What is a Canon Lawyer?

Q. What exactly is a canon lawyer? What do they do? And how does one become one? I have heard that they mostly spend their time arguing marriage cases. Is that true?

Ambrose, via e-mail

A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:

A canon lawyer is a person trained in canon law: the universal law of the Church, which is found in the Code of Canon Law and other ancillary bodies of law. Even if a person has studied canon law, he does not necessarily make his living by practicing canon law. Canon law is one of several “sacred sciences” you can study in pontifical universities and other institutes of higher learning, along with theology, philosophy, liturgy, Church history or sacred music.

The canon law degree is a graduate degree, and normally — at least in the United States — you would not pursue that degree until you have an undergraduate bachelor’s degree. Priests who pursue canon law studies typically have an undergraduate bachelor’s degree from a secular university, plus two years of college level philosophy and four years of college level theology. After that, they can pursue a licenciate (master’s degree) or doctorate in canon law. At the pontifical universities in Rome, the licenciate takes two to three years to complete, and the doctorate takes three to six years, depending on how efficient the student is in writing his doctoral thesis. Doctors in canon law typically have received 25 to 30 years of formal education. Before advancing to doctoral studies in canon law, the student must pass proficiency exams in three modern languages in addition to ecclesiastical Latin.

Depending on the country, canon lawyers either work for the Church in ecclesiastical tribunals (the court system of the diocese) or work for individual faithful as advocates, similar to what lawyers do in civil law. The most common work of canon lawyers is to work for the local diocesan tribunal where 90 percent or more of the work is the adjudication of marriage cases, commonly known as the annulment process.