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Sacrae Disciplinae Leges

To Our Venerable Brothers the Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, Deacons and to the other members of the People of God


Servant of the Servants of God

For an Everlasting Memorial

Over the course of time, the Catholic Church has been wont to revise and renew the laws of its sacred discipline so that, maintaining always fidelity to the Divine Founder, these laws may be truly in accord with the salvific mission entrusted to the Church. With this sole aim in view, we today, 25 January 1983, bring to fulfillment the anticipation of the whole Catholic world, and decree the publication of the revised Code of Canon Law. In doing so, our thoughts turn back to this same date in 1959, when our predecessor, John XXIII of happy memory, first publicly announced his personal decision to reform the current body of canonical laws which had been promulgated on the feast of Pentecost 1917.

This decision to renew the Code was taken with two others, of which that Pontiff spoke on the same day: they concerned his desire to hold a synod of the diocese of Rome and to convoke an Ecumenical Council. Even if the former does not have much bearing on the reform of the Code, the latter on the other hand, namely the Council, is of the greatest importance for our theme and is closely linked with its substance.

If one asks why John XXIII had clearly perceived the need to reform the current Code, perhaps the answer is found in the 1917 Code itself. There is however another reason, the principal one, namely that the reform of the Code of Canon Law was seen to be directly sought and requested by the Council itself, which had particularly concentrated its attention upon the Church.

As is quite clear, when the first announcement of the revision of the Code was made, the Council was something totally in the future. Moreover, the acts of its teaching authority, and particularly its teaching on the Church, were to be developed over the years 1962­65. Nevertheless, one cannot fail to see that John XXIII’s insight was most accurate, and his proposal must rightly be acknowledged as one which looked well ahead to the good of the Church.

Therefore, the new Code which appears today necessarily required the prior work of the Council and, although it was announced together with that ecumenical gathering, it follows it in order of time, since the tasks needed for its preparation could not begin until the Council had ended.

Turning our thoughts today to the beginning of that long journey, that is to 25 January 1959 and to John XXIII himself, the originator of the review of the Code, we must acknowledge that this Code drew its origin from one and the same intention, namely the renewal of Christian life. All the work of the Council drew its norms and its shape principally from that same intention.

If we now turn our attention to the nature of the labors which preceded the promulgation of the Code and to the manner in which they were performed, especially during the Pontificates of Paul VI, John Paul I and then up to this present day, it is vital to make quite clear that these labors were brought to their conclusion in an eminently collegial spirit. This not only relates to the external composition of the work, but it affects also the very substance of the laws which have been drawn up.

This mark of collegiality by which the process of this Code’s origin was prominently characterized, is entirely in harmony with the teaching authority and the nature of the Second Vatican Council. The Code therefore, not only because of its content but because also of its origin, demonstrates the spirit of this Council in whose documents the Church, the universal sacrament of salvation (cf. Const. Lumen Gentium, n. 9, 48) is presented as the People of God, and its hierarchical constitution is shown as founded on the College of Bishops together with its Head.

For this reason therefore, the Bishops and Episcopal Conferences were invited to associate themselves with the work of preparing the new Code, so that through a task of such length, in as collegial a manner as possible, little by little the juridical formulae would come to maturity and would then serve the whole Church. During the whole period of this task, experts also took part, people endowed with particular academic standing in the areas of theology, history and especially canon law, drawn from all parts of the world.

To each and every one of them we express our deepest gratitude today.

We recall, first of all, those Cardinals, now deceased, who headed the preparatory Commission, Cardinal Pietro Ciriaci who began the work, and Cardinal Pericles Felici who over a period of several years guided the labors almost to their goal. We think then of the Secretaries of this Commission, Monsignor, later Cardinal, Giacomo Violardo and Father Raimondo Bidagor S.J., both of whom lavished their talents of learning and wisdom on their role. Together with them, we recall the Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops, and all who were members of this Commission as well as the Consultors of the individual study groups engaged over these years in that strenuous task. God has called these to their eternal reward in the meantime. For all of them our suppliant prayer is raised to God.

With pleasure we also refer to the living: in the first place, to the present Pro­President of the Commission, our venerable brother Rosalio Castillo Lara, who has worked so outstandingly for so long in a role of such responsibility. Next, we refer to our beloved son, Monsignor William Onclin, who has contributed to the successful outcome of the task with assiduous and diligent care. Then there are others who played an inestimable part in this Commission, in developing and completing a task of such volume and complexity, whether as Cardinal members, or as officials, consultors and collaborators in the various study groups or in other roles.

In promulgating this Code today, therefore, we are fully conscious that this act stems from our pontifical authority itself, and so assumes a primatial nature. Yet we are no less aware that in its content this Code reflects the collegial solicitude for the Church of all our brothers in the episcopate. Indeed, by a certain analogy with the Council itself, the Code must be viewed as the fruit of collegial cooperation, which derives from the combined energies of experienced people and institutions throughout the whole Church.

A second question arises: what is the Code? For an accurate answer to this question, it is necessary to remind ourselves of that distant heritage of law contained in the books of the Old and New Testaments. It is from this, as from its first source, that the whole juridical and legislative tradition of the Church derives.

For Christ the Lord in no way abolished the bountiful heritage of the law and the prophets which grew little by little from the history and experience of the People of God in the Old Testament. Rather he fulfilled it (cf. Matt.5,17), so that it could, in a new and more sublime way, lead to the heritage of the New Testament. Accordingly, although St Paul in expounding the mystery of salvation teaches that justification is not obtained through the works of the law but through faith (cf. Rom.3,28; Gal.2,16), nonetheless he does not exclude the binding force of the Decalogue (cf. Rom.13,8­10; Gal.5,13­25; 6, 2), nor does he deny the importance of discipline in the Church (cf. 1 Cor.5 and 6). Thus the writings of the New Testament allow us to perceive more clearly the great importance of this discipline and to understand better the bonds which link it ever more closely with the salvific character of the Gospel message.

Granted this, it is sufficiently clear that the purpose of the Code is not in any way to replace faith, grace, charisms and above all charity in the life of the Church or of Christ’s faithful. On the contrary, the Code rather looks towards the achievement of order in the ecclesial society, such that while attributing a primacy to love, grace and the charisms, it facilitates at the same time an orderly development in the life both of the ecclesial society and of the individual persons who belong to it.

As the Church’s fundamental legislative document, and because it is based on the juridical and legislative heritage of revelation and tradition the Code must be regarded as the essential instrument for the preservation of right order, both in individual and social life and in the Church’s zeal. Therefore, over and above the fundamental elements of the hierarchical and organic structure of the Church established by the Divine Founder based on apostolic or other no less ancient tradition, and besides the principal norms which concern the exercise of the threefold office entrusted to the Church, it is necessary for the Code to define also certain rules and norms of action.

The instrument, such as the Code is, fully accords with the nature of the Church, particularly as presented in the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council seen as a whole, and especially in its ecclesiological doctrine. In fact, in a certain sense, this new Code can be viewed as a great effort to translate the conciliar ecclesiological teaching into canonical terms. If it is impossible perfectly to transpose the image of the Church described by conciliar doctrine into canonical language, nevertheless the Code must always be related to that image as to its primary pattern, whose outlines, given its nature, the Code must express as far as is possible.

Hence flow certain fundamental principles by which the whole of the new Code is governed, within the limits of its proper subject and of its expression, which must reflect that subject. Indeed it is possible to assert that from this derives that characteristic whereby the Code is regarded as a complement to the authentic teaching proposed by the Second Vatican Council and particularly to its Dogmatic and Pastoral Constitutions.

From this it follows that the fundamental basis of the ‘newness’ which, while never straying from the Church’s legislative tradition, is found in the Second Vatican Council and especially in its ecclesiological teaching, generates also the mark of ‘newness’ in the new Code.

Foremost among the elements which express the true and authentic image of the Church are: the teaching whereby the Church is presented as the People of God (cf. Const. Lumen Gentium, n. 2) and its hierarchical authority as service (ibid n. 3); the further teaching which portrays the Church as a communion and then spells out the mutual relationships which must intervene between the particular and the universal Church, and between collegiality and primacy; likewise, the teaching by which all members of the People of God share, each in their own measure, in the threefold priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, with which teaching is associated also that which looks to the duties and rights of Christ’s faithful and specifically the laity; and lastly the assiduity which the Church must devote to ecumenism.

If, therefore, the Second Vatican Council drew old and new from the treasury of tradition, and if its newness is contained in these and other elements, it is abundantly clear that the Code receives into itself the same mark of fidelity in newness and newness in fidelity, and that its specific content and corresponding form of expression is in conformity with this aim.

The new Code of Canon Law is published precisely at a time when the Bishops of the whole Church are not only asking for its promulgation but indeed are insistently and vehemently demanding it.

And in fact a Code of Canon Law is absolutely necessary for the Church. Since the Church is established in the form of a social and visible unit, it needs rules, so that its hierarchical and organic structure may be visible; that its exercise of the functions divinely entrusted to it, particularly of sacred power and of the administration of the sacraments, is properly ordered; that the mutual relationships of Christ’s faithful are reconciled in justice based on charity, with the rights of each safeguarded and defined; and lastly, that the common initiatives which are undertaken so that Christian life may be ever more perfectly carried out, are supported strengthened and promoted by canonical laws.

Finally, canonical laws by their very nature demand observance. For this reason, the greatest care has been taken that during the long preparation of the Code there should be an accurate expression of the norms and that they should depend upon a sound juridical, canonical and theological foundation.

In view of all this, it is very much to be hoped that the new canonical legislation will be an effective instrument by the help of which the Church will be able to perfect itself in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and show itself ever more equal to carry out its salvific role in the world.

It is pleasing to set out these reflections of ours in a trusting spirit as we promulgate this principal body of ecclesiastical laws for the Latin Church.

May God grant that joy and peace, with justice and obedience, may commend this Code, and that what is bidden by the head will be obeyed in the body.

Relying, therefore, on the help of divine grace, supported by the authority of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, with certain knowledge and assenting to the pleas of the Bishops of the whole world who have laboured with us in collegial good will, by the supreme authority which is ours, and by means of this Constitution of ours which is to have effect for the future, we promulgate this present Code as it has been compiled and reviewed. We order that henceforth it is to have the force of law for the whole Latin Church, and we commit its observance to the care and vigilance of all who are responsible. In order, however, that all may properly investigate these prescriptions and intelligently come to know them before they take effect, we decree and command that they shall come into force from the first day of Advent of the year 1983, all ordinances, constitutions and privileges, even those meriting special and individual mention, as well as contrary customs, notwithstanding.

We, therefore, exhort all our beloved children to observe, with sincere mind and ready will, the precepts laid down, buoyed up by the hope that a zealous Church discipline will flourish anew, and that from it the salvation of souls also will be ever more fervently promoted, with the assistance of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church.

Given at Rome, in the Vatican, on the 25th day of January 1983, in the fifth year of our Pontificate.


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