One city does not make a world

Canon law is not and never could be always uniformly well-practiced. That is a patently impossible standard to hold any legal system to meet, let alone one with the responsibilities borne by the Church’s legal system.

The bi-annual papal blessing “Urbi et Orbi”—to the City (meaning Rome, of course) and to the World—is a charming Catholic event reflecting the solicitude a pope feels for the City entrusted to his episcopal care and the World entrusted to his papal. The Italians’ gift for irony, however, has—so I am told—led to the quip that, from time to time, some popes confuse “the City” with “the World”, meaning that, Roman experiences and perspectives are not always applicable to the rest of the world, though they are sometimes treated as if they were. Humorously the quip makes an important point for Church administration, especially administration at the international level: one locale’s situation is rarely identical to another’s; one prelate’s experiences are rarely identical to another’s.

Dr. Kurt Martens is an internationally-respected Belgian canon lawyer who, for the last ten years, has taught canon law at the Catholic University of America. His brief reflections on the recent canonical conference in Rome, a conference focused on Pope Francis’ changes to the annulment process (due to take effect in about three days), are well worth reading. They expressly reinforce, moreover, in regard to a canonical institute about which I know quite a bit (annulment procedures), a wider concern I have about Francis’ consistently negative approach to law and lawyers, namely, that Francis is treating canon law around the world as if it operates (or fails to operate) as he apparently experienced it in Argentina. If that is so (and that is the more benign interpretation that can be accorded Francis’ oft-invoked antinomian rhetoric), then the pope’s approach to universal annulment reforms would rest on a fundamentally flawed assumption.

Canon law, the oldest continuously-functioning legal system in the Western world, is an international legal system tasked with and capable of functioning across hundreds of civil legal jurisdictions, amid thousands of ethnic and linguistic groups of Catholics (each with their own historical and cultural experiences), at the hands of inconsistently-trained officers facing millions of judicial and pastoral decisions annually. Canon law is not and never could be always uniformly well-practiced. That is a patently impossible standard to hold any legal system to meet, let alone one with the responsibilities borne by the Church’s legal system. But, though one’s experience of canon law in a certain place (and largely in one context, marriage nullity) over a period of a few years was unsatisfactory, that would be a wholly insufficient reason to assume that all canonical cases around the world are handled as (allegedly) badly as the (relatively) few cases one might have observed in that one place.

The pope has related some hardships (bordering on the scandalous) that he says faced Catholics wishing to have their marriages adjudicated in Argentina. I believe him, and have said so. But I have yet to hear a single papal (or pontifically affiliated) comment to the effect that the annulment process can work, and does work, and does work well, at least in some places, if not in many! Re-sound some apparently skewered experiences of canonical tribunals in one place within an echo chamber of close advisors who also seem to have little interest in law or in the benefits that law brings to the Church, and thus extrapolate too hastily from the experiences of one City (Buenos Aires) to the experiences of the World, and no wonder there result such confusion and concern in the wake of reforms meant to “fix” an entire system—much of which system might not have been broken!

(This essay originally appeared on the In the Light of the Law blog and is reprinted here by kind permission of Dr. Edward Peters.)

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.