This month marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most important innovations in recent Catholic history. But this centenary is unlikely to be marked with much enthusiasm in Rome, because it concerns a currently unfashionable topic: canon law.

On May 27, 1917, Benedict XV promulgated the Code of Canon Law, the first official comprehensive account of Church law. This was a revolutionary step because, until then, canon law had grown organically, with law added to law with little regard for overall harmony or structure.

Of course there had been efforts to stamp order on the Church’s legal system before. The most notable was that of Gratian, a 12th-century jurist who compiled a kind of canon law textbook. Various popes tried – and largely failed – to codify the law, until 1904, when Pope Pius X created a commission to combine the laws into a single volume. He took a forward-thinking approach to the problem, consulting the world’s bishops intensively throughout.

Pius X died before the commission completed its work of reducing some 10,000 norms to 2,414 crisply written canons. The Code of Canon Law followed Roman law’s structure of “norms, persons, things, procedures and penalties” and applied mainly to the Latin Church, rather than the 22 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches.

Many regarded the Code as a monumental achievement; others, as a disaster. “With this single act,” a traditionalist critic wrote, “the enormous, intricate tree of ecclesiastical jurisprudence that had been growing up over centuries, with Gratian at its roots, was cut down and replaced by a product of a single committee of a particular time and place.”

The Code’s opponents argued that it paved the way for endless top-down tinkering: popes would find it impossible to resist the urge to make sweeping changes. Arguably, events have proved them right. When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council he promised a thorough revision of the Code. This appeared decades later, in 1983, during the pontificate of John Paul II. The Polish pope described the updated Code as “a great effort to translate … conciliar ecclesiology into canonical language”.

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