1917 Code of Canon Law

Motu proprio Edward N. Peters Pope Benedict XV
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The 1917 Code of Canon Law, also referred to as the Pio-Benedictine Code,[1] was the first official comprehensive codification of Latin canon law. It was promulgated on 27 May 1917[2] and took legal effect on 19 May 1918.[3] It was in force until the 1983 Code of Canon Law took legal effect and abrogated it[1] on 27 November 1983.[4] It has been described as "the greatest revolution in canon law since the time of Gratian"[5] (1150s AD).



Papal attempts at codification of the scattered mass of canon law spanned the eight centuries since Gratian produced his Decretum c. 1150.[6] In the 13th century especially canon law became the object of scientific study, and different compilations were made by the Roman Pontiffs. The most important of these were the five books of the Decretales Gregorii IX and the Liber Sextus of Boniface VIII. The legislation grew with time. Some of it became obsolete, and contradictions crept in so that it became difficult in recent times to discover what was of obligation and where to find the law on a particular question.

“Necessity” of codification

Pope St. Pius X, who ordered the codification of canon law in 1904

Since the close of the ‘’Corpus Juris’’ numerous new laws and decrees had been issued by popes, councils, and Roman Congregations. No complete collection of them had ever been published and they remained scattered through the ponderous volumes of the ‘’Bullaria’’ the ‘’Acta Sanctae Sedis’’, and other such compilations, which were accessible to only a few and for professional canonists themselves and formed an unwieldy mass of legal material. Moreover, not a few ordinances, whether included in the ‘’Corpus Juris’’ or of more recent date, appeared to be contradictory; some had been formally abrogated, others had become obsolete by long disuse; others, again, had ceased to be useful or applicable in the present condition of society. Great confusion was thus engendered and correct knowledge of the law rendered very difficult even for those who had to enforce it.[7]

Already in the Council of Trent the wish had been expressed in the name of the King of Portugal that a commission of learned theologians be appointed to make a thorough study of the canonical constitutions binding under pain of mortal sin, define their exact meaning, see whether their obligation should not be restricted in certain cases, and clearly determine how far they were to be maintained and observed.[7]

When the Vatican Council met in 1869 a number of bishops of different countries petitioned for a new compilation of church law that would be clear and easily studied. The council never finished its work and no attempt was made to bring the legislation up to date. By the 19th Century, this body of legislation included some 10,000 norms. Many of these were difficult to reconcile with one another due to changes in circumstances and practice. This situation impelled Pope Pius X to order the creation of the first Code of Canon Law, a single volume of clearly stated laws.

In response to the request of the bishops at the First Vatican Council,[8] on 14 May 1904, with the motu proprio Arduum sane munus ("A Truly Arduous Task"), Pope Pius X set up a commission to begin reducing these diverse documents into a single code,[9] presenting the normative portion in the form of systematic short canons shorn of the preliminary considerations[10] ("Whereas...") and omitting those parts that had been superseded by later developments.

Pietro Cardinal Gasparri, architect of the 1917 Code

Under the aegis of Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the Commission for the Codification of Canon Law was completed under Benedict XV who promulgated the Code, effective in 1918. The work having been begun by Pius X and promulgated by Benedict XV, it is sometimes called the "Pio-Benedictine Code,"[1] but more often the 1917 Code. In its preparation centuries of material were examined, scrutinized for authenticity by leading experts, and harmonized as much as possible with opposing canons and even other codes, from the Codex of Justinian to the Napoleonic Code.

Codification process

Pope Pius X in a letter on 19 March 1904 announced his intention of revising the unwieldy mass of past legislation and appointed a commission of cardinals and learned consultors to undertake this difficult work. The Catholic universities of the world and the bishops of all countries were asked to cooperate. The scholars began the work and a copy of the first draft was sent to the bishops for suggestions.

In addition to the canon law experts brought to Rome to serve on the codification commission, all the Latin Church's bishops and superiors general of religious orders were periodically consulted via letter.[11] Every Latin bishop had the right to permanently keep a representative in Rome to give him voice at the meetings of the codification commission.[11]

By the winter of 1912, the "whole span of the code"[11] had been completed, so that a provisional text was printed.[11] The 1912 text was sent out to all Latin bishops and superiors general for their comment, and their notations which they sent back to the codification commission were subsequently printed and distributed to all members of the commission, in order that the members might carefully consider the suggestions.[11]

Period of enforcement

Pope Benedict XV, who promulgated the 1917 Code

The new code was completed in 1916.[12] The code was promulgated on 27 May 1917,[13] Pentecost Sunday,[14] as the Code of Canon Law (Latin: Codex Iuris Canonici) by Pius' successor, Pope Benedict XV, who set 19 May 1918[13] as the date on which it came into force.[15] For the most part, it applied only to the Latin Church except when "it treats of things that, by their nature, apply to the Oriental",[16] such as the effects of baptism (canon 87). It contained 2,414 canons.[17]

On 15 September 1917, by the motu proprio Cum Iuris Canonici,[18] Pope Benedict XV made provision for a Pontifical Commission charged with interpreting the code and making any necessary modifications as later legislation was issued. New laws would be appended to existing canons in new paragraphs or inserted between canons, repeating the number of the previous canon and adding bis, ter, etc.[19] (e.g. "canon 1567bis" in the style of the civil law) so as not to subvert the ordering of the code, or the existing text of a canon would be completely supplanted. The numbering of the canons was not to be altered.[20]

The Latin text of the 1917 Code remained unchanged for the first 30 years of its enactment, when Pope Pius XII issued a motu proprio of 1 August 1948 that amended canon 1099 of the code, a revision that took effect on 1 January 1949.[21]

The 1917 Code was in force until Canon 6 §1 1° of the 1983 Code of Canon Law[22] took legal effect—thereby abrogating it[1]—on 27 November 1983.[4]


On 15 September 1917, shortly after promulgating the 1917 code, Benedict XV promulgated the motu proprio Cum Iuris Canonici, which forbade the Roman Congregations from issuing new general decrees unless it was necessary to do so, and then only after consulting the Pontifical Commission charged with amending the code. The congregations were instead to issue Instructions on the canons of the code, and to make it clear that they were elucidating particular canons of the code.[23] This was done so as not to make the code obsolete soon after it was promulgated. The 1917 Code was very rarely amended, and then only slightly.[24]


Hardcover of the 1917 Code of Canon Law

The Code presents canon law in five groupings:[25]

  1. the general principles of law
  2. the law of persons (clergy, religious, and laity)
  3. de rebus (including such "things" as the sacraments, holy places and times, divine worship, the magisterium, benefices, and temporal goods)
  4. procedures
  5. crimes and punishment

As the first complete collection of law for the Latin church, it paints a fairly accurate picture of the organizational design and the role of the papacy and the Roman curia at the outset of the twentieth century.[26]

The organization of the 1917 Code followed the divisions (Personae, Res, Actiones) of the ancient Roman jurists Gaius and Justinian. The code did not follow the classical canonical divisions (Iudex, Iudicium, Clerus, Sponsalia, Crimen).[27]

Scholarship and criticism

During the 65 years of its enforcement, a complete translation of the 1917 Code from its original Latin was never published. Translations were forbidden, partly to ensure that interpretive disputes among scholars and canonists concerning such a new type of code would be resolved in Latin itself and not in one of the many languages used in scholarship.[28] More English-language research material exists relating to the 1917 Code than in any other language except Latin.[29]

The book De rebus ('On things') was subject to much criticism due to its inclusion of supernatural subjects such as sacraments and divine worship under the category "things"[30] and due to its amalgamation of disparate subject matter.[31] It was argued by some that this was a legalistic reduction of sacramental mystery.[30] René Metz defended the codifiers' decision on the layout and scope of De rebus as being the "least bad solution" to structural problems which the codifiers themselves fully understood.[31]

This was also the canon law that for the first time in Roman Catholic Church history, legalized interest outright.[32][better source needed][33][failed verification]


  1. ^ a b c d Dr. Edward Peters, CanonLaw.info, accessed June-9-2013
  2. ^ Metz, "What is Canon Law?", pg. 59
  3. ^ Metz, "What is Canon Law?", pg. 59
  4. ^ a b NYTimes.com, "New Canon Law Code in Effect for Catholics", 27-Nov-1983, accessed June-25-2013
  5. ^ Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, xxx
  6. ^ Peters, Life of Benedict XV, pg. 204.
  7. ^ a b Ayrinhac, ‘’General Legislation’’ §55.
  8. ^ Pietro Cardinal Gasparri, preface to the CIC 1917
  9. ^ Manual of Canon Law, pg. 47
  10. ^ Manual of Canon Law, pg. 49
  11. ^ a b c d e Peters, Life of Benedict XV, pg. 205.
  12. ^ Entry for 'canon law, new code of'. 1910 New Catholic Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/ncd/view.cgi?n=1909. 1910. Accessed 14 April 2016
  13. ^ a b La Due, William J., J.C.D.: The Chair of Saint Peter: A History of the Papacy (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), pg. 256.
  14. ^ La Due, William J., J.C.D.: The Chair of Saint Peter: A History of the Papacy (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), pg. 257
  15. ^ Ap Const. Providentissima Mater Ecclesia Benedict XV, 27 May 1917
  16. ^ canon 1, 1917 Code of Canon Law
  17. ^ Dr. Edward N. Peters, CanonLaw.info "A Simple Overview of Canon Law", accessed June-11-2013
  18. ^ Pope Benedict XV, motu proprio Cum Iuris Canonici of 15 September 1917, (Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, pg. 25)
  19. ^ Pope Benedict XV, motu proprio Cum Iuris Canonici of 15 September 1917, §III (Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, pg. 26)
  20. ^ Metz, What is Canon Law? pgs. 62-63
  21. ^ Rev. Dr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, "First Change in Text Of Code of Canon Law" (sic), N.C.W.C. News Service, Dec 11, 1948.
  22. ^ 1983 Code of Canon Law Annotated, Canon 6 (pg. 34)
  23. ^ Pope Benedict XV, motu proprio Cum Iuris Canonici of 15 September 1917, §§II-III (Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, pg. 26)
  24. ^ Metz, What is Canon Law? pg. 64
  25. ^ Metz, What is Canon Law? pg. 71
  26. ^ William J. La Due, pg. 256
  27. ^ Codification 1225 to 1900 Archived 2015-12-29 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 7 December 2015
  28. ^ Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, xxiv.
  29. ^ Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, xxxi
  30. ^ a b Concilium: "The Future of Canon Law"
  31. ^ a b Metz, What is Canon Law? pg. 60
  32. ^ Paul S. Mills, John R. Presley , Islamic Finance: Theory and Practice, page 105, MacMillan Press Ltd (1999). ISBN 978-0-312-22448-6
  33. ^ Codex Iuris Canonici, c.1735