UPDATE: Researching Canon Law

By Don Ford

Don Ford is Foreign, Comparative & International Law Librarian at the University of Iowa College of Law. He holds a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law (1985), an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences (2002), a BA (International Relations) from the American University (1980), and a BA (German Area Studies) from the American University (1980).

Published November/December 2020

(Previously updated in March 2015)

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1. Introduction

This is a legal research article to Canon Law[1] in the Catholic Church (both Roman and Eastern Rites), the Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Churches, the Lutheran Churches, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (L.D.S. or Mormons).[2] Why should American legal scholars and practitioners care about religious law? Canon law has affected the development of common law in areas such as marriage and inheritance. In addition, religious law may induce administrative behavior that must be explained at some point during litigation or as part of a transaction (e.g., a sale or purchase of real estate). For example, New York currently has a secular divorce law originally designed to address an issue in Orthodox Jewish law.[3]

"Canon" comes from the Greek word kanon, meaning "reed, rod, or ruler."[4] American attorneys are familiar with such usage as "legal ethics canons." The Latin regula (rule or model) is another way of expressing a canon, as in "rules of legal ethics." However, the word "law" is nomos in Greek and lex in Latin. The intermediate concept of “ius” can mean a "legal system…or a subjective right…or the objective of justice, that which is right, due, or just."[5] The legal code for the Catholic Roman Rite is entitled Codex Iuris Canonici. Thus, the translation of "law" for ius demonstrates the challenges in translating concepts. Although the practicality and concreteness of Roman law have influenced canon law, the higher spiritual considerations leave their imprint in the Roman Rite and Eastern Rite Codes.

In fact, in the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches the word "law" never appears in the code titles. In the Eastern Catholic Church, the relevant volume is the Code of Canons of the Eastern Church. The Orthodox Churches have no specific code, but often refer to a collection of documents called the Pedalion (Greek; literally, "rudder").[6] In the Anglican and Lutheran churches, relatively few canons directly impact lay people in dogmatic or devotional practices. Anglican and Lutheran canon law tends to be more administrative in scope, with heavy emphases on church property issues.

Finally, the ecclesiastical legal practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (L.D.S.) is included because of its significant presence in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States and because of its increasing presence in politics and public affairs. L.D.S. ecclesiastical law began as something similar to Jewish law as practiced in parts of eastern Europe at a time[7] when certain Jewish communities were granted legal autonomy in many intra-communal (and intra-confessional) transactions. At present, L.D.S. ecclesiastical law has interesting elements of both Catholic/Orthodox canonical practice, and the Catholic/Orthodox regula of religious orders.

This article provides English language resources. English should not be a limiting factor for Anglican or L.D.S. Canon Law. It may be somewhat of a limiting factor for Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran Canon Law because the primary languages for these churches (mainly Latin, Greek, and German/Scandinavian languages) are used by relatively few American legal scholars. However, within the listed resources are links and cross-references to foreign language resources for qualified researchers.

This article provides online sources to canon law codes or collections when possible. In addition, the researching of canon law involves a constant interplay with each church's scriptural, doctrinal, and historical authorities. Accordingly, the article lists online and print resources for each church's versions of scripture, catechisms, and general histories, making cross-references to canon law codes or church constitutions easier.

Nonetheless, in the Catholic Church and the other churches mentioned in this outline, other rules and guidelines, such as rubrics in missals and orders of worship, and rules for religious orders and congregations, may have the force of religious law. Several missals (Roman Rite Catholic), liturgies (Eastern Rite Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), and books of worship (Protestant, including the Anglican Book of Common Prayer) are cited for scholars interested in liturgical rubrics, sometimes called “liturgical law.” In addition, the Enchirdion for Catholic Church indulgences is cited. Finally, commentaries on the Jesuit and Benedictine Rules are listed, as well as a commentary on the juridical development of the personal prelature of Opus Dei.

Many events have occurred since the original article was written in 2007. The most notable event was the 2013 resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, becoming “Pope Emeritus.” In addition, there have been changes of internal church discipline in the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed/Methodist churches and ecclesial communities. Especially significant is the Catholic Church’s creation of a “personal ordinariate” for Anglicans wishing to keep their religious culture while recognizing the doctrine and government of the Catholic Church. In addition, various Lutheran churches have recognized gay relationships. These issues affect not only the discipline of clergy and personnel accused of the sexual abuse of minors, but also address, inter alia, liturgical practices and qualifications for ordained ministries. This updated edition of the Canon Law Research Article adds both new publications and weblogs that often or exclusively deal with church discipline matters in the Catholic Church, the Eastern Churches (both Orthodox and Catholic) and the Anglican Communion.

2. Catholic Church

The Catholic Church, with its headquarters in the Vatican City State in Rome, Italy, has the most developed system of canon law. The foundations of the Catholic system are the Holy Bible (both Old and New Testaments), the teachings of the Apostles and the Church's "ordinary magisterium,"[8] and custom.

Roman law greatly influenced the development of Catholic canon law. The Catholic Church's administrative governing system is based on the old territorial apparatus of the Roman Empire, with districts such as dioceses and archdioceses (or, in the Eastern, Greek-speaking parts of the Empire, eparchies and metropolia).

Note well that the Catholic Church consists of many rites,[9] making for a genuine diversity of practice and customs. Among those practices is ecclesiastical law. This accounts for there being two codes of canon law within the Catholic Church.[10] The largest rite, the one most familiar to Americans, is the "Roman" or "Latin" rite (which now includes the Anglican Ordinariate). However, the Eastern[11] Catholic Churches consist of the following rites found world-wide:

The Catholic section of this research article will be broken down into separate entries for the Roman Rite and the Eastern Catholic Churches. For most of its history, the Catholic Church has not had comprehensive codes of canon law. Early canon law was formulated at the early church councils, or in conjunction with secular authorities, especially after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire.[12]

As the Middle Ages[13] progressed, types of ecclesiastical law were found in the "penitentials," i.e., those volumes containing penances for specific sins, and in the various liturgical books. Canon law received more systematic treatment during the High Middle Ages.[14] A seminal document was the Decretum Gratiani (circa 1140), a compilation of canons by Gratian of Bologna, said to be a monk teaching in one of the Bolognese monasteries.

Additional compilations included the Liber Extra compiled by St. Raymond of Peñafort; the Liber Sextus compiled by Pope Boniface VIII; and the Clementinae, a compilation begun during Pope Clement V's reign. These compilations, together with the Decretum Gratiani, formed the corpus iuris canonici (the body of canon law, but by no means a code). All of these compilations in turn became the objects of study and commentary (the latter being called "glosses," and the commentators being styled "glossators").

Following the Council of Trent (1545-1563) came additional compilations of papal documents called bullaria,[15] dispositions of various dicasteries of the Roman Curia,[16] and decisions of the Roman Rota, the Catholic Church's highest tribunal.[17] Thus, there was much canon law, though it was poorly systematized. The upheavals of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era,[18] combined with the growing secularism of the nineteenth century, impelled the Catholic Church to codify its canon law in order to have a specific source for addressing many areas of church life and apostolate.

The results were the first Code of Canon Law for the Roman Rite (with limited applicability to the Eastern Churches), published in 1917. Following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) came a new edition of the Code of Canon Law in 1983, this time exclusively for the Roman Rite. In 1990 followed the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, the first codification of Eastern Catholic canon law.

References to both the Roman and Eastern Catholic canon law codes are found in this research article. In addition, various doctrinal catechisms/compendia are referenced as well, even though they've been published after the most recent edition of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law (Codex Iuris Canonici) of 1983 and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium). They are included so that contemporary doctrinal definitions and discussions are available for elucidating references in the Codes. Moreover, citations to the documents of the last three ecumenical councils are provided, because these decrees affected both the 1917 and 1983 Roman Rite Codes, and the 1990 Eastern Rite Code.

In this article’s Roman Rite section are citations to works by Monsignor Peter Elliott, formerly of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, referencing liturgical norms.[19] For information on Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio[20] on the 1962 Missale Romanum, see the Vatican webpage, or EWTN’s newspage.

In this article's Catholic Roman Rite section, two examples of regula for religious orders are also provided: The Statutes of the Jesuit order and the Rule of St. Benedict for the Benedictines. These are both examples of Church legislation that is not in the Code of Canon Law.[21] A modern form of religious apostolate, the personal prelature, is discussed in The Canoncial Path of Opus Dei, listed below under monographs.[22]

2020 Update: On 13 March 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected pope and took the name Francis.

3. Catholic Church-Roman (Latin) Rite

3.1. Online Resources[23]

3.2. Scripture, Catechisms, and Church Documents

Electronic documents linked below are difficult to find in print. Links are to the Vatican (Holy See).

3.3. Encyclopedias

3.4. Codes and Monographs

3.5. Journals

4. Catholic Church – Eastern Rites

4.1. Online Resources

The following Eastern Catholic web pages are good for history, doctrine, and practices. Sometimes there are links for "canons," "canon law," or "tribunal." Any of these may provide some information on canonical practices.

Not all Eastern Catholic Churches are "Byzantine" (i.e., following rites derived from Constantinople). This EWTN article is a good summary of Eastern Catholic rites.

4.2. Scripture, Catechisms, and Church Documents

4.3. Encyclopedias

4.4. Codes and Monographs

4.5. Journals

5. Orthodox Churches ("Eastern Orthodox")

The Orthodox Churches are those churches with Apostolic Succession (bishops able to trace their ordaining bishops back to the Apostles) not recognizing the universal papal primacy. Instead, these churches recognize the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (now Istanbul) as being the primus inter pares among Orthodox bishops.[24] The Orthodox Churches consider themselves autocephalous.[25]

Because of their adherence to autocephaly, the Orthodox Churches don't have a codified canon law. However, many of their important canons and decrees are found in a compilation known as the Pedalion (Greek; literally, "rudder") and are derived from decrees formulated at the Council in Trullo (692). The Council in Trullo was held in Constantinople for the purpose of drawing up disciplinary canons following the fifth and sixth general church councils (Constantinople II (553) and Constantinople III (680-681)).

5.1. Online Resources

Websites with specific mention of canon law:

The following publishers in the United States sell editions of the Pedalion as well as biblical and doctrinal materials:

National Orthodox Churches with English language web pages (good for church history, doctrines, practices):

5.2. Scripture, Catechisms, and Church Documents

5.3. Encyclopedias

5.4. Codes and Monographs

5.5. Journals (Some Coverage of Orthodox Canon Law)

6. Anglican Churches

The establishment of the Church of England as an entity separate from the Catholic Church occurred gradually during the reign of Henry VIII of England (reigned 1509-1547) and was completed during the reign of Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603).

The Church of England has spawned Anglican churches worldwide. All of them operate with some form of ecclesiastical law. The Church of England, as an established church (i.e., state-sanctioned church), continues to have some matters be considered state ecclesiastical law. The other Anglican churches are all disestablished (Church of Ireland, Church in Wales) or non-established churches (Episcopal Church of the United States; Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil).

6.1. Online Resources

6.2. Scripture, Catechisms, and Church Documents

6.3. Encyclopedias

6.4. Codes and Monographs

6.5. Journals (Coverage of Anglican Canon Law)

7. Lutheran Churches

In 1517 the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther drew up a set of "Ninety-five Theses," points of criticism of the Catholic Church, and nailed them to the door of the collegiate church in Wittenberg in the Holy Roman Empire, thus starting in motion the chain of events known as the Protestant Reformation.

Luther's translation of the Bible into German, and his formulation of doctrine together with sympathetic theologians, laid the foundation for the Lutheran churches. In addition, Luther and his ecclesiastical successors developed close relationships with secular leaders. This would eventually lead to the secular authority controlling many ecclesiastical matters. Much of the control was exercised through legislation and what we would now call regulatory authority. This legislative control was similar to that exercised over the established Anglican churches of the British Isles. Canon law still existed, but often deferred at a certain level to secular authority.

The Lutheran faith eventually became the state church in a number of Northern European jurisdictions. It is the majority faith in Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway. There are significant Lutheran populations in present-day Germany, France (Alsace-Lorraine), and the border region of Slovakia-Hungary.

Over the centuries much Lutheran scholarly work was done in the German-language universities (with their high level of scholarship) and in Sweden (the state with Scandinavia's highest population and an episcopacy-based Lutheranism very similar to Anglicanism).

7.1. Online Resources

7.2. Scripture, Catechisms, and Church Documents

7.3. Encyclopedias

7.4. Monographs

7.5. Journals (Some Coverage of Lutheran Ecclesiastical Law)

8. Calvinist and Methodist Churches

The Calvinist Churches have their origins in the theology of the French (later Genevan) theologian Jean Calvin (John Calvin in the English-speaking world). The Scottish theologian John Knox also contributed greatly to the development of Calvinism, which is the major Protestant faith of Scotland, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, and Switzerland, and has significant and/or influential European populations living in the France, Germany, and eastern Hungary. Calvinism has significant populations living in Africa, the Republic of South Africa, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Methodism derives from an eighteenth-century Church of England (Anglican) reform movement led by the brothers John and Charles Wesley. Methodism has large numbers of adherents worldwide, particularly in Africa and the United States. The United Methodist Church in the United States may undergo a separation based partly, though not exclusively, on sexuality issues, particularly same-sex marriage.

8.1. Online Resources

8.2. Scripture, Catechisms, and Church Documents

8.3. Encyclopedias

8.4. Codes and Monographs

8.5. Journals (Possible Coverage of Calvinist/Methodist Ecclesiastical Law and Interaction With Secular Legal Systems)

9. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded by Vermont farmer Joseph Smith in the early part of the nineteenth century. The L.D.S. Church teaches that it has scriptures in addition to the Old and New Testaments. From its founding it has been a very communal religion, which in the beginning led to repeated conflicts with secular authorities in New York, Illinois, and Missouri. These conflicts led to the eventual migration of L.D.S. members to Utah and the Rocky Mountain region.

Church dispute resolution mechanisms have always played an important part in L.D.S. affairs. These councils (or tribunals) often dealt with secular matters in the early days of settlement in the Utah Territory, before statehood, when the United States federal presence was minimal.

9.1. Online Resources

9.2. Scripture, Catechisms, and Church Documents

9.3. Encyclopedias

9.4. Monographs

9.5. Journals (Ecclesiastical Law-Related Articles)

[1] Canon Law: “A body of religious law governing the conduct of members of a particular faith[.]” See Merriam Webster's Dictionary of Law 64 (1996.).

[2] The website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses a small case "d" for "day." However, the abbreviation consistently uses a capital "D." This article follows the website's practice.

[3] N.Y. Domestic Relations Law§ 253 (McKinney 1999). The so-called New York "get" law was originally drafted to deal with the situation of the Orthodox Jewish woman who doesn't obtain her "get" (a document the husband presents to his wife that shows she's officially divorced and no longer subject to the religious sanctions for adultery).

[4] James A. Corriden, An Introduction to Canon Law 3 (2004).

[5] Id. at 3-4.

[6] This perhaps reflects the more mystical orientation of the Eastern Churches.

[7] 1500-1650, i.e., roughly the period from the end of the Polish Jagellonian dynasty during the 16th century to the Cossack uprising in Ukraine (then mostly Polish-governed) under Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the mid 17th century.

[8] Magisterium refers to the Church's official teaching authority or an official Church organ exercising that teaching authority. See Entry on Tradition and Living Magisterium in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907).

[9] “[T]he form and manner of any religious observance[.]” See Entry on Rites in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907).

[10] The "Roman" or "Latin" Rite uses the Code of Canon Law. The Eastern Catholic Churches use the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.

[11] Many, but not all, of these Eastern Catholic Rites has an Eastern Orthodox "equivalent." Thus, the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are quite similar in rite and practices. However, the Ukrainian Catholic Church recognizes the universal papal primacy, while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church does not.

[12] Approximate dates: From the First Council of Nicea in 325 until the mutual excommunications by the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1054 (mutually rescinded in 1965). Some scholars argue that the so-called Council of Jerusalem (See Acts 15: 1-41 (King James) and Galatians 2 (King James)) was the first Church Council, and included juridical norms, i.e., that Gentile converts to Christianity would not have to keep the Mosaic law.

[13] Approximately 1054 to 1400.

[14] Approximately 1100 to 1300.

[15] Bullaria are official documents, often dealing with juridical matters. See Entry on Bulls and Briefs in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907).

[16] The Roman Curia refers to the collective of administrative congregations and departments serving the Pope. See Entry on Roman Curia in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907).

[17] Appeals are normally made to the Roman Rota from archdiocesan or diocesan courts in the Roman Rite, or from the equivalent jurisdiction (e.g., eparchy or metropolia) in the Eastern Rites. However, the Roman Rota also has original jurisdiction in certain cases. See Entry on Sacra Romana Rota in in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907).

[18] 1789-1815.

[19] On April 30, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI named Monsignor Elliott Titular Bishop of Manaccenser and Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne, Australia. On the use of the title “Monsignor,” see the Entry on Monsignor in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907).

[20] See Entry on Motu Proprio in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907).

[21] These might be considered more properly as examples of regula, meaning "rules" or "accepted standards." See Corriden, supra. These orders and their rules are nonetheless subject to the Codex Iuris Canonici.

[22] For a discussion of Opus Dei as a personal prelature, see Francesco Monterisi: The Personal Prelature: A Framework Which Enriches the Communion of the Church (last visited June 30, 2020).

[23] The "Online Resources" throughout this research article will be in order of usefulness/relevance, and not necessarily in alphabetical order.

[24] Primus inter pares, viz., first among equals.

[25] See Entry on Autocephali in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907).