What is the difference between "Catechism" and "Canon Law" in Catholicism?

I have the Catholic Catechism (CCC). Yet I also see the Canon law code quoted from...what's the difference? are they two separate books?

3 Answers 3


Yes, the Catechism and Canon Law are two separate things

The Catechism is a teaching tool for the bishops and various catechists to instruct the faithful. (Why do we receive the Eucharist? What makes Easter so special?) The first Catechism worthy of the name came out of the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563). The more recent one, linked to on-line with some frequency here, came out in the early 1980's though it was revised in the 1990's. You could look up The Baltimore Catechism for an example of a common teaching tool in the US that is pre-Vatican II.

CCC 5 "Catechesis is an education in the faith of children, young people and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life."


The Canon Law is a rule book, a code of laws that are within the jurisdiction of the Church, that covers (for example) who may or may not marry a couple; what constitutes a valid marriage; what to do if there is a jurisdictional dispute between two different diocese; basic rules for building a church.

During the course of the centuries the Catholic Church has been accustomed to reform and renew the laws of canonical discipline so that in constant fidelity to its divine founder, they may be better adapted to the saving mission entrusted to it. Prompted by this same purpose and fulfilling at last the expectations of the whole Catholic world, I order today, January 25, 1983, the promulgation of the revised Code of Canon Law. In so doing, my thoughts go back to the same day of the year 1959 when my predecessor of happy memory, John XXIII, announced for the first time his decision to reform the existing corpus of canonical legislation which had been promulgated on the feast of Pentecost in the year 1917. (From APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTION SACRAE DISCIPLINAE LEGES)

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    hmmm... there are older Catechisms in that sense. I'm not sure what makes them 'not worthy of the name' besides being short. Consider the Didache. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 21:13
  • The Tridentine Catechism can be read online here. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 22:57
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    @thedarkwanderer For breadth and depth, and because CCC is the Catechism of the Catholic Church - what was asked about - in form and scope is a direct descendant of the Trent Catechism. It's not just size it's scope. That Catechism, for the first time in centuries, formalized (the Church being a major institution) in detail the teaching and belief system The Didache is an early church era teaching (and very valuable) that is forefather of the CCC; in the Context of the question it belongs to a very different era which is when the church was a non mainstream body of believers. Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 1:41

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a book, promulgated in 1992 by Pope St. John Paul II, which seeks to explain the doctrine (that is, the body of teachings) that the Catholic Church holds. It was envisioned as a document which the faithful can turn to if they are in doubt whether the Church teaches something, and whether Catholics must therefore believe it, as well.

It was preceded by the Roman Catechism, compiled under the urging of the Ecumenical Council of Trent, in order to clarify the Church's teachings in light of the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catechism, itself, was preceded by several smaller Catechisms, generally geared towards teaching the faith to uncatechized peoples like Amerinds and South/Southeast Asians.

The Code of Canon Law, on the other hand, is — as its name suggests — a code of laws, which are binding on Catholics. As you can expect, the Catholic Church is a large organisation, and it requires for its proper ordinance to establish a number of rules and bylaws, which discipline (among other things) how Sacraments are dispensed, how Religious should act, what are the powers of Bishops' Conferences, and other such matters.

The most recent edition of the Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983, also by St. John Paul II, superseding the first and previous Code, the compilation of which started under the pontificate of Benedict XV and ended under the pontificate of Pius XI in 1917 (and therefore is known as the Pio-Benedictine Code).

In essence, if you ask a question starting with "Do Catholics believe in...", you will probably find the answer in the Catechism. If you ask a question starting with "Are Catholics allowed/forced/forbidden to ..." or "What happens if Catholics disobey ...", then the answer is probably in the Code of Canon Law.


They are two separate books, and the English translations of the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law1 can be found on the Vatican website. (The Catechism can also be found, in Flash format only, on the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

A catechism is "a summary of religious doctrine", according to Merriam-Webster, and this is precisely what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (often referred to as the CCC) is. According to its Paragraph 11 (the points of doctrine in the Catechism are arranged by paragraphs),

This catechism aims at presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the whole of the Church's Tradition. Its principal sources are the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the Church's Magisterium. It is intended to serve "as a point of reference for the catechisms or compendia that are composed in the various countries".

In other words, there are many catechisms (for example, the youth-oriented catechism YouCat) which can be used for teaching different audiences about the Catholic Church, but this is the source catechism on which all of them will be based. This is the second such "source catechism" (technically known as a "universal catechism") which the Church has produced; the first was the Roman Catechism or Catechism of Trent, produced shortly after the Council of Trent. The current catechism is closely based on this one; see my answer to a related question.

The Code of Canon Law, on the other hand, is specifically meant for Catholics, and more particularly for Catholics of the Latin Church. It is sometimes abbreviated as the CIC, an abbreviation of its Latin title, Codex Iuris Canonici. There is an analogous document, the Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium or Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, applying to the other sui juris churches of the Catholic Church. It is available on the Vatican website, in Latin only.

The CIC is a body of regulations, often described as "the oldest continuously functioning legal system in the Western world" (see the web page of prominent canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters). It is the set of laws governing the behavior of Catholics (lay and ordained) in the Church.

As one might expect with a book of legal codes, there's a lot of nitpicky, very dry stuff in the Code; discussions of when and where particular laws will apply, what it means to say that a legal rule is in effect for a certain number of days, and so on. But there's a lot of very important rules on, for example, how the Sacraments need to be celebrated (for example, there are a lot of questions on this website concerning Catholic marriage, almost all of which refer to the very complex and clearly set out rules concerning marriage).

The CIC quotes the Catechism, and vice versa (I believe); the canons concerning behavior of Catholics are ultimately all based on Catholic theology, and especially in the discussions of the Sacraments there are routinely theological statements which are used as an introduction to the laws themselves. But the two are separate documents, with separate purposes.

1 Note: There have been several changes to canon law which postdate the appearance of the Code on the Vatican website. The website's version of the Code has not been updated to reflect these. They largely reflect a rejection (based in practical experience) of a way for someone to formally declare themselves not part of the Catholic Church, and several updates to the process of gaining a decree of nullity for a marriage.


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