canon law
With roots in the first century, canon law is a set of regulations that help Church officials govern the Catholic Church. CNS photo

Patricia Schulte-Singleton admits that for most of her life, she didn’t know very much about canon law. But that all changed when she received the news that her longtime parish would be closing.  

Upon reading a letter from Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon, Schulte-Singleton was devastated to learn that her parish, St. Patrick in West Park, Ohio, was among those slated for consolidation as part of a diocesan restructuring plan. She was also surprised to find that the letter informed parishioners they had a right to appeal the decision under canon law.  

“I had no idea that parishioners could challenge a decision by the Church hierarchy,” Schulte-Singleton told Our Sunday Visitor. “Most Catholics are raised to believe that when your bishop says this is what you’re doing that you kind of nod your head,” she added. “But I think in today’s world, you start to question, is this really right?” 

Schulte-Singleton formed a coalition with fellow parishioners and, with the assistance of a canon lawyer, began the appeal process. But her situation is not unique. Though case records are confidential and the exact number of appeals is unknown, it is believed that a growing number of Catholics are exercising their canonical rights to settle disputes with church leaders. 

Appeals increase

The 1983 revised Code of Canon Law was the first to contain a section explicitly defining the rights and responsibilities of the Christian faithful. Edward Peters, a canon law professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told OSV that the changes in the 1983 code, combined with a heightened recognition of canon law’s importance and the code being more accessible through modern technology, have contributed to an increase in the number of canonical challenges raised by the laity. 

“More people are willing to bring canon law into play in situations that earlier generations would not have considered possible,” said Peters.Those situations can include a variety of disputes, ranging from whether an individual may be admitted to the sacraments to parishioners contesting a pastor’s or bishop’s decision. It is the latter type, according to Mercy Sister Sharon Euart, executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America, that many lay Catholics have taken an interest in. 

Sister Sharon told OSV that her office often receives calls from Catholics inquiring about how they might appeal an administrative decree in their parish or diocese. While litigation should always be a last resort, she said, the laity are encouraged to pursue an ecclesiastical trial when necessary. She warns, however, that simply being unhappy with a decision is not enough cause for a canonical challenge. 

“It is not like every administrative decision a bishop or pastor makes can be appealed to Rome,” said Sister Sharon. “But if there is a violation of your rights, then that needs to be seriously looked at.”

Complex process

For the average Catholic, however, the appeal process can be difficult to navigate. Each step has specific requirements and deadlines, and securing a canon lawyer to intervene in a dispute between parishioners and their bishop may prove difficult. There is also a financial cost, which can range from $12,000-14,000. 

Peter Borre, a lay Catholic in the Archdiocese of Boston, joined fellow parishioners in bringing about a canonical appeal when the archdiocese announced a wave of parish closings in 2004. Though Borre had a slight advantage from having lived in Rome as a child, where he studied some canon law and foreign languages, he knew the first step was to find an experienced canon lawyer in Rome to advise him. 

“There are pretty complex procedures that a group of parishioners would have to go through to bring their appeals all the way to Rome, and it is easy to get derailed procedurally,” Borre told OSV. “What’s required is a lot of patience and a lot of consultation with canon experts.” 

But for those who are able to make it through the process, there is hope for a favorable ruling. Borre, who now assists Catholics in other dioceses looking to start their own appeals, said that he is aware of 18 cases last year in which the Vatican overturned a bishop’s decision to close a church building. In each case, however, the bishop’s authority to merge the parish was upheld. 

A fair fight?

Still, the process can be frustrating for Catholics like Schulte-Singleton, who after two years continues to wait for a final decision. Meanwhile, her church’s doors have remained shut until a verdict is rendered. 

“That doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. It is not very fair,” she said. “It seems the Church just does what it wants, and you have to fight to regain.” 

Peters agrees that canon law may seem weighted toward the Church’s hierarchy, but with good reason. 

“Many canons do read as if they favor, say, bishops over priests and over laity, but for the simple reason that Christ willed his Church to be ruled by bishops,” Peters said. 

That’s a distinct difference from civil law, which is designed to keep the power of government in check. Nonetheless, he added, bishops are not intended to read canon law as being “a blueprint for running roughshod over the Christian faithful.”

Instead, Sister Sharon explained, canon law is meant to outline the specific roles and responsibilities of each member of the Church.  

For the laity, she said, it both recognizes their important contributions and allows them to vindicate their rights when Church leaders do exceed their authority. 

An increased awareness of these rights through the rise in canonical appeals is beneficial for all members of the Church, she added. 

“I think it is making everyone more aware of the various roles within the Church,” Sister Sharon said. “It is important to recognize the responsibilities of the Church, the need to get people’s input around decisions, and to follow the procedures that are required for making those decisions.” 

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.