-evident. Pope John Paul
II is not a specially trained canonist (but see
you know?). Neither was John
XXIII or Paul VI.
In the first place there come before my eyes the figures of
the deceased Cardinals who presided over the preparatory
Ciriaci who began the
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:
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
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.
were various groupings dealing with specific areas of law
such sacraments, procedures, teaching office, property, and
These are outlined in
Incrementa in Progressu (2005), esp. Introductions.
I am pleased to remember also the living, beginning with the
present Pro-President of the commission, the revered
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
FEB 1905 – 15 JUL 1989
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
and institutions throughout the
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.
societies like the Church glory in the application of
individual talents (or “gifts") in common projects.
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.
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.
work needs to be done in this area.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
canonical analysis starts with the 1983 Code.
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,
Ecclesiae Fundamentalis (Peeters: 2001).
standard element of any legal system, regulating behavior
(and not thoughts, which belong to the “internal
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.
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
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.
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
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.
the dogmatic and pastoral constitutions on
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.
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
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
See also ¶ 22.
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
of the laity;
and finally, the Church's commitment to ecumenism.
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.
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
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.
also ¶ 20.
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.
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
Peters, “Five Things Every Bishop Needs to Know about Canon
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
crucial paragraph, with much of specifically ecclesiological
significance as well.
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).
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.
emphasis on the soteriological
goal of canon law.
I am pleased to entrust to all with a confident spirit
these considerations of mine in the moment in which I
fundamental body of ecclesiastical laws
for the Latin
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.)
also notes to ¶ 17.
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.
fruits of living in accord with a sound legal system.
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
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.
This language is very similar to that used by Pope Benedict
XV in promulgating the 1917 Code.
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.
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.
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,
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
And this notwithstanding any contrary ordinances,
constitutions, privileges (even worthy of special or
individual mention) or customs.
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
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
(β) may be rendered ever easier under the protection
of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church (γ).
use of exhortatory language here does not detract from the
pope’s earlier statement (¶ 25) that canon law by its
nature imposes real obligations.
It is not a coincidence that it appears in the final
paragraph of this constitution, and in the final canon of
the 1983 Code.
Paul II is well-known for his devotion to Our Lady.
motto, "Totus Tuus" (All Yours) is dedicated to her.
Given at Rome,
from the Apostolic Palace, January 25,
the fifth year of our Pontificate.