Sacrae Disciplinae Leges
To Our Venerable Brothers the Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, Deacons and
to the other members of the People of God
JOHN PAUL BISHOP
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 1962‚65. 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
Pro‚President 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.13,8‚10; Gal.5,13‚25; 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
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
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
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
JOHN PAUL II