Interpretation (canon law)

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In relation to the canon law of the Catholic Church, canonists give rules for the exact interpretation and acceptation of words, in order that decrees may be correctly understood and the extent of their obligation determined.

Authentic interpretation

See also: Regulae Juris

An authentic interpretation is an official interpretation of a statute issued by the statute's legislator. In canon law, an authentic interpretation has the force of law.

Besides the Pope, who has plenary legislative power, there are several other legislative authorities in the Roman Catholic Church with varying degrees of authority. Primary examples are diocesan bishops and their equivalents, episcopal conferences, and particular councils.[1] Any of these legislators can issue authentic interpretations of their laws[2] and their predecessor's laws.[3] These authentic interpretations trump even administrative decisions of ordinaries and judgments of ecclesiastical courts, for neither of those acts have the force of law like an authentic interpretation.[4] The effect of an authentic interpretation depends on the extent of the interpretation:

An authentic interpretation which is presented by way of a law has the same force as the law itself, and must be promulgated. If it simply declares the words which are certain in themselves, it has retroactive force. If it restricts or extends a law or explains a doubtful one, it is not retroactive.[5]

Legislators also can entrust the power to authentically interpret their laws to someone else.[6] For the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, and other papal laws, the pope has delegated the authority to issue authentic interpretations to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.[7] The following table contains the authentic interpretations issued by that dicastery (with Pontifical approval).

Table of authentic interpretations

Latin Canon(s) Publication Summary
Can. 87, §1 AAS, v. 77 (1985), p. 771 Diocesan bishop cannot dispense from canonical form for the marriage of two Catholics.
Can. 119, 1º AAS, v. 82 (1990), p. 845 Relative majority suffices on the third scrutiny.
Can. 127, §1 AAS, v. 77 (1985), p. 771 Superior does not have the right of voting, unless it is an existing custom in the community.
Can. 230, §2 AAS, v. 86 (1994), p. 541-542 Both lay men and women can serve at the altar.
Cann. 346, §1 and 402, §1 AAS, v. 83 (1991), p. 1093 Bishops emeriti may be elected to the Synod of Bishops.
Cann. 434 and 452 AAS, v. 81 (1989), p. 388 Auxiliary bishops cannot fill office of president of an episcopal conference.
Can. 455, §1 (also cann. 31-33) AAS, v. 77 (1985), p. 771 "General decrees" includes general executory decrees.
Can. 502, §1 AAS, v. 76 (1984), p. 746-747 Consultor continues in office even when no longer a member of presbyteral council.

Consultors need not be replaced unless the minimum required number is lacking.

Can. 509, §1 AAS, v. 81 (1989), p. 991 It is not required to select the president of a chapter of canons by election.
Can. 684, §3 AAS, v. 79 (1987), p. 1249 "Religious" includes religious in temporary vows.
Can. 700 AAS, v. 78 (1986), p. 1323-1324 Religious to be notified of dismissal after confirmation by Holy See.

Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes to receive suspensive recourse against dismissal.

Cann. 705-707 AAS, v. 78 (1986), p. 1323-1324 A religious bishop does not enjoy active and passive voice in his own institute.
Cann. 705-707 AAS, v. 80 (1988), p. 1818-1819 Religious appointed judges of the Roman Rota are not exempt from the religious Ordinary.
Can. 767, §1 AAS, v. 79 (1987), p. 1249 Diocesan bishop cannot dispense from the prescription that the homily is reserved to priests or deacons.
Can. 830, §3 AAS, v. 79 (1987), p. 1249 Imprimaturs must indicate the name of the Ordinary giving his permission, and where and when the permission was given.
Can. 910, §2 (also can. 230, §3) AAS, v. 80 (1988), p. 1373 Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion cannot exercise their function when ordinary ministers (who are not impeded from distributing the Eucharist) are present in the church, even though not celebrating the Mass.
Can. 917 AAS, v. 76 (1984), p. 746-747 A person may receive Holy Communion on the same day only twice, outside of the danger of death.
Can. 951, §1 AAS, v. 79 (1987), p. 1132 Mass offerings for multiple celebrations on the same day are to be sent to the proper Ordinary of the celebrant.
Can. 964, §2 AAS, v. 90 (1998), p. 711[8] A priest may choose to hear confession in a confessional with a fixed grille.
Can. 1103 AAS, v. 79 (1987), p. 1132 Force and fear invalidate the matrimonial consent of non-Catholics as well.
Can. 1263 AAS, v. 81 (1989), p. 991 External schools of religious institutes of pontifical right are not subject to taxation by diocesan bishop.
Can. 1367[9] AAS, v. 91 (1999), p. 918 "Desecration" includes any voluntary and gravely comptemptuous action towards the Eucharistic species.
Can. 1398 AAS, v. 80 (1988), p. 1818-1819 "Abortion" includes the killing of a fetus in any way whatsoever, at any time from the moment of conception onwards.
Cann. 1522 and 1525 AAS, v. 78 (1986), p. 1324 Can reintroduce a case in another tribunal after instance is finished through peremption or renunciation.
Can. 1673, 3º AAS, v. 78 (1986), p. 1323-1324 The judicial vicar of the interdiocesan tribunal of the respondent cannot give the consent required for hearing a nullity case in the diocese of the plaintiff.
Can. 1686 (also cann. 1066-1067) AAS, v. 76 (1984), p. 746-747 The pre-nuptial investigation suffices to determine the invalidity of a prior marriage due to lack of canonical form; a declaration of nullity via the documentary process is not required.
Can. 1737 (also can. 299, §3) AAS, v. 80 (1988), p. 1818 A non-juridical group with a grievance must take hierarchical recourse as individuals.

Rules of interpretation

In general, the authentic interpretation of a law may be made by the legislator, or his successor or superior, but when this is not the case recourse must be had to what is called magisterial, or doctrinal, interpretation. It is for this latter mode that rules have been formed.

Interpreting words

The words of a law must be understood according to their usual signification, unless it is certain that the legislator intended them to be taken in another sense. When the words are not ambiguous, they must not be twisted into some far-fetched meaning. If the intention of the legislator is known, the interpretation must be according to that, rather than according to the words of a law, even though they seem to have another sense, because the words are then said not to be nude, but clothed with the will of the lawgiver.

When a law is conceived in general terms, it is presumed that no exception was intended; that is, where the law makes no exception, interpreters are not allowed to distinguish. In all interpretations, however, that meaning of the words is to be preferred which favours equity rather than strict justice. An argument can be drawn from the contrary sense of the words, provided that nothing follows which is absurd, inappropriate, or contradicted by another law. The provisions of a previous statute are not presumed to be changed beyond the express meaning of the words of a new law.

When a law is penal, its words are to be taken in their strictest sense and not to be extended to their cases beyond those explicitly mentioned; but when a law concedes favours, its words are to be interpreted according to their widest sense. "In contracts, words are to be taken in their full [plena] meaning, in last wills in a wider [plenior] sense, and in grants of favours in their widest [plenissimi] interpretation" (c. Cum Dilecti, 6 de donat.). When there is a doubt as to the meaning of the words, that sense is to be preferred which does not prejudice the rights of a third person.

No words of a law are ever presumed to be superfluous. In interpreting a law the words must be considered in their context. To give a meaning to words that would render a law useless is a false interpretation. When the words of a law are in the future tense, and even when they are in the imperative mood concerning the judge, but not concerning the crime, the penalty is understood to be incurred, not ipso facto, but only after judicial sentence. When the words of a law are doubtful the presumption is in favour of the subjects, not of the lawgiver.

The Magisterium on canonical interpretation "within the Church"

The instructions concerning canon law and its interpretation issued by the Magisterium are binding per se regarding that which it teaches about the law.[10] The juridically-binding instructions on canonical interpretation issued by the Pontifical Magisterium are chiefly contained in the allocutions of the popes to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota.[10]

Pope Benedict XVI, in his address of 21 January 2012 before the Roman Rota, taught that canonical laws can only be interpreted and fully understood within the Catholic Church in the light of her mission and ecclesiological structure, and that "the work of the interpreter must not be deprived of "vital contact with ecclesial reality":[10]

All things considered, the hermeneutics of canonical laws is most closely tied to the very understanding of the law of the Church....In such realistic prospectiveness, the interpretative undertaking, at times arduous, takes on meaning and purpose. The use of the interpretive means foreseen by the Code of Canon Law in can. 17, beginning with “the proper meaning of the words considered in their text and context”, is no longer a mere logical exercise. It has to do with an assignment that is vivified by an authentic contact with the comprehensive reality of the Church, which allows one to penetrate the true meaning of the letter of the law. Something then occurs, similar to what I said about the inner process of St Augustine in biblical hermeneutics: “the transcending of the letter has rendered the letter itself credible”.[note 1] In such a manner, also in the hermeneutics of the law is it confirmed that the authentic horizon is that of the juridical truth to love, to seek out and to serve.

It follows that the interpretation of canonical law must take place within the Church. This is not a matter of mere external circumstance, subject to the environs: it is a calling to the same humus of Canon Law and the reality regulated by it. Sentire cum Ecclesia takes on meaning also within the discipline, by reason of the doctrinal foundations that are always present and operative within the legal norms of the Church. In this manner, is also applied to Canon Law that hermeneutics of renewal in continuity of which I spoke in reference to the Second Vatican Council[note 2] so closely bound to the current canonical legislation. Christian maturity leads one to love the law ever more and want to understand it and to apply it faithfully.[10]


  1. Canon L. Socy. Gr. Brit. & Ir., The Canon Law Letter and Spirit: A Practical Guide to the Code of Canon Law ¶ 46, at 15, 15 n. 2 (Gerard Sheehy et al. eds., Liturgical Press 1995).
  2. Codex Iuris Canonici [CIC] canon 16 § 1; Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium [CCEO] canon 1498.
  3. The Canon Law Letter and Spirit ¶ 46, at 15 (Rev. Augustine Mendonça, JCD).
  4. CIC canon 16 § 3; CCEO canon 1498 § 3.
  5. CIC canon 16 § 2, translated in The Canon Law Letter and Spirit 16 ("Interpretatio authentica per modum legis exhibita eandem vim habet ac lex ipsa et promulgari debet; si verba legis in se certa declaret tantum, valet retrorsum; si legem coarctet vel extendataut dubiam explicet, non retrotrahitur.").
  6. CIC canon 16 § 1; CCEO canon 1498 § 1.
  7. John Paul II, ap. con. Pastor Bonus art. 155, 80 Acta Apostolicae Sedis 841 (1988).
  8. Caparros, et al., p. 1629
  9. Caparros, et al., p. 1633
  10. 1 2 3 4 Benedict XVI, 2012 Roman Rota Address


  1. Benedict XVI, 2012 Roman Rota Address, citing Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, 30 September 2010, 38: AAS 102 (2010), p. 718, n. 38.
  2. Benedict XVI, 2012 Roman Rota Address, citing his Discourse to the Roman Curia of 22 December 2005: AAS 98 (2006), pp. 40-53.,



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