Why Is the Priest Telling Me Not to Talk to a Canon Lawyer?

Q: As you advised, I spoke to my parish priest [about the invalidity of my marriage] and he “kindly and strongly” advised me on a couple things:

1) That I should not even be discussing this with you because you aren’t an authority and for all I know you could be anyone, that I should take my concerns to the priest who originally married me and then, if needed, to the chancellor of the diocese because they are my authorities.
2) He was certain that things were handled appropriately and that I shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

I really don’t think I will get anywhere with this priest…. I kept insisting that it matters and he kept correcting me although I have read the canons for myself and I know he is incorrect.

Given that he doesn’t want to even hear the legal reasoning or recognize you as a credible source, what do you suggest?—Karl

A: Karl discovered after the fact that his marriage in the Church was invalid, because of a defect of canonical form (cf. c. 1108.1).  The Catholic priest who celebrated his wedding—who was neither the pastor of Karl’s parish nor delegated by him—had no authorization to marry him; and as we have seen multiple times in this space (in “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” for example), such authorization is critical for a valid Catholic wedding.  Karl sent an email inquiry to this site and unfortunately, it was easy to confirm that his marriage had indeed been celebrated invalidly.

So Karl naturally went to speak with his current parish priest about rectifying this situation as soon as possible.  He explained that he had talked to a canon lawyer, showed the priest the relevant canons… and readers can see how the parish priest responded.  What should have happened in this situation?  And what should Karl do next?  Let’s take this situation apart and examine it, piece by piece.

First of all, as a practicing Catholic, Karl has the right to receive the sacraments (c. 843.1; see “Can You Be Refused Holy Communion if You Kneel?” “Can a Priest Refuse to Hear Your Confession if He Knows You?” and “Can Catholics Be Prohibited From Marrying in Lent and Advent?” for other scenarios involving this canon).  And more specifically, he has the right to marry—a right which the Church regards as a natural right, which is thus applicable to everyone and not just Catholics (cf. c. 1058).  Consequently, when he and his wife were married in a Catholic wedding ceremony, they had the right to have it celebrated correctly—and in this, the priest who celebrated their wedding failed them grievously.  Karl was, through absolutely no fault of his own, living with a woman who was not actually his wife!

Since he had sincerely attempted to celebrate a sacrament, but was effectively prevented from doing so, Karl logically turned to the priest of his parish for help.  This too was Karl’s right: the law specifically asserts that the Christian faithful are free to make known their needs, especially their spiritual needs, to the pastors of the Church (c. 212.2).  (Note that the Latin wording of this canon indicates that it applies not merely to pastors of parishes, but to all those in holy orders who are entrusted with the care of souls—including of course the diocesan bishop.)

To sum up, Karl has done everything correctly in this equation.  He tried to marry validly in the Church; and when he discovered that (despite his best efforts) that’s not what happened, he made sure to get all his facts straight before going to the parish priest for help in rectifying the problem.  Let’s now look at the way the priest handled the situation.

For starters, it goes without saying that the parish priest should want to hear what Karl has to say.  As canon 528.2 tells us, the pastor of a parish is to ensure that the faithful are nourished by the devout celebration of the sacraments—and it is precisely the celebration of a sacrament that is at issue in Karl’s case.  This particular priest wasn’t around at the time of Karl’s wedding, and so he is hearing anything that Karl tells him for the first time.

But what happened?  Instead of listening, the parish priest took umbrage at the fact that before talking with him, Karl had investigated the matter himself, and had consulted a canon lawyer.  One would think that a busy parish priest would be relieved that a parishioner would, before bothering him, first make sure that the perceived problem was a real one, by doing some research on his own—rather than merely dumping it in the priest’s lap and expecting the priest to sort it out for him.  Not only is this common sense, but once again, the law fully supports Karl’s actions: canon 748.1 states that everyone (not just Catholics!) is bound to seek the truth in matters which concern God and His Church.  In other words, educating ourselves as best we can about the Church’s teachings—which is also a key component of forming our consciences, as was discussed in “Can Pro-Abortion Politicians Receive Holy Communion?”—is not only a right, it’s actually an obligation.

Considering that the Catholic clergy are required to study philosophy extensively as part of their seminary curriculum, it’s pretty amazing that this priest managed to twist Karl’s substantive issue into an ad hominem argument.  Anyone who understands basic logic can tell you that what matters here is what the law actually says, and not whether the canonist who verified Karl’s concerns is an “authority” (whatever that means).  Most of us can appreciate that it’s not logical to buy a certain type of wristwatch, or a particular brand of ice cream, simply because a beautiful actress or an Olympic athlete tells you it’s great.  The messenger is not relevant; what’s important is the substance of the message.  Karl’s parish priest should be looking at what the law says, not at the perceived “authority” (or lack thereof) of whoever provided Karl with a professional confirmation.

Instead, as we can see, the parish priest is inexplicably insisting that Karl should be talking to the priest who married him—invalidly—because he’s the one who can assure Karl that everything is fine.  Since Karl is asserting that the priest who married him and his wife either didn’t understand the law, or didn’t care, the sheer irrationality of such a suggestion is nothing short of mind-boggling.

You don’t need to know a thing about canon law to understand what is happening in this situation.  The pastor of Karl’s parish doesn’t understand the legal niceties of the situation, and doesn’t have the intellectual honesty to admit it—and so he simply wants Karl to go away.  That, in a nutshell, is what is really going on here.  And we can see how many laws the priest has simultaneously violated in the process!

We all know that your average parish priest is not a canon lawyer—nor is he expected to be.  It is thus entirely understandable if Karl’s pastor isn’t fully at home with the complexities of the canons on marriage law that apply in Karl’s situation.  (To top it off, in Karl’s case the law in question happened to be unusual and rather obscure.)  This in itself is hardly a fault!  And note that nobody, including Karl, was suggesting that the priest should simply take Karl’s word for it.

So if he’s abruptly presented with a parishioner showing him a bunch of canons which he can’t really follow, and the parishioner is insisting that he spoke with a canonist who told him that yes, my marriage is invalid and we need to fix this… what should the pastor do?  Well, how about something like this:

Karl, I’m sorry that this is happening to you.  I’m afraid that I don’t have a full handle on how the law applies in your situation, since I’m not a lawyer myself.  So let me phone the diocesan offices right now and discuss all this with a canonist there, and I’ll get his opinion and see what needs to be done.

Why is this so difficult?

That’s not a rhetorical question.  It is tragic but true that a lot of canonical problems arise not because a law was violated, but because a cleric (or some other person acting in an official capacity in the Church) is focused more on his own importance and his official position, than on the well-being of a person for whom he’s responsible, who is asking for help.  It’s not clear why there are so many in the Church who find it difficult to say honestly, “I don’t know the answer, I have to check,” especially when something as spiritually important as the validity of someone’s marriage is at stake.

As for consulting a canonist, you always have the right to hire a canon lawyer and find out what the law says about a particular issue.  The Code of Canon Law is not some mysterious secret that is accessible only to an elite group of the initiated!  True, it is not necessarily advisable for someone untrained in the law to start randomly flipping through it on his own; as we saw in “Is She Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part II,” it can be dangerously easy to reach erroneous conclusions by misunderstanding the technical wording of the law, or by failing to understand how to apply it correctly.  But the notion that you “shouldn’t be discussing this” with a canonist (as Karl was told) is just plain ridiculous.

In fact, the code itself provides that under certain circumstances, a person must have access to a canonist.  The law specifically requires that an accused person always have a lawyer, for example; and if he can’t find one (or pay for one) himself, the judge is obliged to provide one for him (cc. 1481.2, 1723).  Failure to permit a defendant to contact a canon lawyer will almost surely lead to the final decision being overturned, if it is subsequently brought to the Vatican’s attention.  While there are no public statistics, it is well known that Rome has overruled decisions in numerous cases over the years involving various actions (often taken by diocesan bishops against priests)—because they were not informed of their legal rights and in their ignorance, they were consequently unable to defend themselves.  Thus there are plenty of situations where consulting a canon lawyer is not only advisable, but having the ability to do so is actually mandatory.

Incredibly, however, there are those in authority positions in the Church who would prefer that the Catholic faithful had no knowledge of the law, or access to a lawyer, so that their possibly illegal decisions can go unchallenged.  Check out this jaw-dropping statement made to another canonist—in writing—by a bishop in Africa not too long ago, when he learned that some members of his diocese had appealed to Rome against a decision he had taken against them:

These people who have chosen you as “their lawyer”… if they are aware that they have to defend their faith, they know they have no need of any counsel besides the Holy Spirit, Who has been promised to us as our Paraclete. In matters involving witness to the faith, we read in effect this: “When they take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say (Luke 12:11).” (My translation)

You have to wonder what the point of even having canon law would be, if using it to challenge an unjust/illegal decision were fundamentally contrary to the Gospel.  But as we can see, this bishop is obviously confused enough about the scope of his own power, and about the nature of faithful Catholics’ obedience to it, to think that anyone who objects is actually wrong to consult a canonist in a sincere quest for justice.  It’s further evidence (if any was necessary) that we Catholics all need to keep praying for our clergy.

So what happened to Karl?  Fortunately, he understood his problem well enough to know that he should not allow himself to be cowed by the pastor of his parish.  Turning to the parochial vicar, he instantly met with a more reasonable reception: as he told me later,

I just met with the parochial vicar… he is drafting up an email of the facts of my case to send to the Chancellor of the diocese (who is a canon lawyer). He didn’t even hesitate to give my concerns serious consideration. He says that he will most likely get a response from the Chancellor by Tuesday or so and that we will go from there.

When the Chancellor confirmed that Karl’s marriage was indeed invalid, they arranged for it to be convalidated (see “What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? Part II” for a discussion of what convalidation is), and Karl’s marriage is finally valid in the eyes of the Church.  Now let’s imagine for a moment how things would stand today if Karl had allowed the parish priest—who said he “was certain that things were handled appropriately and that [Karl] shouldn’t have anything to worry about”—to browbeat him into doing nothing at all.  Karl and his wife would still be in an invalid marriage; and it’s quite possible that Karl would privately still be worrying and wondering if maybe things were not right.

Speaking of which, it’s important that the bishop be made aware of the way the parish priest has acted in this situation.  If he has behaved like this to Karl, it’s reasonable to suspect that he’s done much the same thing to other parishioners too.  The bishop might conclude that it’s appropriate to have a discussion with this priest (who incidentally was an immigrant, from a country with a radically different culture) about the proper way to deal with pastoral issues which he himself may not know how to resolve.  At the same time, it may be worthwhile for the bishop also to take a look at any other marriages that may have been wrongly celebrated by the same priest who married Karl, without proper delegation.  Again, if he did it in Karl’s case, it could very well be that he has done it on other occasions as well.

Not everyone who claims to have a canonical problem actually has one (as we saw in “Why Is This Method of  Baptizing Illicit?” for example).  But when a reasonable, intelligent parishioner has a reasonable, intelligent question about canon law, he has every right to contact a canon lawyer about it—and if he brings the law to the attention of his pastor, he has every right to expect the priest to listen.  Canon law binds all of us, and so educating oneself about canon law is never off-limits to Catholics.

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