See you in court: more Catholics seek justice through canon law

It’s an interesting development that may be having a profound impact on how lay people think of the Church.

From the AP:

In recent years, clergy and lay people in the United States have increasingly turned to the church’s internal legal system to challenge a bishop’s or pastor’s decision about even the most workaday issues in Catholic life, according to canon lawyers in academia, dioceses and in private practice. Sometimes, the challengers even win.

In one example cited by veteran canon lawyers, parishioners wanted to bar musical performances in their church that weren’t liturgical. Their priest had been renting space to a local band. In another case, a nun filed a petition after a religious superior disclosed the nun’s medical information to others – a potential violation of privacy. Regarding bishops’ often contentious decisions to close parishes, the liberal reform group FutureChurch posts a guide on its website called “Canonical Appeals for Dummies” on seeking Vatican intervention to stay open.

The reasons for the uptick are complex and reach back decades, involving changes in the church and broader society. Canon lawyers say the American concern for individual freedoms likely has played a role. So has the explosion of information on the Internet. But the change is also an unexpected consequence of the clergy molestation crisis, with the scandal exerting an influence far beyond cases that directly involve abusers.

“The focus on canon law and penal procedures in the case of sexual misconduct has made people aware that the church has a law system, it can work and people can take advantage of it,” said Michael Ritty, founder of Canon Law Professionals, a private practice in Feura Bush, N.Y. “For so long, especially in the United States, many of the lay people did not speak up and did not know how to speak up, and many people in the hierarchy did not know how to accept things when people did speak up. I think that is changing.”

No one knows the exact number of formal petitions before tribunals or agencies at the Vatican, or before church officials in the U.S. or in any country. The cases are guarded by pontifical secrecy, which bars advocates, judges and other parties from revealing details of the proceedings.

Still, U.S. canon lawyers say they have seen more widespread use of church law to resolve disputes.

Read more.


  1. naturgesetz says:

    That’s how it should be, if people feel aggrieved by a pastor’s decision or a bishop’s which they think violates canon law.

  2. Deacon Bob Fargo says:

    I think that there is a lot more than just the the abuse of children that is in operation here. Vatican II opened the Church to the world and to Catholic laity. That was a profound movement of the Holy Spirit that caused the council to declare, “these faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical and kingly functions of Christ and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.” Making use of church law to resolve disputes is a way to make concerns known because the laity are still not adequately represented in Church governing structures.

  3. I agree with Deacon Fargo; this also comments on another post in this blog about bishops and the respect or lack of respect they get. VII opened the doors the laity and encourages active participation. When this happened the former kingly, absolutist mode of governing of the episcopate went out the door. Now bishops have to contend with an informed (well not always that informed), participating, active laity that do claim a better representation and active role. Good or bad, well it depends on your point of view, but bishops need to adapt to the new paradigm. When dissenters from the left were out of power they assailed the episcopate; now that they are in power they defend the episcopate leadership. The New Code of Canon Law of 1983 does give the laity a “bill of rights” if you will, while maintaining the supremacy of the bishop, but this had to create a power conflict that we are seeing now. That is my opinion of course.

  4. Hmmm. There was more (considerably more) to my interview here than made it into print. That happens, of course. Maybe I’ll think about some of those other points I made (which might head-off some misunderstandings of this issue), whetehr they might be worth posting elsewhere.

  5. In the old days, there was a lot of this stuff that got resolved through the back door: Mrs. O’Grady would never have dreamed of appealing some decision herself, but Mrs. O’Grady’s neighbor might have a son who was a priest who had a friend who had a friend in the chancellery, who would have a talk with the pastor.

    Then the system broke up, for most Americans. Mrs. O’Grady’s granddaughter didn’t live in the old neighborhood, didn’t know anybody who had a priest in the family, and didn’t even know there were chancelleries or what they did. So the pastor or the liturgy commission did whatever they wanted, as long as nobody got arrested.

    The Internet has given American Catholics a neighborhood again, and a back fence for consultation with the more knowledgeable neighbors, and a library to check facts, and a way to ask priests and canon lawyers their questions — all without as much social worry for the easily intimidated. So now people are taking advantage of what they’ve gotten back, and more.

Leave a Comment