Stages of papal law

by David L D'Avray

21 Mar 2017
Digital Object Identifier
Number of pages

Full text posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 5, pp. 37-59.

Abstract: Papal law is known from the late 4th century (Siricius). There was demand for decretals and they were collected in private collections from the 5th century on. Charlemagne’s Admonitio generalis made papal legislation even better known and the Pseudo-Isidorian collections brought genuine decretals also to the wide audience that these partly forged collections reached. The papal reforms from the 11th century on gave rise to a new burst of papal decretals, and collections of them, culminating in the Liber Extra of 1234. The Council of Trent opened a new phase. The ‘Congregation of the Council’, set up to apply Trent’s non-dogmatic decrees, became a new source of papal law. Finally, in 1917, nearly a millennium and a half of papal law was codified by Cardinal Gasparri within two covers. Papal law was to a great extent ‘demand-driven’, which requires explanation. The theory proposed here is that Catholic Christianity was composed of a multitude of subsystems, not planned centrally and each with an evolving life of its own. Subsystems frequently interfered with the life of other subsystems, creating new entanglements. This constantly renewed complexity had the function (though not the purpose) of creating and recreating demand for papal law to sort out the entanglements between subsystems. For various reasons other religious systems have not generated the same demand: because the state plays a ‘papal’ role, or because the units are small, discrete and simple, or thanks to a clear simple blueprint, or because of conservatism combined with a tolerance of some inconsistency. It is difficult to find a religious system with the same complexity problems combined with a strong sense that the whole needed to remain united without internal contradictions.

Keywords: Siricius, Pseudo-Isidoran collections, Gratian, decretals, Liber Extra, Apostolic Penitentiary, Congregation of the Council, other early modern papal law, Gasparri, complexity, Trent.

Raleigh Lecture on History, read 1 November 2016 (audio recording)

Sign up to our email newsletters