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Ecclesiastical Canons

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Ecclesiastical Canons are certain rules or norms of conduct or belief prescribed by the Church. The name is derived from the Greek kanon, the instrument used by architects and artificers for making straight lines. Some writers think that the Church preferred the word canon to law, as the latter had a harsh meaning for the faithful in the times of persecution. The early Fathers use canon as equivalent to the rule of faith, or for some formula expressing a binding obligation on Christians (Irenæus, Adv. Hær., I, ix; Tertullian, De Præscr., 13). Bickell declares that for the first three hundred years, canon is scarcely ever found for a separate and special decree of the Church; rather does it designate the rule of faith in general. He appeals to the fact that the plural form of the word is seldom used in the earliest Christian writers (Bickell, Geschichte des Kirchenrechts, I, 8). With the fourth century began the use of canon for a disciplinary decree, owing to its employment in this sense by the First Council of Nice (325). The Cassinese editors of Ferraris (s.v. Canones) say that in the first ages of the Church many disciplinary regulations were not required, and hence it was scarcely necessary to discriminate decrees into dogmatic and disciplinary, as the faithful classed both under the obligation to observe the general rule of faith. From the fourth century onward, canon signified almost universally a disciplinary decree of a council or of the Roman pontiffs. The word decretum during the same period, though signifying in general an authoritative statute or decision, began to be limited more and more to dogmatic matters, while canon when used in opposition to it was restricted to laws of discipline. That this usage, however, was not invariable is evident from Gratian's use of "Decretum" to signify his collection of canons and decrees. From the Council of Nice to that of Trent exclusive, the regulations concerning discipline issued by assemblies of bishops received the name of canons.

With the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century began the departure from this ancient usage. This council used the word canon for short, dogmatic definitions with an anathema attached to them. On the other hand it gave the name of decrees to its disciplinary regulations. The example set by Trent was followed by the Council of the Vatican. The usage of Trent seems to bring canon nearer to the signification it bore before the Council of Nice, when it referred rather to faith than to discipline. The general idea of a decision by Church authority seems to be also the root-meaning of the expressions "Canon of Scripture", "Canon of the Mass", "Canon of Saints", although for the last term Ducange (s.v. Canonizare) suggests a somewhat different origin. As ecclesiastical regulations began to multiply, it became necessary to gather them into codices, which generally received the title of "Collection of Canons" (see COLLECTIONS OF ANCIENT CANONS). In these, civil laws are often added to the Church regulations. For such collections the Greeks used the term Nomocanones. The Latins have no special name for them, though Capitularies (q.v.), e.g. of Charlemagne, is sometimes referred to as a somewhat parallel usage in the West.

As to the authority of ecclesiastical canons, it is evident a distinction must be made when speaking of canons of faith and canons of discipline, for the former are irreversible, the latter are not. Similarly, it is plain that canons containing a precept already binding by reason of Divine or natural law, cannot be on the same footing as those that are of mere ecclesiastical origin. In general, the "Corpus Juris Canonici" declares (cap. 1. de Const.) that canonical statutes are binding on all; likewise (cap. Quum scimus) that bishops are the guardians of the canons and must see to their observance. When there is question of canons in the ordinary ecclesiastical sense (namely, that which obtained before the Council of Trent), as they refer principally to matters of discipline, it must be borne in mind that they are neither immutable nor irreformable. The subject-matter of such canons depends not only on circumstances of persons, places, and times, but also on considerations of expediency or temporary necessity. A change in any of the causes which brought about the framing of the canons, will make a change in their binding-force, for disciplinary regulations are almost necessarily mutable. In like manner when there is question of the binding force of a canon, it is important to determine whether it was issued by a general council or by the decree of a pope, as imposing an obligation on all the faithful, or whether it was framed solely for restricted regions or persons. In the latter case its binding-force is as restricted as its scope.

It must be borne in mind that the object which the Church has always had in view in promulgating her canons has been the guidance and preservation of the clergy and laity in the duties of a Christian life and in the best methods of ecclesiastical administration. Although, therefore, such canons contain elements of positive human law, yet ultimately they are founded on the Divine or natural law. As such they cannot be entirely abrogated by contrary custom (Ferraris, loc. cit.), though their rigour may be mitigated by certain circumstances, on the ceasing of which, the pristine rigour of the canon would be again binding. When they are entirely of human law, they may, of course, be completely abrogated, not only by legislation on the part of the proper authorities, but also by legitimate custom. The study of the sacred canons is especially enjoined on the clergy. Perhaps most of the regulations refer directly to ecclesiastics, and the clergy will find in them the surest guidance for their own conduct and for the fruitful exercise of their ministry in directing the faithful. The neglect of the prescriptions of the sacred canons has always been the source of corruption in morals, and perhaps the chief reason for the loss of faith by nations as well as by individuals.


FERRARIS, Bibliotheca (Rome, 1888), II; SMITH, Elements of Eccl. Law (New York, 1895), I; WERNZ, Jus Decretalium (Rome, 1898); BICKELL. Geschichte des Kirchenrechts (Leipzig, 1843).

About this page

APA citation. Fanning, W. (1908). Ecclesiastical Canons. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fanning, William. "Ecclesiastical Canons." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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