A Broken System?

The case of the “Kennedy annulment” came up in class one day during my first year of canon law studies, and it started quite an extensive conversation. However, no one present had read the book written by the respondent in the case, so I took it upon myself to tackle it. I am so very glad I did.

The book in question is Shattered Faith by Sheila Rauch Kennedy (New York, Pantheon Books, 1997). It was fascinating reading this book at the beginning of a career processing cases of nullity just like the cases that Kennedy grapples with in her book. I have approached this specific line of work, indeed feel called to it, precisely because I first came to see it as (at its best) a ministry of healing and reconciliation of persons with the Catholic Church. While my understanding of marriage nullity investigations has necessarily become much more complex in recent years, that sense of ministry perdures.

It would be easy (if uncharitable) to pooh-pooh the several technical inaccuracies Kennedy makes throughout the book, but I had to remind myself that I was reading as an insider, from within the very circle of trained expertise which she is trying so valiantly to understand from the outside. Considering the approach she took, based on the sources she had available to her, I think it is very much to her credit that she was able to uncover as clear a picture of the so-called annulment process as she did.

Kennedy takes the occasion of fighting her own fight to cast her net wider, to make hers not just a personal narrative but a work of research, albeit not in a scientific sense. She recounts the experiences of other women who have been the unwilling respondents in marriage nullity cases, and in telling her tale she is able to extend her narrative, and the import of her message, by weaving in the stories of others to build her case. Her thesis, of course, is that the ‘annulment machine’ in the American Catholic Church is out of control, and she is hardly the first person, inside the Church or out, to have made this claim: Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were quite clear in their repeated expressions of that same opinion.

Another thing, small perhaps, but noticeable, is how carefully she avoids flopping the Kennedy name and family history around between the covers of this book. She writes from an assumption that readers will know who her former husband is, and largely leaves it at that, which I thought was a good way to go about it, even though I was reading this long after this was a news item, and so sometimes wished for a little more detail, but almost always for my own sense of historical-biographical context, not because it was anything truly germane to the plot of the book.

I still absolutely believe that the work I am doing in the Church is worth doing, but this book broadened my perspective on the process and the impact — sometimes devastating — it can have on the lives of those involved. There are two parties to every marriage, and often children besides, and while the spouse bringing the petition for a declaration of nullity clearly wants to move on with his or her life and leave that relationship behind, that feeling may very well not be shared by the other party. So for me Kennedy’s story was a cautionary tale for me, and I hope it will inspire me to apply with particular care the Church’s own rules of justice, and not allow procedures to roll unquestioningly over people’s lives in the name of pastoral convenience for one of the parties.

Pope Francis has certainly expressed concern over how the current procedural structures could be made better, and how the church might do more to assist those many Catholics who have divorced and re-married. I am quite ready to admit that the processes we have are not perfect, and I would welcome careful reform in this area. As things are currently structured, however, we must bear in mind that the work of the ecclesiastical tribunal is not, ultimately, about making anyone happy. It is not about “letting people get married again” in the Church. Those may sometimes be the results. But the purpose of the process is simple: to discover the truth, and to respect both parties throughout the course of that search for truth. I pray that I and my colleagues can always keep sight of that, and that in searching for and discovering the truth, all may find they are set free.


In These Final Days

This morning at Mass I heard the celebrant utter, for the last time that I will hear, the prayer “for Benedict our Pope.” In roughly forty-eight hours the 265th Pontificate will come to a scheduled end, something barely thinkable until Benedict XVI announced his resignation a few weeks ago.

I repeatedly think back to the emotions I felt in April 2005, when the new Bishop of Rome emerged from the conclave:

Habemus papam!

How excited I was to hear those words! I held my infant son in my arms, standing excitedly before the television, watching that upper window with the rest of the world to see who would emerge as the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles. I caught myself on the verge of sobbing several times, so intense was the anticipation. And when Benedict XVI finally emerged into view I dropped to my knees in my living room, trembling with religious excitement.

And now my son is an infant no longer, in either the colloquial or the canonical sense of the word, and a new conclave will begin next month. In the years of this papacy I have gone from being a sullen seminary refugee, attending Sunday Mass each week out of a deep-rooted sense of obligation and little more, to a licensed canonist fresh out of graduate school, working full time for the Church directing two diocesan offices. Hard to imagine a much more dramatic move from fringe to core than I have traversed these past few years in the Church.

And will I drop to my knees when the next Pope is revealed? I don’t know, probably not: my knees aren’t getting any younger, and I have a lot of steps and hills to climb these days. But I will certainly be prayerfully excited, and ready to continue my journey, in the Church and with the Church, toward our shared goal of life everlasting.

What do we call a retired Pope?

There are many, many questions flying through the ether following Pope Benedict XVI’a stunning announcement that he will be resigning the Petrine Office effective 28 February 2012. And yet, as at least one of my colleagues has already pointed out, most of them are pretty trivial, maybe because most of the substantive questions are already answered for those who care. And one of the most persistent questions I see is also arguably the most trivial: the question of title. What will we call a retired Pope?

For Catholics, at least for the more traditionally-minded of our tribe, protocol and formality is a BIG deal. If you need convincing, just consider the mere existence, let alone the success, of James-Charles Noonan, Jr.’s book The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church (Viking, 1996; a revised second edition came out in 2012 from Sterling). Titles, choir dress, table setting: it’s all in there, and in some contexts it probably is important to know.

But I digress; back to the subject at hand. Dr. Ed Peters argues well that Benedict XVI will return to the status of a cardinal, albeit a superannuated one, too old to vote in future conclaves even if he wanted to (which he has already made clear he does not intend to do). This makes good sense on a practical level: cardinals enjoy a long list of universal faculties, meaning they are independent of the jurisdiction of any diocesan bishop (save that of the Bishop of Rome). As Peters correctly asks, “Could we really imagine the alternative: a former pope being subjected to the jurisdiction of someone other than the next pope?” It is a rhetorical question, for surely we cannot.

However, on 12 February 2013 the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, indicating that, while much is yet being worked out, it was certain he would not hold the title of cardinal, but might conceivably be referred to as “bishop emeritus of Rome.”

Personally, I suspect we probably won’t have much need to call him anything. All signs indicate that once the dust settles and the next Bishop of Rome is duly elected, the man who has been Benedict XVI for nearly eight years is going to step into a quiet, prayerful seclusion from which he will rarely, if ever, emerge in this life. He has carried a great burden, and we should know him well enough to realize that, if he is laying it down as he is, then he must be truly worn down indeed. He is not going to strike out on the lecture circuit or do a book tour: he is going to pray, quietly, out of public view, and prepare for his final task: eternity.

A Surprising Morning

On most weekdays I wake up well before the rest of my family, and one of the first things I do is wake up the iMac and check my news feeds in the quiet of the pre-dawn. (I really should move “pray” to the head of my morning activity list; that is something I am actively working on.) Most days this is little more than a stalling tactic before I tackle the dishes and my own ablutions. Not much has typically happened in Facebook Land between my late bedtime and my 6am rising.

But today was exceptional in almost every way. Post after post after post from my early-rising Catholic friends carried the same news: Pope Benedict XVI had just announced that he will be resigning his office as Bishop of Rome effective 28 February 2013, just a little more than two weeks hence.

Obviously my historical details were a tad off (it was pre-coffee, after all), but even so, I stand by the sentiment. This is stop the presses sort of news, and at least a few news sites and blogs have crashed under the surge of traffic this morning. Distinguished canon law expert Msgr. David-Maria Jaeger, OFM rightly refers to the details of this move as “uncharted waters”. The law of the Church, while acknowledging the possibility of such an event (canon 332 §2), makes no further provision or prescriptions for the details of such a heretofore theoretical eventuality. It will mostly take patience on all our parts to see how all of this shakes out, both canonically and (arguably more importantly) theologically; patience and faith.

Proper Titles: Church and Parish

In common parlance, the words church and parish have come to be used almost completely interchangably. This imprecise habit becomes very problematic, however, when the emotionally-charged issue of altering the configuration of parishes arises in the life of a diocese. In as few words as possible: a church is a building set aside for sacred worship; a parish is a jurisdictional division of a diocese. And each have their proper names.

According to c. 1218, “Each church is to have its own title which cannot be changed after the church has been dedicated.” This can only be taken to mean the church building: the canon is placed squarely in the midst of the title of the Code dealing with sacred places, and so has nothing to do with parishes qua parishes. However, since clarity concerning this topic has come to be of increased importance in recent years, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued norms on church titles in 1999.[1]

The options for church titles are clearly laid out in the Rite of Dedication of a Church, in a list that is undoubtedly intended to be exhaustive:

  • the Blessed Trinity; 
  • our Lord Jesus Christ invoked according to a mystery of his life or a title already accepted in liturgy; 
  • the Holy Spirit; 
  • the Blessed Virgin Mary, likewise invoked according to some appellation already accepted in the liturgy; 
  • one of the angels [or, it would seem safe to presume, all of them]; or, finally 
  • a saint inscribed in the Roman Martyrology or in a duly approved appendix.[2]

Once the church has been solemnly dedicated[3] under the chosen title, this title cannot be changed: c. 1218 is completely unambiguous about that. These norms offer the possibility of changing the title of a dedicated church, but only for grave reasons and with a specific indult from the Apostolic See.[4] It is not, however, expressly stated any example of what might be a sufficiently grave reason, nor how disposed the Congregation would be to grant such an indult.

Church Titles, Parish Titles

Do parishes have titles, too? As juridic persons, they certainly can, although in most cases such a parish title would be identical to that of the parish church; and as civil corporations they certainly need to be called something in the eyes of the civil government. There is, however, no specific provision in canon law which either requires or regulates a parish name. So if the new parish church is dedicated to Saint Peter, the parish will most naturally be called the Parish of Saint Peter. While nothing in the law seems to prevent the juridic person of the parish from having a name that does not make reference to the title of the parish church, it is certainly traditional to do so.

And what is to be done when existing parishes are merged? According to the norms from CDWDS:

When a new parish has been erected in the place of several suppressed parishes, the new parish may have its own church which, unless it is a new building, retains its proper title. Further, churches of suppressed parishes, whenever such parishes are considered “co-parishes,” retain their own proper titles.[5]

From this it seems very clear that, under ordinary circumstances, the CDWDS expects that parish churches in merged parishes will continue to have the same title with which they were dedicated. Yes, there is provision, as already mentioned, for the diocesan bishop to request an indult to change the tile for grave reasons, but from the wording of the passage just cited, the Congregation does not view the merging of parishes, in and of itself, to constitute such a grave cause. Instead, a new name for the parish may be chosen and used, while continuing to use the proper titles of the separate parish church(es):

If several parishes are joined so that a new parish is established thereby, it is permitted, for pastoral reasons, to establish a new name [for the parish] differing from the title of the parish church.[6]

So, if there are multiple churches in the new parish, they could be referred to by their own proper titles along with the parish name, e.g. Our Lady of ____ Parish at St. _____ Church.[7] While this will appear wordy, formal, and is potentially ungainly, precision in naming is almost always important — and helpful — to maintain.


[1] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Notification, Omnis ecclesia titulum, 10 February 1999, in Notitiae, 35 (1999), pp. 158-159; English translation in Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions 1999, Washington DC, Canon Law Society of America, 1999, pp. 17-21.

[2] See Roman Pontifical, Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar, II, 4.

[3] If a church has been only blessed, then the diocesan bishop can change the title, for reasons which are sufficiently grave and after having considered carefully all the circumstances (Omnis ecclesia titulum, no. 6; cf. CLSAComm2, p. 1431). Bear in mind, though, that c. 1217, §2 explicitly prescribes that churches  and “especially” parish churches — “are to be dedicated by the solemn rite.”

[4] Omnis ecclesia titulum, no. 5.

[5] Ibid., no. 11 (emphasis added).

[6] Ibid., no. 12.

[7] See John Huels, “Change of Title of Church,” in CLSA Advisory Opinions 1994-2000, Washington DC, Canon Law Society of America, 2002, pp. 392-393.

Major Reduction in Number of Parishes Proposed in Saginaw Diocese

An all-too-common news item in recent years: Catholic dioceses in the United States closing churches and merging parishes to save costs and try to stretch reduced prebyterates farther and farther to meet the needs of the faithful. In this case, the Diocese of Saginaw (Michigan) is looking at reducing its number of parishes by as much as half of the current total of 105.

About the only heartening news I take from this piece is that it appears that (so far, at least) the process is careful, and that the plan has a properly-informed canonical direction. While the imprecise (i.e. non-canonical) wording of this article obscures this a bit, it seems that the proposals are looking at canonically altering existing parishes through merger (canon 121), and that at least some of the church buildings which are current parish churches will remain in use as “additional worship sites” within the newly-altered parish boundaries. While I find the terminology of “additional worship sites” unlovely and seeming to come more from the language of business than from the language of the Church, I do applaud the realization (which too many diocese up to this point have seemed to miss) that the disposition of church buildings and of parishes are not identical questions, and that a parish can well have more than one active, useful church building within its bounds. I hope that more dioceses will keep this in mind in the years ahead as this long and painful process is repeated all over the country.