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Archives in Church Law Print E-mail

The revised Code of Canon Law (1983) contains numerous sections pertaining to church archives. Some of these are summarized below:

  • Canon 482 states that the Chancellor is responsible for the diocesan archives.
  • Canon 486 suggests the need for a diocesan archives facility – a place in which documents relating to spiritual and temporal matters can be described, organized and maintained in a secure location.
  • Canon 487 requires that the bishop and chancellor keep the archives locked and their permission is necessary for anyone to gain admission. However, information contained within the archives should be made accessible to interested parties.
  • Canon 488 discourages removing items from the archives; if this is done it should only be temporarily and with the permission of the bishop or the curia and chancellor.
  • Canon 489 states that there is to be an additional well protected, secure secret archive. “Criminal cases in the matters of morals” may be destroyed after the criminal’s death or ten years after the sentencing. Summary information about the case must be kept.
  • Canon 490 states, “Only the bishop may have the key to the secret archive.” It may be opened in cases of “true necessity” by the diocesan administrator in the bishop’s absence. The contents of the secret archive are to remain intact.
  • Canon 491 broadens the aforementioned responsibilities of the bishop to the preservation of diocesan parish records. Guides to these collections should be reproduced in duplicate copies, one for the parish and one for the diocesan archives. The necessity of organizing and preserving historical records is also noted.


In 1997 a Circular Letter was published by the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church entitled, The Pastoral Function of Church Archives. This 45-page document reinforces the basic points of Canon Law provisions for church archives and the commitment to archives expressed by the Popes, past and present. It acknowledges the growing interest throughout the world in archives and offers strong support to diocesan efforts in preserving historical records. The Letter explains the importance of preserving these records and how to go about doing so, ideally according to Canon Law and standards of archival practice. It explores the value of archives to outside entities, including researchers. The employment of a professional educated in archival science, and the value of his or her continued training and membership in professional organizations is also emphasized.

The responsibilities of the President of this pontifical commission, Archbishop Francesco Marchisano, include meeting with the world-wide caretakers of Roman Catholic archives, libraries, architecture, artworks, and music.  In July 1998 he was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Association of Catholic Diocesan Archivists and spoke with many of our country’s diocesan/archdiocesan recordkeepers, including Jean Walsh, the Diocesan Archivist for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

For further information on diocesan archives:

  • O’Toole, James. Basic Standards for Diocesan Archives: A Guide for Bishops, Chancellors, and Archivist. Association of Catholic Diocesan Archivists, 1991.
  • The Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church. The Pastoral Function of Church Archives. Vatican City, 1997.
  • The U.S. Catholic Historian. Published by Our Sunday Visitor. Volume 16, No. 1, Winter 1998. This issue of the journal features a collection of essays pertaining to diocesan/archdiocesan archives.
  • Websites of other dioceses and archdioceses.
  • The Vatican website. Use the keywords: Vatican: The Holy See.
  • Contact the Association of Catholic Diocesan Archivists.