When Rita Ferko Joyce took her first theology class at the University of Dayton (Ohio) in 1990, her professor suggested that since she was already a practicing attorney, why not do her class project on the Code of Canon Law?  

“When I read the section of code on the laity, it was so infused with statements from Vatican II,” she said. “It was empowering and stimulating, and I thought it would be absolutely the most fun experience to do a paper on it. I never thought it would go anywhere.” 

It did. On Oct. 13, Joyce, a general counsel in the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s Department for Canon and Civil Law Services, was elected vice president/president-elect of the Canon Law Society of America. She is the first non-religious layperson to be elected to that office since the society was founded in 1939. The society provides canonical advice to leaders of the Church in matters as diverse as marriage tribunal, legal proceedings in the opening and closing of churches, and representation in litigation.  

Applying talents 

Canon law was not Joyce’s original career path, not even when she was studying law. She later took classes in theology just for her own enjoyment and, she added, there was a tuition discount because her husband taught at the university. 

When her professor asked what she planned to do with those theology credits, she said that maybe she’d do some counseling at her parish. 

“He rolled his eyes and said: ‘Come on, you need to do something with canon law. You need to take your civil talent and apply it to studying the laws of the Church,’” she said. “That gave me a focus, even though I really didn’t understand what could be done with a dual degree, and how it would be beneficial to the Church.” 

Joyce has a law degree from Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh. She received a master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Dayton and a license in canon law from Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. 

Joyce considers her work a ministry and finds particular satisfaction in the marriage tribunal, which receives petitions from divorced Catholics seeking annulments.  

“It is immensely humbling to do something that, in some way, allows them to be reunited with the Church,” she said. 

Now vice president, Joyce will take over in October 2011. Meanwhile, she is becoming familiar with the leadership responsibilities and the directions of both the society and canon laws. One thing that’s growing are the opportunities with technology. Now lawyers in developed countries can share information with remote parts of the world. 

This is also “an exciting and challenging time” for established canon law societies to respond to a Vatican request to participate in broad-based consultation. The goal is to update canon laws “to make them more alive and more responsible,” she said. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.