May 8, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 18
Law & Order
By Howie Mansfield
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Society needs laws. Laws provide order in neighborhoods and communities. Even the Catholic Church has its own legal system that gives structure to nearly all aspects of church life. The canon law system, like criminal and civil law in secular society, can be complex.
The first Code of Canon Law incorporated many of the rules of the church from its beginnings. Before the codification was undertaken, church laws took many forms. Not until the beginning of the 20th century did the church begin to work on a body of law that would provide legal authority for its administration. During the pontificate of Pope Pius X in 1903, the initial codification was started. The first Code of Canon Law (Codex Juris Canonici in Latin,) was promulgated by Pope Benedict XV in 1917. The first Code contained 2,414 canons, or rules, of the church and it was divided into five books. These canons explain the proper methods for the training of priests, give an outline of the rights and obligations of the laity as well as describe the correct procedures for the celebration of the sacraments.
The current Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983 by Pope John Paul II, is divided into seven books that consist of 1,752 canons. This revision included the modifications of the law from the Second Vatican Council. “There are other aspects to canon law than the judicial process. The code is bigger — it helps coordinate the life of the diocese,” said Father Michael Minehan, JCL, diocesan chancellor and pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in LaFayette. “The code is meant to give a focus or direction.” Book I of the Code of Canon Law encompasses the general norms and administrative rules. Book II is entitled “The People of God” because it outlines all the rights, obligations and responsibilities for priests, deacons, lay people and other church hierarchy. Book III takes a deeper look at the roles and activities within church life, including scripture. Rules for Catholic schools and catechetical formation are included in this book. The sacraments of the church, sacred times and places, and the Liturgy of the Hours are discussed in Book IV. Acquisition and administration of temporal goods of the church is explained in Book V. Sanctions, penal law and penalties are given in Book VI. Book VII is about all processes, including the function of the diocesan tribunal, and how annulment cases are handled.
Father Minehan said the church needs the code because “it harmonizes life of the wider church community.” The Code of Canon Law allows for the church to “achieve the mission given to it by Christ,” he said. Many people don’t even realize they are violating canon law through sacramental disciplines. The church must be in conformity with the rules and regulations of the church, or face being divided by locality or region, he noted. Father Minehan is a member of the diocesan tribunal, the office that handles matters related to canon law. The majority of the work the tribunal handles relates to the sacrament of marriage. “The work done here is a specialized area of the whole body of canon law. I would say about 99.5 percent of the work done in this office has something to do with marriage,” said Father Timothy Elmer, JCL, judicial vicar for the diocesan tribunal. “Some people are looking for an annulment, others want to be remarried in a non-Catholic church and are looking for dispensation.”
Father Elmer explained that in the early 1970’s the tribunal took on an active role. “Before 1971-72, it was difficult to procure an annulment because the canonical grounds were limited. After that time, the conditions changed and the office accepted more petitions. There was a surge of annulment petitions and we could barely handle them. We don’t just accept any petition, but we do have limited resources.” Each diocesan tribunal has a number of roles for marriage cases. The judicial vicar acts on behalf of the bishop on the tribunal, helping with cases and administrating the tribunal office. The judges on the tribunal make decisions about cases and offer advice to people on canon law. All judges must have a degree in canon law, but they don’t have to be clergy, Father Minehan said. Advocates are similar to attorneys in civil and criminal law, providing the canonical argument in cases. The defender of the bond points to material that upholds the validity of a marriage. The promoter of justice offers guidance to the court when there are violations of the law. Notaries attest to the authenticity of the documents in the case and the auditors collect testimony on behalf of the court. “The tribunal courts have their roots in Roman law. The judge is charged with finding out the truth and asking questions. The judge gets to the root of what is the reality,” Father Minehan said. “Most of the time, the judges are looking at written depositions and occasionally will hear verbal arguments.”
Father Minehan explained how annulment cases work. The advocates bring the cases forward from the petitioners to the judges. The judges look at all of the evidence and supporting information to determine if there are grounds for an annulment. “In many diocese, the case is initially tried by a single judge first and then reviewed by three other judges on the tribunal,” said Father Minehan. “In Syracuse, we have our judges make a decision on the diocesan level first and the case is then reviewed on the state level.” Father Elmer said the annulment process is difficult because of how the church views marriage. “The reason we have this process is that it’s the theological and legal position of the church that marriage is a perpetual institution. The bond that is created cannot be broken,” said Father Elmer.
The Code of Canon Law gives good explanation as to why the marriage bond is strong. Canon 1141 states “marriage which is ratified and consummated cannot be dissolved by any human power or by any causes other than death.” Canon 1142 explains that “a non-consummated marriage between baptized persons or between a baptized party and an unapprised party can be dissolved by the Roman Pontiff for a just reason, at the request of both parties or of either party, even if the other is unwilling.” In addition to marriage annulments and special dispensations, the tribunal has other capacities. “Beside annulments, we handle laicizations — when a priest or deacon doesn’t want to continue functioning in their holy orders. These are rare because of the strength of the bond of ordination,” Father Elmer said. “We usually prepare the case at the diocesan level and then it goes to Rome [Italy.]”
The tribunal could hear other cases where canon law is violated, but Father Minehan said these cases are almost non-existent. Bishop James Moynihan, JCD, is the only individual in the diocese with a doctorate in canon law. Although having a canon law degree is not a requirement to become a bishop, the knowledge is very helpful for administration. “Being a doctor of canon law has a practical advantage. The bishop has a special sense of the church’s law and he is better able to apply them to situations,” said Father Minehan.
Recently, Bishop Moynihan asked Father Clifford Auth to consider becoming a canon lawyer for the diocese. Father Auth accepted and will be attending graduate studies this summer. Bishop Moynihan said Father Auth is a great candidate. “I think a lot of Father Auth and many people in the diocese think a lot of him. He wants to spend his life caring for the people of this diocese,” Bishop Moynihan said. “Father Auth is a great parish priest and I’m sure he’ll do very well as a canon lawyer. We need people like him to succeed people like Father Minehan and Father Elmer in this ministry.” Father Auth said he took some time to think about this important moment in his priesthood. “As I listened to the bishop speak about this new possibility, I knew that in order to give proper justice to the decision, it would be necessary to take time to talk and pray about it with my spiritual director, my family, and my pastor, [Father] Tom Ryan,” Father Auth said. “Bishop Moynihan was great in that regard. He gave me all the time I needed to make the right decision.” Now, Father Auth is excited to attend classes and prepare for the future, but will still miss the parish atmosphere. “First, I am really honored that Bishop Moynihan would consider me for this opportunity,” said Father Auth. “In addition, however, I know too that the transition of leaving St. James Parish will be a challenging one. St. James has been my home since ordination and in many ways the people and experiences here and in the Southern Tier have helped form me in my priesthood. Words cannot express how grateful I am for their support and how their faith emboldens my own. I would love to have an occasion to be stationed again here in the Southern Tier and possibly at St. James.”
Father Minehan said the priest Bishop Moynihan selects to be a canon lawyer must have certain qualities. “He must be bright enough to handle the course load, which includes learning Latin. The priest should have pastoral sensitivity and have a demonstrated love for the church,” explained Father Minehan. Serving on the tribunal has been quite rewarding, Father Elmer said. “There’s a certain intellectual stimulation you get from continuing to learn and put the knowledge you have to work. But there is the satisfaction of helping people to be returned to full status in the church,” noted Father Elmer. “Everyone should experience the fullness and goodness the church has to offer and not be inhibited.”
Canon law is not the only source of rules for the church, but it provides an important foundation from which all church decisions are made. “The law is always developing, but this is the infrastructure of the church. The law might vary from country to country, but much is the same,” Father Elmer said. “The church needs canon law to guide it through time and place. It gives direction and protection for the lay people. It provides the integrity of the church’s sacramental system. It affords each person access to the church.”