Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Canonical Precept

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 12
Canonical Precept

by William Henry Windsor Fanning


(Precept: From the Lat. præceptum from præcipere, to command).

Precept, in its common acceptation, is opposed to counsel, inasmuch as the former imposes an obligation, while the latter is a persuasion. In ecclesiastical jurisprudence, the word precept is used:


  • In opposition to law. A law is always binding, even after the death of the legislator until it is revoked; a precept is obligatory only during the lifetime or office of the precipient. A law directly affects the territory of the legislator, and thence passes to the subjects dwelling in it; a precept directly affects the persons of the inferiors and is independent of locality. Finally, a law is promulgated for a whole community, present and future, while a precept is directed to individuals and ceases with them.
  • As a term in extra-judicial processes. When a grave fault has been committed by a cleric, it is the duty of the bishop, after making an informal inquiry into the matter, to give the delinquent two successive monitions or warnings. If he does not thereupon amend, the bishop proceeds to the issuance of a canonical precept, as directed by the Decree "Cum Magnopere" (1884). The precept, under pain of nullity, must be in writing, state plainly what is to be done or avoided by the delinquent, and mention the specific punishment to be inflicted if the precept go unheeded. The accused is then cited before the chancellor of the episcopal court, and the latter, in presence of the vicar-general or two witnesses, ecclesiastical or lay, must serve the precept upon him. An official record of this fact is then to be drawn up and signed by all concerned, including the delinquent if he so wishes. The witnesses may be bound by oath to observe secrecy as to the proceedings. If the accused contumaciously refuses to appear, the precept may be served upon him by a trust-worthy person or sent by registered mail. If even these measures are not possible, the precept may be posted publicly as an intimation to the delinquent. If he fails to amend after receiving the precept, a formal trial may then be instituted.

SMITH, Elements of Ecclesiastical Law, III (New York, 1888); FERRARIS, Bibliotheca Canonica, V (Rome, 1889), s.v. Lex, art. I; BAART, Legal Formulary (New York, 1898).

WILLIAM H.W. FANNING