How does the church make decisive rulings?


I am not a lawyer, but I have “a lawyers question” about canon law…

I was talking with a friend about how most common law is formed, which - if I understand it correctly - is something like this…

One or more persons may find themselves in a predicament they can’t resolve themselves, so they will take it to court… if the matter under contention is basically the same as has happened in other cases before it, a judge will make a ruling based upon the prior rulings… I dont think those prior rulings are necessarily law, but they are more like interpretive opinions of whatever law governs a specific region, so the judges will tend to follow those interpreted opinions to keep a common, uniform understanding in tact…

But - before I get to my question - let’s introduce one more scenario… specifically, when a new situation occurs, which hasn’t been decided upon before… Like - back around 2000 - when the internet became popular, and so many new issues came forward… in these cases, it still seems like the means above must have worked somehow… somewhere, somehow - a judge must have been presented with a case, and then made a ruling… and that interpretation is kind of what ended up being somehow turned into a law…

The scenarios above are for common law, but what about for canon law? Certainly new situations present themselves to the church, so - on emerging, particular and practical issues, i.e. when there is no precedent, how does the church decide what is sinful or “ecclesiastically illegal”? And is there a “default” action we use?

Most people seem to think the Pope makes a decision, and that’s that… no use quibbling over it… But the question I am asking concerns canon law on such low levels, it would deliberately make it impossible for the Pope to handle every such matter… so how is canon law formed (at various levels)?


Usually one or more of the congregations in the Vatical are involved in making new rulings. I would say that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is likely to be the most active one as a lot today is about the human being in new medical, ethical and scientific situations.


A diocesan bishop has legislative and executive authority, so he can make new law as well as decide how existing law should be applied (he has judicial authority, too, but that’s not pertinent in this discussion). So, one answer to your question is to say that canon law is formed at the diocesan level by the bishop. He can make general provisions for his diocese as well as decide what to do in individual cases (I don’t mean judicial cases), whether to allow some activity or not.

Custom is called “the best interpreter of law” and so the way a community of persons (say, in a diocese or perhaps at a parish level) applies the existing law to new situations can also be a way new law is formed. In practice, parish priests (pastors) have the ability to decide how things are done in the parish but they don’t have legislative authority in the parish.

On a national level, the conference of bishops may give some direction but their ability to legislate is limited.



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