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PhD Project | Max Planck Research Group

The Dominion Over the Interpretation of the Law

An Analysis of the Concept of “Authentic” Interpretation in the Fields of Canon Law and French Law, between the 16th and the 17th Centuries

The aim of this research consists in analysing the concept of authentic interpretation of the law with a particular focus on the post-Tridentine canonistic experience, in relation to the activity of the Congregation of the Council in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As a part of the Max-Planck Research group project “Governance of the Universal Church after the Council of Trent: Papal Administrative Concepts and Practices as exemplified by the Congregation of the Council between the Early Modern Period and the Present,” the study intends to develop an analysis of the congregation’s activity, focusing on its juridical aspects while also taking into account the historical features that are fundamental to the contextualization of the topic.

In 529, Justinian issued the idea of authentic interpretation of the law, or rather an interpretation conferred to the legislative authority, in a definitive way. The Emperor showed a remarkable willingness to keep control over the reorganization and the normative drafting that he himself imposed with the famous words “Imperator cui soli concessum est legem condere et interpretari” (C.J. 1.14.12). This statement was the result of a long evolutionary process that lasted throughout the  Late Empire and that aimed at removing from the prudentes and the judges’ the authority to analyse laws, to adapt them to concrete circumstances and, sometimes, to create new laws. The prohibition imposed by Justinian represented, during the following centuries, a perfect inspiration for all those sovereigns who wanted to reserve the authority of interpreting new laws to themselves. Here one can mention the Ordonnance pour la réformation des mæurs dans le Languedoc et le Languedoil (1254) and of the Ley de las Siete Partidas (1265).

Canon law was not completely untouched by Justinian’s provision. After the last session of the Council of Trent, Pius IV approved all the conciliar decrees and reserved to himself every decision about the interpretation and execution of the law with the Bulla Benedictus Deus (published on the 30th of June 1564). Little more than a month later, on the 2nd of August 1564, Pius IV himself assigned the task to provide for the execution of the Tridentine decrees to a congregation of cardinals: this was the Congregation of the Council, but the authority of an authentic interpretation was still reserved to the Pope. With the reform of the Roman Curia under Sixtus V, defined by the Bulla Immensa aeterni Dei of the 22nd of January 1588, the Congregation of the Council inherited the responsibility of giving an authentic interpretation of the Tridentine decrees.

The research on the Congregation of the Council will aim at the comprehension of the real role covered by this authority in the fulfilment of the Counter-Reformation process and it will be developed through an in depth examination of the archival collections of the Congregation itself, related to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and still preserved in the Vatican Secret Archive.

In order to offer a potentially new research perspective, the activity of the Congregation of the Council will be compared with another juridical experience, concerning the relationship between the authority and the interpretation of the law, the Ordonnance Civile of 1667. This normative body was ordered by the King Luis XIV for the reformation of the ordo iudicarius in the French Kingdom. This text included an article (art.7, tit. I) forbidding anyone to interpret the statues of the Ordonnance, and conferring to the king the power to solve doubts occurring in relation to these statutes; this prohibition, however, was essentially not enforced. Concerning this last aspect, the goal of the research project will be to analyse these two different juridical experiences, trying to understand if it is possible to observe any kind of influence of  canon law on French law, despite all the conflicts between France and the papacy after the Council of Trent. In conclusion, the project provides the opportunity to understand the different causes behind the success of the activity of the Congregation of the Council, for more than four centuries, and the causes behind the failure of the art.7, tit. I of the Ordonnance Civile.

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