|Understanding Canon Law
Jan. 19, 2003
The church conducts trials?
By Father Daniel Smilanic
Throughout history, the church has had to bring peace and justice out of disagreements, confusing situations and unacceptable behavior.
Although divine in origin, the church is human in makeup, and human beings are subject to disputes, such as over the validity of a marriage or a need to deal with a crime.
The church has used different ways to answer a question, to achieve justice and to bring peace. When the church was small and everyone knew everyone else, the bishop or his representative would work out a solution. But as the church grew larger and issues became more complex, it developed the structure of a trial to uncover the truth, protect the community, determine the fairest solution and, where necessary, impose a penalty.
A trial has the advantage of clarifying the issue and giving each side an opportunity to speak.
For example, if several groups have laid claim to the same piece of property, the issue can be emotional and confusing. If the case involved a Catholic family, the bishop of a diocese and an order of nunsas a case did not many years agoit might be brought for solution to a church court known as a tribunal.
Though this particular case took place in Italy, the churchand the processis universal.
First, the judges of the tribunalcalled the Rotadetermined what was to be decided. It was not a matter of who had more clout, but rather who actually owned the property. The case required that the Rota consider not only church lawcanon lawbut also civil law.
Then each side had an opportunity to tell their version of the facts. Each was represented by a canon lawyer called an advocate. The judges finally determined that the family, and not the order of nuns or even the bishop, was truly the owner.
Its not only property that can be at issue, however, but also marriage.
An annulmenta determination that a sacramental marriage did not take placeis the result of a trial. It may seem odd to invoke a word trial to determine what was going on when a couple said I do, but there are advantages. It also might be called a discovery because the trial attempts to discover what was happening when the vows were exchanged.
Even more than with a disagreement over property ownership, in an annulment trial there can be strong words and confusing circumstances. But a trial makes it possible to understand the facts.
During the process, both the ex-husband and the ex-wife can describe what happened, and the judge also can seek information. A trial guarantees that each person can know what the other has said and brings in an outsider who favors only the Sacrament of Matrimony to make an objective decision based on the evidence and the arguments that have been presented.
When a tribunal considers a criminal action, a trial is a means to discover the truth. If a crime is proven, a trial is a way to direct punishment and work for a change of behavior. Civil society uses trials to deal with crimes, however the churchs moral obligation is to the community, the victim and the perpetrator.
Civil actions seeks that justice which results from the fair punishment for proven crimes and deters further crime. The church works for justice not only in answer to a crime, but as a virtue of the believing people of God.
One of the basic purposes of penalties in canon law is to reform the behavior of the perpetrator. The church trial is usually conducted after the legal work of the public criminal authorities is done. It is not in conflict with the criminal law but rather addresses the internal consequences that a crime has brought upon the believing community, as individuals and as a whole. Evidence used in a criminal trial may be used in a trial conducted later by the church.
Because canon law is based on European Continental Law rather than English Common Law, the way in which a church trial is conducted is different from trials in American courts. For example, rather than a jury, it is a group of several judges who make the decision.
The trial begins with a petition asking for something, be it a right to property, an annulment of a marriage or a penalty for a crime. As do civil trials, church trials value and protect due process, the right of defense, the well-being of the community and the good of the individuals involved.
These days, a tribunal is staffed by the laity as well as by priests and religious. This involvement of laity has occurred because often because their particular expertise is needed to deal with the problems that the trial is deciding.
Smilanic is a adjutant judicial vicar for the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Understanding Canon Law:
Feb. 16 Defining authority and structure in the church
Feb. 2 A trial for a crime in the courts of the church
Jan. 19 The church conducts trials?
Jan. 5 Sacraments and the rights of the faithful
Dec. 22 The churchs listing of rights and duties for everyone
Dec. 8 Guiding the gifts of the Spirit