What is Canon Law?

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Canon Law is the oldest continuous legal system in the western world.  It is an internal system of law within the Catholic Church which respects civil law, as long as it is not in conflict with what the Church sees as just and moral.  The current Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983 by Pope John Paul II.  A revision of the previous 1917 Code, the 1983 Code was a direct result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), as a major goal of the revision process was to translate the teaching of the Second Vatican Council into the 1983 Code.

There are 1752 canons (laws) in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.  Those canons cover much of the law of the Church.  However, there are other laws, norms, precepts, and rules listed in other places.  The Code of Canon Law covers many areas of church ministry—there are sections on sacraments, parishes, dioceses, Catholic education, religious orders, ownership of goods, protection of rights, and ecclesiastical penalties-just to mention a few.  The last part of the final canon of the Code is sometimes referred to as the Supreme Law of the Church, saying that: “…the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.”