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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Somerset

The Archives and Canon Law

A centenary ago, on 19 May 1918, the Code of Canon Law took legal effect, having been promulgated by Pope Benedict XV in 1917. Prior to the Code of 1917, the Churches law was scattered in separate documents making it very difficult to find out what the law was on a particular point.

The volume of documentation was so vast and complex that only a canonist who possessed some of the skill of an archivist would have known where to look to find what the law said. (Peter Ingman, ‘The New Code of Canon Law and Archives’, Catholic Archives 5, 1985, p.50)

Since 1917, the law has been set out in canons (short concise coded sentences) and was replaced in 1983 by a revised Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope John Paul II.

As Archivist for the Jesuits in Britain it is useful to reflect on what the Code contains with regards to archives. It provides legislation for the careful management and preservation of archives in the section ‘The Chancellor, other notaries, and the archives’ (can. 482-491). One of the main sources for these canons was the apostolic constitution Maxima Vigilantia of 14 June 1727 in which Pope Benedict XIII instructed all the bishops and religious superiors in Italy to establish an archive.

Despite the focus of canons 482-491 being on diocesan archives, those responsible for the archives of religious orders can adapt these as there is no specific group of canons for archives of religious, although a number of canons on religious life mention the need for written records. In addition, Canon 578 has significance:

All must observe faithfully the mind and designs of the founders regarding the nature, purpose, spirit, and character of an institute, which have been sanctioned by competent ecclesiastical authority, and its sound traditions, all of which constitute the patrimony of the same institute.

It is the role of the religious archivist to collect and preserve the written records, which contain the nature, spirit, purpose and character as well as the traditions of the institute.

Observing what the Code of Canon Law states about archives shows the importance that the Church places on the safe keeping of its records. In fact the first canon on archives can sum it all up:

"All documents ... must be protected with the greatest care." (Can. 486 §1)

Here at the British Jesuit Archives we strive to ensure that this protection occurs through putting policies and procedures in place to ensure relevant material is collected, safely handled, correctly stored and accurately listed. If you would like to learn more about how we care for archives please get in touch.

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