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canon law

Compilations of Canon Law

The early law grew particularly from the canons of church councils, from the letters of bishops regarding church discipline and governance, and later from papal letters, called decretals, that settled matters of ecclesiastical government and discipline. After the 4th cent. this legislation grew profuse, and attempts to collect and correlate the laws began early (see Constitutions, Apostolic). These collections were private in that they seem not to have been authorized by the popes. They also contained material that was not genuine, as in the case of the False Decretals. It was not until the middle of the 12th cent. that the great genius of the canon law, Gratian, following after Ivo of Chartres, applied the methods of Roman law in bringing order out of the chaos of conflicting and uncoordinated legislation. His Concordia discordantanium canonum (c.1140) or Decretum Gratiani [Gratian's Collection of Decrees] became the basis for future compilations of the law.

The first decretal compilations authorized by the popes appeared in the 13th cent. Important among these later "official" collections were the Extravagantes or Liber extra of Gregory IX, so named because they were outside Gratian; the collection issued (1298) by Boniface VIII called Liber sextus [the sixth book] because it added to the five books of decretals promulgated by Gregory; the collection promulgated (1317) by John XXII, drawn mostly from the constitutions of Clement V at the Council of Vienne and called the Clementinae; the work commonly called Corpus juris canonici, which in 1500 combined all the preceding with the Extravagantes of John XXII and the Extravagantes communes (decretals from Boniface VIII through Sixtus IV that were not included in previous collections) and was to be the fundamental work in canon law for centuries. The Council of Trent (1545–63, with interruptions) by its decrees concerning the church and church discipline was a landmark in canon law.

Church legislation had become considerably confused by the time St. Pius X announced (1904) the undertaking of the Codex juris canonici. This was drafted by a commission of cardinals headed by Cardinal Gasparri. In 1917, when the code was finished, a permanent commission of cardinals was set up to interpret it. In 1959, Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council and announced a revision of the code of 1917. In 1963 he appointed a pontifical commission for the revision; the revised code became effective in 1983.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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See more Encyclopedia articles on: Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches: General Terms and Concepts


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