1917 Code of Canon Law and Canon 21


Hi, I was just wondering if anyone had insight into this question. I have seen numerous times people quoting Canon 6 which states:
Can. 6 §1. When this Code takes force, the following are abrogated:

1/ the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917;

Now the dilemma I see here is in canon 21 which states:
Can. 21 In a case of doubt, the revocation of a pre-existing law is not presumed, but later laws must be related to the earlier ones and, insofar as possible, must be harmonized with them.

Now one dilemma is in the 1917 code stating that priests and religious may not be sponsors for children receiving baptism unless they have permission from their superiors, but seeing as the current code of canon law does not mention this at all, are we to assume that this particular law is still in effect according to can 21?



Because of canon 6, we’d assume the opposite. There is no doubt as to what was abrogated–the whole of the 1917 Code was. So, since there is no doubt about the previous law’s revocation, canon 21 doesn’t enter this conversation.



Hi thanks for your reply, sorry I wasn’t very clear in my wording, Canon 21 is from the current code and not from 1917.


Yes, I know. I guess I was the unclear one. I’ll try again. Canon 6 of the 1983 Code abrogated the entirety of the 1917 Code. Therefore, there is no doubt about the revocation of this law (the one from the 1917 Code regarding who can be sponsors) and canon 21 of the 1983 Code is not pertinent. Canon 21 only applies where there is a doubt about the previous law being revoked.



Ok thanks that makes sense! So I was wondering can you give an example of what law canon 21 may apply to?


Not all laws are contained in the Code of Canon Law; for instance, the Canon Law for the Eastern Churches. There are also numerous other decrees that are not necessarily included in the Canon, but still apply to all or to some.

Not directly applicable to your question, but there are vast sections of the 1983 Code that are word-for-word copied from the 1917 Code, but perhaps indexed in a separate chapter. There is a provision somewhere in the new code for all previous interpretations of such passages to continue to apply unless explicitly changed in the new code.


The best guide as to what the authors had in mind in Canon 21 is in the canon immediately prior:

Canon 20
A later law abrogates, or derogates from, an earlier law if it states so expressly, is directly contrary to it, or completely reorders the entire matter of the earlier law. A universal law, however, in no way derogates from a particular or special law unless the law expressly provides otherwise.

People don’t always consider that Church law is not limited to the Code of Canon Law. There are also laws that are particular to a part of the Church. For example, in 2002 the USCCB asked for and eventually received approval to have particular law enacted for the United States relating to the sexual abuse crisis. I’m not well enough read on this topic to be able to cite the relevant canons, but I think some of the responsibilities of bishops and pastors that are spelled out in canon law were abrogated in the United States by the new particular law. On the other hand, there may be a few canons that seem to be at odds with the new particular law, but only indirectly. If there is a way that they can be interpreted as not contrary to each other, that must be done.

In additional to particular law, Canon 20 mentions “special law”. I was a little puzzled by this, but I found later canons use the phrase to discuss rules that may govern conclaves or synods of bishops.


Most new laws are pretty good about making it obvious which prior laws are being revoked/abrogated/reordered/etc., using a phrase such as “Anything to the contrary notwithstanding” at the end of the document. So, I don’t have any real-world examples.

I think “Digitonomy” is pointing out a scenario where such a doubt could occur: the relationship between a particular law and a subsequent universal law. If the universal law is not abundantly clear that it is abrogating all particular laws, there could be some doubt. So, instead of just the general “Anything to the contrary notwithstanding” remark, the new law has to say “Anything to the contrary, even particular or special law, notwithstanding” in order to revoke those particular laws.

But, again, most laws are pretty good with these formulas so, one way or the other, there isn’t any doubt about the status of the prior law: it’s either obviously still in force or has obviously been revoked. Canon 21 is a sort of “last resort”: the Church doesn’t want this canon to be used very much–or needed–because she doesn’t want doubt in what laws are in effect. But, just in case…



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