religious court 4134

Religious Court

April 29, 2021
Ecclesiastical Courts

Ecclesiastical Courts, tribunals exercising jurisdiction in religious matters. In its broadest sense, the term ecclesiastical court is applied to any former or existing tribunal established by religious authority. In a more restricted sense, it is applied only to the tribunals of the Christian church, which are also sometimes called Courts Christian and are now found in the Roman Catholic church and in many Protestant churches, as well as in the Church of England and other Anglican churches. Included are the bodies established by some United States Protestant denominations to legislate with respect to church policy and administration and to exercise church discipline.


Ecclesiastical courts originated among the early Christians in Rome before the adoption of Christianity by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in the 4th century. The Christians, as a persecuted sect, had no access to the Roman courts; Roman courts, moreover, were pagan and were proscribed by Christian leaders on religious and moral grounds. The Christians therefore needed their own courts, which were simple tribunals, the chief function of which was to arbitrate disputes among church members, with bishops acting as the arbitrators.

After Christianity became the state religion of Rome, the ecclesiastical courts were incorporated into the Roman judicial system. The Christian church developed on a pontifical and hierarchical basis, and its powers grew; the simple courts of primitive Christianity underwent a corresponding development. In time they became part of a complex system exercising jurisdiction delegated by the pope in his capacity as the supreme judicial power in the Christian church. Then, as the secular power of Rome declined and its institutions decayed, the ecclesiastical courts began to assume jurisdiction in secular affairs.


In the Middle Ages, the church reached the zenith of its power: It became a world state, the popes became temporal potentates, and canon law and the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts were extended to embrace virtually the entire range of human relationships. Extension of the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts was facilitated by the dual character of the princes of the church as functioning ecclesiastics—that is, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and popes—and as powerful landowners and temporal rulers. When courts established by secular authority resisted the incursions of the ecclesiastical courts into their jurisdictions, the ecclesiastical courts fought persistently for supremacy. The protracted struggle that ensued shaped much of the legal history of the latter Middle Ages. Beginning in the 13th century, the great judicial power of the church was manifested especially through the tribunal commonly called the Holy Office, created to ferret out and punish heresy (see Inquisition).


The Reformation was a basic cause of the decline of the ecclesiastical courts. Other causes included the rise of representative government, the separation of judicial from executive and legislative powers of government, and the separation of church and state. Gradually the power and jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts were reduced to their present limits.

A remnant of the former extensive jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts survives in the three papal tribunals—the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary, Apostolic Signatura, and Sacred Roman Rota—which constitute the judicial branch of the Roman Curia. In the United Kingdom, which has an established church, the ecclesiastical courts derive their authority nominally from the Crown; the principal tribunals are called Archdeacon’s Court, Bishop’s or Consistory Court, Chancery Court of York, Court of Arches, and Final Appeal Court, the last named comprising the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In the Protestant sections of Germany and in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and other countries where Protestantism is nonepiscopal, ecclesiastical courts have virtually ceased to exist.

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