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Canonical Acts

Canonical records, decrees, reports, certificates, etc.

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Acts, CANONICAL.—According to the old Roman jurisprudence, acts are the registers (acta) in which were recorded the official documents, the decisions and sentences of the judges. Acts designate in law whatever serves to prove or justify a thing. Records, decrees, reports, certificates, etc. are called acts. Canonical acts derive their name from connection with ecclesiastical procedure. Acts may be public or private, civil or ecclesiastical.

Public acts are those certified by a public notary or other person holding a public office or position. These acts may be judicial, or a part of court procedure, or voluntary. In contentious trials to secure justice, the acts should be judicial; extrajudicial acts are not contentious but voluntary. Both civil and canon law recognize as public acts those that occur before witnesses, if these acknowledge them before the court, otherwise they are private. Public acts include any action taken by the judge, the authorities he may quote, the proceedings in the court, documents drawn from the public archives. An original document of a community, bishop, or public officer, with the official seal, or a copy of these sent by these persons with due authentication, is a public act. Public acts are determinative against anyone, though at times they may not impose personal obligation on those not participating in them. In old public acts, the presumption is in favor of their being rightly done; to upset their value, the burden of proof is upon him who attacks them or argues that they were not executed with due formalities. Ecclesiastically, an exception is made for alienation of Church property, where, for the validity of a deed, a further requisite may be exacted, such as a clear proof of the authorization of a bishop, or the consent of the chapter. For these presumption does not suffice.

Private acts are those of one or more individuals; they tell against those who executed them, not against absent parties not participating in them. While public acts have force from the day of their date, private acts, whose date is not authenticated, have force only from the day of their public registry. When authenticated, fraud alone can upset them. If the authenticating official overstepped his competency, the act would only be a private act, but yet of private value, unless the law requires for its validity the authentication of an official. Thus, a deed transferring real estate, even signed by the parties, becomes valid for public purposes when authenticated by the official designated by law, though the private agreement may be a basis for redress.

It is not easy to draw precise limits between civil and ecclesiastical acts. While civil acts are mainly of the laity, about secular things, and ecclesiastical acts mainly of ecclesiastics, in connection with spiritual things, yet both easily overlap each other. Acts are civil or ecclesiastical by their relations with the State or the Church, by their emanation from either, by touching upon matters belonging to either, or by affecting the dealings of persons with either. The same individuals are subject to both authorities. Thus ecclesiastics do not cease to be citizens, and all Christian citizens are subject to the authority of the Church as well as of the State. Many things, even linked with spiritual affairs, do not lose their natural character of temporalities. Many acts passing between ecclesiastics are purely civil. An ecclesiastic, though a minister of the Church, is also a citizen; his actions as a citizen are purely civil; those emanating from him as a clergyman are ecclesiastical. If the acts are such as could be properly performed by a layman, they would belong to the civil order; if their performance required the clerical state, they are ecclesiastical. Yet a layman’s spiritual duties and exercises are ecclesiastical, coming under the authority of the Church; an ecclesiastic’s money matters come under the authority of the State as far as those of other citizens. This is the basis of the distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical forum. The Church by divine right has inalienable control of strictly spiritual things; the State of strictly temporal things. By the goodwill of peoples and governments the Church obtained many privileges for its forum, respecting the temporalities of ecclesiastics, and even of the laity in matters connected with spiritual things. In other matters assigned to her by Divine Law she cannot yield her authority, though for peace’ sake she may tolerate aggressions upon it. She may yield (and in concordats and in other ways does yield) those privileges which had for centuries become part of her forum.

Acts also designate certain general formalities for the validity of documents, often essential requisites, such as the date, the signature, the qualifications of persons, the accurate names of witnesses, and other similar conditions which may be demanded by civil or ecclesiastical laws or by the custom of a country.—Acts of a council are the definitions of faith, decrees, canons, and official declarations of the council, whose sphere of action is more or less extended according as it is Ecumenical, national, provincial, etc.—Acts of the Martyrs are the documents, narrations, and testimonies of the arrest, interrogatories, answers, torments, and heroic deaths of the Christians who sealed their faith by the shedding of their blood in the times of persecution. The documents of the Congregation of Rites connected with the beatification and canonization of saints are designated as Acts of the Saints. This is also the title given by the Bollandists to their monumental account of the lives of the saints (Acta Sanctorum). Acts-Capitular are the official discussions of the assembled members of the chapter, the name given to the canons of the cathedral who form a corporation established to aid the bishop in the government of the diocese, and to supply his place when the see is vacant.


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