Fr. Dominic M. Prümmer, O.P. (1866-1931)

The Divisions of Ecclesiastical Law

taken from his Manual of Canon Law (3rd edition, 1922)

Exclusive English Translation

Q[uestion] 7. What, taken objectively, are the particular divisions of ecclesiastical law?

A[nswer]. Ecclesiastical law, taken objectively, can be divided by reason of matter, extension, [historical] time [period], form, and rite:

a) By reason of matter, [ecclesiastical law] is divided into public and private. Among various authors, there is no single explanation of these terms.[1] Indeed, some [authors] absolutely reject this division.[2] According to several authors, public [ecclesiastical] law is the same as the general law common to all, but private [ecclesiastical] law is the same as a private legal right or a privilege. Nevertheless, public law is better understood [to be] a combining of divine laws, by which the Church is constituted as a perfect society with its own end. In this sense, the public law of the Church is not without cause compared with the constitutional law of some commonwealth. Nevertheless, the comparison is not perfect. Private law is the combining of ecclesiastical laws for the proper direction of the members belonging to the Church, for example, the law of regulars.

b) By reason of extension, ecclesiastical law is divided α) into universal law that is binding in the entire Christian world, and particular law that is in force only in some limited territory; β) into general law that binds all the faithful, for example, the precept of hearing Mass on Sundays, and special-exception law, to which only certain persons are subject, for example, clerics, regulars; γ) into the common law that determines the legal order to be observed in general or for all the faithful, and thereupon the common law is at the same time the general law, or for a limited category of the faithful, and thereupon the common law is at the same time the special-exception [law]; in this way, we can, for example, speak about the common law of regulars and the specific law, which is the same as a privilege. Nonetheless, it must be mentioned that not all authors use these terms in the same way. Thus, for example, some divide particular law into patriarchal, provincial, diocesan, [and] regulars’ law.

c) By reason of [historical] time [period], ecclesiastical law is divided into early-period [antiquum], middle-period [novum], [and] post-Tridentine period [novissimum] canonical law. Again, among the authors there does not exist the same explanation of terms as this. According to the explanation to be preferred, the early-period law is from the founding of the Church up to the Decretum of Gratian being in force (about in the year 1150). The middle period law is the law established by Gratian’s Decretum up to the Council of Trent, exclusively. For the most part, [the Decretum] is contained in the so-called ancient Body of ecclesiastical law, and it is therefore called the law contained in the Body of the law. The post-Tridentine law is the law in force after the Council of Trent up to our times, and is contained in the new Code of Canon Law issued by Benedict XV and having force from the 19th day of May 1918.

d) Ecclesiastical law by reason of form or mode is divided into written law, which is contained in the authentic diplomata [“official enactments, documents, charters, or decrees”] of a legitimate legislator and has been duly published, and unwritten law, which is not contained in authentic written law, but is nevertheless observed by force of legitimate custom or tradition. It is also called customary law or, in a nutshell, legitimate customs.

e) By reason of rite, [ecclesiastical] law is divided off into the law of the Western Church and the law of the Eastern Church. — Several churches of the protestants or non-Catholics or schismatics also have their own legal codes, for example, the schismatic Greek church, but nothing about these is to be discussed by us in this Manual [of Canon Law]. Equally, nothing presents itself to be said here about the false acceptances both of law in general and of ecclesiastical law in particular, because the first [kind of law] belongs to [the discipline of] Christian ethics and the second to the [dogmatic theology] treatise De Ecclesia [“On the Church”], since from a false conception of the Church necessarily false conceptions of ecclesiastical law are also bound to emerge.


[1] Cf. Wernz, Ius Decr[etalium] I, no. 50, note 29.

[2] Cf. Vering, Kirchenrecht, § 5; Sägmüller, Kirchenrecht, § 3.

Source: Manuale Iuris Canonici, Editio Tertia, ed. by Dominicus M. Prümmer, O. Pr. (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder & Co., 1922), pp. 3-4. Imprimatur 1922. Translation into English by Novus Ordo Watch.

Note: An electronic copy of the original Latin work is accessible through Google Books here.

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