What Is Canon Law?

By Chelsea Levinson - Updated April 30, 2018
Group of people holding hands praying worship believe

Canon law is a set of rules and policies by which a church governs itself and its community. The most famous example is the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law. With nearly 1.3 billion Catholics around the world, the Catholic Church is responsible for organizing a large community. Any massive organizational structure needs rules, norms and regulations for self-governance. Canon law helps keep churches on the same page and guides worshipers in behavior and social norms.

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Canon law is a set of rules and policies by which a church governs itself and its community. The most famous example is the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law.

Canon Law Definition

Canon law has two functions: to govern churches with a uniform code of rules, and to guide church members in their conduct and worship. Canon law covers a range of issues, including human rights, property, relationships, becoming an adult member of the church, choosing church leadership and more. Of course, canon law is separate from legal codes enacted by governments. You won’t get arrested if you break your church’s canon law, but you may face consequences within your church community. The word “canon” means rule. So, think of canon law as a set of rules for churches and worshipers. Canon laws keep things smooth and uniform.

The following churches use canon law: Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Episcopal and Mormon. Some of these don’t have formal unified canon laws like those of the Catholic Church. However, they still incorporate some type of canon law into their practices. For example, the Anglican Church does not have a centralized canon law, but does use a canonical system within its member churches.

Canon Law History

Canon law has a long history dating back to early Christianity. The first Catholic canon law was called the Decretum and was adopted by the Church in the 12th century. The Decretum remained the standard law of the Catholic Church for centuries. After the first Vatican Council in 1869-1870, the church leadership decided to create a uniform code. Cardinal Pietro Gasparri led the project, and in 1917, the first Code of Canon Law was adopted by the Catholic Church.

As the church grew over the 20th century, so did its need for updated rules and regulations. In 1983, a revised Code of Canon Law was enacted, still in use today. In 1990, the Catholic Church issued a Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. This means the Catholic Church now has two canon laws, one for its Eastern churches, and one for its Western or Roman Churches.

List of Canon Laws

  • Code of Canon Law (Roman Catholic): Originally codified in 1917 and last updated in 1983, the Code of Canon Law is the comprehensive set of rules followed by the Roman Catholic Church. 
  • Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (Eastern Catholic): This set of laws was adopted in 1990 to address the unique needs and practices of Eastern Catholic Churches.
  • Constitution & Canons (Episcopal): The Episcopal Church officially adopted its Constitution at a General Convention in Philadelphia in 1789. Constitution & Canons lays out the Church's official rules for governance. It has since been updated many times, most recently in 2015. 
  • The Book of Discipline (Methodist): This set of rules addresses how Methodists agree to live together. The Book of Discipline has been evolving for more than 200 years. Every four years, Methodists update the Book at their General Conference. The latest update was released in 2016.   

About the Author

Chelsea Levinson earned her J.D. from Cardozo. As a former policy researcher, she has a passion for communicating legal issues to the public. She has created legal and policy content for Vox, Levo, Run For Something and more.

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