canon law, in the Roman Catholic Church, the body of law based on the legislation of the councils (both ecumenical and local) and the popes, as well as the bishops (for diocesan matters). It is the law of the church courts and is formally distinguished from other parts of ecclesiastical law, such as liturgical law. However, when liturgical law overlaps with canon law, canon law normally prevails. Canon law has had a profound influence on the law of countries where the Roman Catholic Church has been the state church. In the Middle Ages the church courts had very wide jurisdiction—e.g., in England, control of the law of personal property—and because they were well regulated, they tended to attract many borderline cases that might also have been heard by the developing royal courts (see benefit of clergy).
Catholics of Eastern rites have their own separate codes of canon law, approved by the Roman Catholic Church. The term
canon law is also used for ecclesiastical law in churches of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical (1603) was a collection of rulings, not based on the old canon law, but given equal force with the canon law.
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