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An ecclesiastical person ( Latin Canonicus ), a member of a chapter or body of clerics living according to rule and presided over by one of their number.

Whether the title as applied to persons is derived from canon (Gk. kanón ), a rule, or from the same term meaning a list of those who served a particular church, is much discussed. As however there are various kinds of chapters, each having its own specific rule, rights, and privileges, the most accurate definition of a canon is "a member of a chapter". Some writers have derived the title from the canon or rule of community life that was followed by certain clerics and which distinguished them from others who did not live in community. "A canon is so called from the canon, that is from the regularity of the life which he leads" (Scarfantoni, ed. Lucca, 1723, I, 5). Opposed to this is the opinion that canons were so called form the fact that their names were inscribed on the lists of those who served particular churches for which they were ordained. (For the medieval use of the term see Ducange, Glossar. med et infimæ Latinitatis, s. v. Canonicus.) The latter appears to be the more logical derivation and is in accord with the arguments of Thomassinus and most other writers, who agree that our present cathedral chapters are the modern form of the ancient bodies of presbyters who in each particular church formed with the bishop the senate of that church [ Thomassinus, "Vetus ac nova disciplina", pt. I, bk. III, cc. vii-xi, and lxiii-lxx; Binterim, "Denkwürdigkeiten" (1826), III (2), 317-84].


It is not possible to say exactly when canons first had recognition as a body distinct from the rest of the clergy (cf. Amort, Vetus disciplina canonicorum regularium et sæcularium, Venice, 1747). In the very first ages of Christianity there is evidence that many churches had their own proper bodies of clergy, although it is not so clear that these clerics kept to any common rule of life (see C ANONS AND C ANONESSES R EGULAR ). At the same time there were many clerics who did live in common, e.g. the cenobites, and the term canon was applied to them as early as the fourth century; but it must not be inferred from this fact that the office of canon has its origin in those who followed the cenobitical Rule of St. Augustine (see A UGUSTINE, R ULE OF S AINT ). So far as the Western Church is concerned the first certain evidence is contained in the famous ecclesiastical constitution or ordinance of the Benedictine monk Chrodegang, Bishop of Metz (763). His "Regula vitæ communis" (rule of common life) was at once a restoration and an adaptation of the Rule of St. Augustine , and its chief provisions were that the ecclesiastics who adopted it had to live in common under the episcopal roof, recite common prayers, perform a certain amount of manual labour, keep silence at certain times, and go to confession twice a year. They did not take the vow of poverty and they could hold a life interest in property. For the text of the Rule of Chrodegang see Mansi, "Coll. Conc.", XIV, 313; also Walter, "Fontes Jur. eccl.", n. 6, and the edition of W. Schmitz (Hanover, 1891); cf. Ebner, in "Röm. Quartalschrift" (1891) v, 81-86. Twice a day they met to hear a chapter from the rule of their founder (see "Vita Chrodegangi", in "Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script.", X, 552), hence the meeting itself was soon called chapter ( capitulum ) and the member capitularies ( capitulares ). The canons then as now formed the council of the bishop and assisted him in the ruling of his diocese. Those attached to the cathedral churches, being regularly models of the vita canonica, were soon known as canonici par excellence, and in time formed a special corporation, with all the rights proper to such bodies. From this period dates the daily recitation by the canons of the Divine Office or canonical hours (see B REVIARY ). The Councils of Aachen (789) and Mainz (813) contain provisions regarding canons, and in 816 the Council of Aachen drew up a rule of 147 articles for the whole body of canons (Hergenröther-Kirsch, "Kirchengesch.", 4th ed., Freiburg, 1904, II, 170-74; Heimbucher, "Orden und Kongregationen", 2d ed., Freiburg, 1907, 3-21). In the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, laxity crept in; community life was no longer strictly observed; the sources of revenue were divided, and the portions allocated to the individual canons. This soon led to differences of income, consequently to avarice, covetousness, and the partial destruction of the canonical life ( vita canonica ). Various reforms were instituted by Nicholas II (1059) and Alexander II (1063). There were also reforms by Innocent II and the Council of Lateran (1139), and by Benedict XII (1339). [On the ruin of the earlier vita canonica see the complaints of Anselm of Havelberg (d. 1155), in P. L., CLXXXVIII, 1083, and of Gerhoh of Reichersberg (d. 169), in the fifth volume of Baluze's "Miscellanea", ed. Mansi (Lucca, 1761).] The development of the Church and the increase in the number of the faithful had rendered the one church of the bishop and his canons insufficient for the needs of the people; accordingly, side by side with those who followed the community life there were other clergy who served the filial churches and fulfilled the ordinary parochial duties. The bishops gradually derived greater assistance from these parochial clergy in the management of their dioceses, and such secular coadjutors were formally constituted as canons by the Council of Trent. (See "Analecta Jur. Pontif.", 1863, VI, pp. 1657, 1795, 1978; "Les chapîtres des cathédrales dans le Concile de Trente".) The legislation of the Council of Trent (Sess. V, XXII, XXIV) brought into uniformity the varying customs regarding the appointment, tenure, duties, etc., of canons; it also regulated their relations to the bishop in diocesan administration, and wherever the Catholic Church is now in full vigour the Tridentine constitutions are observed. In countries like England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and the United States, ecclesiastical government does not conform strictly to the disciplinary decrees of the Council of Trent ; hence, though in such countries canons may be appointed, they have not the canonical rights or status that belongs to a canon in the full sense of the word. In England before the Reformation, many of the chapters were composed of Benedictine monks or of canons regular, but these were all secularized at the Reformation. At present the Protestant canons in the Church of England have little to do with the ruling of the diocese, and their chief obligation is that of residence.

As canons regular became separated into different congregations they took their names from the locality in which they lived, or from the distinctive habit they wore, or from the one who led the way in remodelling their lives. Hence we have the White Canons of Prémontré ; the White Canons of St. John Lateran; the Black Canons of St. Augustine; the Canons of St. Victor at Paris and also at Marseilles (Muratori, "Diss. de Canonicis", in "Antiq. Ital. medii ævi", V, 163; G. Pennoti, "Gen. hist. totius s. ord. clericor. canonicorum", Rome, 1624; Ginzel, "Die canonische Lebensweise der Geistlichen", Ratisbon, 1851).


Canons are divided in the following manner: (1) Cathedral canons, who, attached to the cathedral church, form the senate or council of the bishop ; collegiate canons, who perform the canonical office in the church to which they are attached, but are not connected by reason of their office with the government of the diocese. (2) Prebendary canons, who have a prebend or fixed income attached to the canonry; simple canons, who have no prebend. (3) Canons de numero, i.e. those of a church the number of whose canons can neither be diminished nor increased; (4) supernumerary canons, who are assistants to the canons de numero . The supernumerary canons are subdivided into three classes, viz. (a) those whom the Holy Father appoints and who will receive the first vacant prebend (expectant canons); (b) honorary canons (for these see the Constitution of Leo XIII "Illud est proprium ", 21 Jan., 1894, and the recent decree of the Congr. of Rites, 14 Nov., 1902), and (c) canons who are added on the founding of a new prebend. Formerly the chief distinction was that made between the secular and regular canons. Regular canons, as forming the council of the bishop, are now almost obsolete, and the special regulations by which they are bound, their rights, privileges, and duties, are treated fully in works on canon law. The special status of canons in English-speaking countries will be considered later.


As only the Holy Father can erect a chapter, so also he alone has power to appoint the individual members of a chapter. This power may be, and in fact is delegated, and hence canons are appointed sometimes by the pope, sometimes by the bishop or the capitular body, sometimes by others to whom the right has been given. By the rules of the Roman Chancery all prebends which become vacant in curia (i.e. when one who holds a benefice dies in Rome ) are reserved to the Holy See, also the appointment to a vacant prebend the former holder of which has been deprived of it by an act of the Holy See , the appointment of the first dignitary of each chapter, and to all other prebends which become vacant during the months of January, February, April, May, July, August, October, and November. Beyond this the law does not expressly state in whom resides the power to collate to cathedral canonries and prebends, but the general opinion is that the right is invested simultaneously in the bishop and chapter; therefore for a valid election the majority of the canons must agree with the bishop when a new appointment is made. Exceptions are made in the following cases: if from the foundation of the church or benefice the appointment belongs to a particular person ; if there is an immemorial custom to the contrary; the appointment of the canon theologian and the canon penitentiary; the canons in France (Deshayes, Memento Juris Eccl., 3d ed., Paris, 1903). Appointment is practically always made by letter, and possession of a canonry cannot be obtained until the nominee presents his letter of appointment. The Council of Trent orders that on the day of taking possession, or at least within two months, the new canon is to make his profession of faith and also obedience to the bishop. This profession of faith is made to the bishop himself or, if he be absent, to the vicar-general or another delegated for this purpose. The profession of faith must be made in presence of the chapter, otherwise the new canon may be deprived of possession and the prebendal fruits and daily distributions.


The Council of Trent says (Sess. XXIII, XXIV) that since the dignitaries of the cathedral were instituted to preserve and increase ecclesiastical discipline it is necessary that those who are appointed should excel in piety and be an example to others; likewise, as they are to assist the bishop in his office and work, only those should be appointed who are able to fulfil the canonical duties. The requisite qualifications are: legitimate birth, proper age, Sacred orders, fitting education, skill in Gregorian chant, known good character and repute. Moreover the council lays down that without these qualifications the appointment is of no effect. Before the candidate is admitted to his canonry not only the one who appoints but also the chapter has the right to examine and inquire whether the necessary qualities are present in the candidate.


The canon as a member of the chapter owes the bishop reverence in three ways: by conceding him the first place; by giving him assistance; by affording him escort. Conceding the bishop the first place has reference to chapter choir-processions and other public acts. The bishop also has the right to the assistance of two canons in the government of his diocese, and all canons are bound to be present when he celebrates pontifically in the cathedral church ; on such occasions they must meet him at an appointed place, not, however, more than 160 yards from the church; and after the service they must conduct him to the church door. The obligation of a canon with regard to choir service consists in the public recitation of the Divine Office and being present at the Chapter Masses unless legitimately excused. There is the further obligation of residence by which no canon may be absent from his choir duties for more than three months in any year. As mentioned above, the canon must make his profession of faith within two months of his appointment; he is likewise bound, and may be compelled by penalties, to attend the regular meetings of the chapter, and, finally, he must attend the Advent and Lenten sermons under penalty of losing his distributions or that portion of his revenues dependent on his personal presence at the church offices.


The rights of the canons independently of the bishops are mainly concerned with matters that have reference to the administration of the chapter itself, e.g., the way in which the daily stipend is to be distributed; the order in which the canons are to be summoned to choir and chapter, etc., but they can do nothing to the disadvantage of the cathedral church or in contravention of ancient customs without the consent of the bishop. They could not, e.g., allow a canon more than three months' non-residence, or exercise ownership over the property of the cathedral, or receive foundation Masses. There are, however, some things which, according to the canon law, the bishop cannot do without the consent of the chapter, and other things which he cannot do without the counsel of the canons. Consent means the approval by the major et sanior pars (a majority, provided it be made up of the more prudent members). Counsel means consultation with the chapter before action, to prevent precipitation on the part of the bishop. When this consultation is necessary (i.e. provided for by the law ), the act would be invalid without it, but the bishop is not bound to follow the counsel of the chapter. The consent of the chapter is required in the following cases: for the alienation of immovable property of value belonging to the cathedral, the chapter, or the mensa of the bishop, i.e. his endowment ; for conferring benefices the collation of which belongs to the bishop and chapter conjointly; for the suppression of canonries and the uniting of simple benefices on account of the smallness of the prebends ; for uniting benefices for any other reason ; for the increase or decrease of the number of the canons; for any proceedings seriously prejudicial to the canons or their successors; for the ordering of a special feast ; for the surrogation of examiners or similar officers outside the time of synod. The counsel of the canons is required: when the bishop has to make pecuniary provision out of the income of the diocese in order to provide lectures in Scripture, theology, or grammar for the clergy ; for dividing the prebends of the canons into subdiaconal, diaconal, and sacerdotal prebends ; for decreeing processions ; in making synodal decrees. It may be noted that lawful custom makes the bishop independent of the advice of his canons in the matter of synodal decrees ( Ferraris, Bibl. Prompta, s. v. Capitulum., art. 2, n. 9). The special rights of canons are chiefly concerned with the government of the diocese on the death or translation of the bishop. As soon as the see becomes vacant all the ordinary episcopal jurisdiction passes to the chapter, and also all that by custom belongs to the bishop. The real privileges belong to the canons, but not the personal privileges. They also succeed to those powers which have been perpetually delegated. If the chapter be reduced to one, that one can elect a vicar capitular ; but he cannot elect himself. While the see is vacant the canons cannot make any innovations, but within eight days of the vacancy they must meet for the purpose of electing one who is to rule the diocese in the name of the chapter. The election is secret and a bare majority suffices.


Canons when present in choir for the Divine Office must wear the canonical dress. The choir or canonical dress consists of a black cassock (without train) and the cotta or surplice. Additional articles of dress, e.g. the cappa or hooded cape and a cassock of different colour, e.g. purple, are not to be worn unless specially granted by the Holy See. If the canon be a bishop he should wear the rochet and mantelletta over his purple cassock. Special privileges of dress have been granted to many chapters by the Holy See either when the chapter was erected or afterwards by particular indult. In all cases the terms of the indult must be carefully observed. It is to be noted that canons are never allowed to wear over the cassock the rochet only. Generally speaking, the canonical dress may be worn at functions for which the surplice is not prescribed, but only in the cathedral church or when in another church the canons are present as a body ( capitulariter ), three canons being sufficient to represent the chapter in this way. Consequently the canons may not wear the choral dress in a diocese other than their own, nor may an individual canon wear his habit in a church which he is serving either permanently or for a time. The pileolus (skull cap) and biretta are not, strictly speaking, part of choir dress.


If, as in many instances is the case, the prebends are distinct, the order of precedence is: dignitaries, canons of sacerdotal order, canons of diaconal order, and canons of subdiaconal order. The dignitaries take precedence among themselves according to statutes or well-established custom. If the remainder of the prebends are all of the sacerdotal order and all the holders are priests, they take precedence according to priority of taking possession of their canonries. The offices of canon theologian, canon penitentiary, etc., do not entitle the holders to any precedence. The precedence given to a vicar- general, if a canon, only belongs to him when wearing the dress proper to his office.


The following is a summary of the legislation of the synods of Westminster. The chapter consists of ten canons and one dignitary who is called the provost. (In some dioceses the number of canons has been increased.) A canon theologian and a canon penitentiary must be appointed, by concursus, for each chapter, but there is no distinction into sacerdotal, diaconal, and subdiaconal canons. The pope appoints the provost, and he also nominates to canonries becoming vacant in January and the alternate months of the year. In February and the other alternate months the appointments belong in turn to the bishop and the chapter. The canons do not actually make the appointment, but they send in to the bishop a list of three names and the bishop may choose one of three. By a recent decree of Propaganda (2 April, 1903) three honorary canons are allowed to each diocese, and in certain dioceses special indults have been granted with regard to the choir dress and the times when it may be worn. The canons meet once a month, and their choir obligations are limited to a portion of the Office on the day of meeting. Regarding the election to a vacant bishopric, the canons in England have only the right to make a recommendation of three candidates whom they deem to be suitable (cf. decrees of Cong. of Propaganda, 5 Apr., 1851; 21 Apr. 1852; 21 Jan., 1855, and "Collect. S. Cong. de Prop. Fide", Rome, 1906). In Ireland, as in Scotland and other countries where the law of the Church is not in full vigour, the powers and duties of canons are much restricted, in fact their status is mainly honorific, although in some isolated dioceses a near approach is made to the legislation which governs canons in England. For the status of canons in the ecclesiastical province of Quebec, see Gignac, "Compendium juris. eccl. ad usum cleri Canadensis" (Quebec, 1901), De Personis, Nos. 493-94.

In addition to the special members of a chapter already mentioned there are usually appointed the following, in order to secure well-ordered services: precentor, sacristan, cancellor, succentor, punctator, hebdomadarian. All these are not necessarily included in every chapter; the actual arrangement is a matter for local convenience and custom. (See C HAPTER , V ICAR C APITULAR , C ANONS AND C ANONESSES R EGULAR .)

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