1917 Code of Canon Law

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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 and took legal effect on 19 May 1918. It was in force until the 1983 Code of Canon Law took legal effect and abrogated it[1] on 27 November 1983.[2] It has been described as "the greatest revolution in canon law since the time of Gratian"[3] (1150s AD).



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 St. Pius X to order the creation of the first Code of Canon Law, a single volume of clearly stated laws. 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.

In response to the request of the bishops at the First Vatican Council,[4] 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,[5] presenting the normative portion in the form of systematic short canons shorn of the preliminary considerations[6] ("Whereas...") and omitting those parts that had been superseded by later developments.

Promulgation and period of enforcement

The code was promulgated on 27 May 1917 as the Code of Canon Law (Latin: Codex Iuris Canonici) by his successor, Pope Benedict XV, who set 19 May 1918 as the date on which it came into force.[7] 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",[8] such as the effects of baptism (canon 87). It contained 2,414 canons.[9]

Hardcover of the 1917 Code of Canon Law

On 15 September 1917, by the motu proprio Cum Iuris Canonici,[10] 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.[11] (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.[12]

The Roman Congregations were forbidden to issue new general decrees, unless it was necessary, 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.[13] 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.[14]

It was in force until Canon 6 §1 1° of the 1983 Code of Canon Law[15] took legal effect and abrogated it[1] on 27 November 1983.[2]


The Code presents canon law in five groupings:[16]

  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

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).[17]

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.[18]

More English-language research material exists relating to the 1917 Code than in any other language except Latin.[19]

The book "De rebus" (English: On things) was subject to much criticism due to its inclusion of such miraculous and supernatural subjects as sacraments and divine worship under the category "things"[20] and due to its amalgamation of disparate subject matter.[21] It was argued by some that this was a legalistic reduction of sacramental mystery.[20] René Metz defended the codifiers's decision on the layout and scope of De rebus as being the "least bad solution" to structural problems which the codifiers themselves fully understood.[21]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Dr. Edward Peters, CanonLaw.info, accessed June-9-2013
  2. 2.0 2.1 NYTimes.com, "New Canon Law Code in Effect for Catholics", 27-Nov-1983, accessed June-25-2013
  3. Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, xxx
  4. Pietro Cardinal Gasparri, preface to the CIC 1917
  5. Manual of Canon Law, pg. 47
  6. Manual of Canon Law, pg. 49
  7. Ap Const. Providentissima Mater Ecclesia Benedict XV, 27 May 1917
  8. canon 1, 1917 Code of Canon Law
  9. Dr. Edward N. Peters, CanonLaw.info "A Simple Overview of Canon Law", accessed June-11-2013
  10. Pope Benedict XV, motu proprio Cum Iuris Canonici of 15 September 1917, (Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, pg. 25)
  11. Pope Benedict XV, motu proprio Cum Iuris Canonici of 15 September 1917, §III (Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, pg. 26)
  12. Metz, What is Canon Law? pgs. 62-63
  13. Pope Benedict XV, motu proprio Cum Iuris Canonici of 15 September 1917, §§II-III (Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, pg. 26)
  14. Metz, What is Canon Law? pg. 64
  15. 1983 Code of Canon Law Annotated, Canon 6 (pg. 34)
  16. Metz, What is Canon Law? pg. 71
  17. Codification 1225 to 1900, accessed 7 December 2015
  18. Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, xxiv.
  19. Edward N. Peters, 1917 Code, xxxi
  20. 20.0 20.1 Concilium: "The Future of Canon Law"
  21. 21.0 21.1 Metz, What is Canon Law? pg. 60


  1. Manual of Canon Law Fernando della Rocca (translated by Rev. Anselm Thatcher, O.S.B.), "Manual of Canon Law" (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1959)
  2. What is Canon Law? René Metz (translated from the French by Michael Derrick), "What is Canon Law?" (New York: Hawthorn Books/Publishers, 1960)
  3. The Future of Canon Law Concilium vol. 48 (Paulist, 1st Edition, 1969)
  4. 1917 (Pio-Benedictine) Code of Canon Law (CIC) Translated by Edward Peters, "The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law: in English Translation with Extensive Scholarly Apparatus" (Ignatius Press, 2001)
  5. 1983 Code of Canon Law Annotated "Gratianus Series", Ernest Caparros, et al., 2nd edition (Woodridge: Midwest Theological Forum, 2004)

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