Can a Catholic Sue the Church in Civil Court?

Q: Does a person have the right, both moral and legal, under canon law, to sue a Church Institution and/or the individuals in authority over the institutions in civil court, whether they be bishops or lay persons?  In particular, I’m thinking about a seminarian who was harassed and pressed to engage in homosexual acts, and reported this to the authorities in the Church, but nothing was done and he was attacked for making the complaints.  Does he have the right under canon law to sue those institutions and the people running them?

Why I ask this, is I am a Catholic and I am a civil lawyer. I have been asked to help in such a case, but I do not want to act against my faith.

My understanding is all people are bound to obey all moral and civil laws, and if not they can face the consequences in civil court for those violations.

Is there a distinction between suing the “Church’ as the Mystical Body of Christ and His Bride, and suing an institution that is part of the Church institution or hierarchy?

One canon lawyer whom I know and who is a priest maintains no person or worldly institution has the right to judge the Church, that right falls to God.  I agree with this statement.  But I see a difference between judging the Church, and suing corrupt institutions…  –Scott

A: What a timely question!  It is becoming increasingly common for Catholics who assert that they were wronged in some way by Catholic officials and/or the institutions which they head, to bring their case not to church authorities, but to civil courts—as in this example in the US.  But is taking legal action against a Catholic institution, or against a Catholic cleric or some other Catholic official, permissible for a Catholic?  Or in other words, when (if ever) is it legit for a Catholic to sue a Catholic entity or individual in civil court?

It’s important to clear up at the very start one common confusion which is reflected in part of Scott’s question.  In any country with a coherent legal system, sound legal procedures in civil courts do not involve criminal or civil actions against “The Catholic Church.”  That’s because “The Catholic Church” is a theological entity, not a tangible juridical one.  “The Catholic Church” around the world consists of many thousands of dioceses, parishes, hospitals, schools/universities, convents/monasteries, charitable associations, etc. etc.—not to mention roughly a billion individual people.  Thus if you have a legal beef with, let’s say, a Catholic school in France, or a diocesan bishop in Brazil, you don’t take legal action against “The Catholic Church”; instead, you naturally focus your legal resources against that specific school in France or that one bishop in Brazil.

Scott asks, “Is there a distinction between suing the ‘Church’ as the Mystical Body of Christ and His Bride, and suing an institution that is part of the Church institution or hierarchy?” and the answer is an unequivocal yes, in both the legal and theological sense!  By taking an action against (to cite one example) a Catholic institution which has allegedly failed to pay your wages as an employee, you are not “judging the Church,” as Scott put it.  Your issue in such a scenario is with the institution’s observance of labor laws and contracts, not with Catholic doctrine.  The notion that a person, organization, or other entity is somehow exempt from all legal recourse simply because he/it is Catholic is patently absurd, and nobody who suggests the contrary is being intellectually honest.

The short answer to Scott’s overarching question is that there is nothing in the Code of Canon Law which prohibits any Catholic from taking legal action in civil court against another Catholic, or a Catholic school, diocese or other institution affiliated with the Church.  If you really study the Code of Canon Law, you’ll find that overall, it never sets itself up in any way as a rival to civil authority.  On the contrary, canon 22 tells us openly that in some legal matters, canon law willingly defers to civil law!  To cite one particularly clear example of this, when it comes to the proper way to draw up and to observe a legal contract, canon law immediately and explicitly defers to civil law, as per canon 1290.  And with regard to marriage, canon 1059 asserts that canon law defers to civil authority with regard to the “merely civil effects” of marriage which aren’t addressed by canon law (inheritance law comes to mind here, as one example).

In short, the code’s unwritten yet clear assumption is that canon law and civil law ought to be complementary: canon law addresses matters proper to the Church, while civil law addresses matters proper to the State.  And when the two overlap, they shouldn’t contradict each other, at least in theory.  As Our Lord Himself said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17).

Thus there is no automatic, inherent violation of church law, when a Catholic takes a Catholic official or institution to civil court.  But that doesn’t mean that such an action would always be ethical—so if you want guidance in a specific situation, you have to look at it through the complementary lenses of moral theology and common sense.  By doing so you’ll find that sometimes it’s entirely permissible and perhaps even morally obligatory to take church officials and institutions to civil court, and sometimes it’s not.  In short, as is often the case when you ask a lawyer a question, the answer is, “It depends.”

The first question that must be asked in this sort of situation is, why are you taking civil legal action against a Church official or a Catholic institution?  And we can subdivide that basic question into three parts:
1. Are the allegations true?
2. If the allegations are true, do they constitute a genuine crime or immorality?
3. If a crime or immoral act has indeed been committed, can the problem be resolved internally within the Church, without going through the civil courts or some other secular process?

Let’s look at each of these questions in turn.  When we’ve finished, we should find that the answer to Scott’s specific question is quite clear.

  1. Are the allegations true?

Unfortunately, history is replete with instances where the sole motivation of someone bringing some kind of civil legal action against Catholic officials or institutions was not to punish a crime and/or obtain justice at all, but rather to attack the Church.  In fact, entirely unwarranted persecution of our faith by secular government officials began just a few decades after Our Lord founded His Church: the Roman Emperor Nero attempted to deflect popular hostility away from himself by using Christians as a scapegoat, claiming falsely that it was they who had deliberately started the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D., destroying almost the entire city and leaving thousands of survivors homeless.

Even pagan historians, who had no interest in defending Christians per se, asserted openly that there was absolutely no evidence that Christians had any connection to that fire whatsoever—and even suggested that it was Nero himself who may have arranged for the fire to be set, in order to clear some prime Roman real estate of its private housing, so that he could build his own palace on that spot.  One of those ancient Roman historians was Tacitus, who tells us,

All human efforts … did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order [from the Emperor].  Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus….  Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.  Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. (Annales XV)

Uncountable thousands of Christian men, women and children were brutally executed,


“Nero’s Torches,” by Henryk Siemieradzki,1876

since Nero falsely declared all of them enemies of the people of Rome.  Yet as Tacitus indicates, no attempt was made by Roman law enforcement officials to tie them individually to the commission of the alleged crime; the mere fact that (say) an 82-year-old man or an 18-month-old child was “Christian” was sufficient in these circumstances to condemn him to death.  Needless to say, there was no justice here!  The purpose of these legal actions in the civil courts was to protect Nero’s political reputation, by destroying the Church.

If we fast-forward nearly 2000 years, the same issue has to be considered when we address Scott’s situation: if his client wishes to sue church officials in civil court, is his story true, and are those church officials really guilty (at least so far as Scott can determine) of the charges his client is leveling against them?  Or is Scott’s client making false accusations—perhaps out of hatred for Catholicism or for a particular person who’s connected with the Church, or from a desire for a large financial settlement, or maybe from a love of attention that might actually be a symptom of mental/emotional issues of his own?

  1. If the allegations are true, do they constitute an actual crime or immorality?

History is likewise loaded with instances where Catholics and Catholic institutions have been accused of “crimes” which they did indeed commit—but which no reasonable and honest political leader, legislator, or judge would ever consider to be criminal acts.

Once again, we can find examples of this almost immediately in the history of the early Church: as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul was repeatedly accused by Roman magistrates of fomenting rebellion and causing riots.  And it is true that Paul’s preaching frequently created an uproar—sometimes among observant Jews (Acts 21:27, e.g.), who accused Paul of blasphemy for claiming that Jesus was the Messiah; other times among pagans, who objected because (among other things) the spread of Christianity caused financial losses for their own pagan businesses, such as selling silver statues of the goddess Diana (Acts 19:24ff), or profiting from the fortune-telling of a girl apparently possessed by demons (Acts 16:19).

But as Paul himself rightly pointed out in his own defense again and again, his preaching did not encourage violence or division in any way.  Rather, he simply preached Jesus Christ—as was his legal right in the Roman Empire at the time—and he could not control people’s reactions to his preaching!  This is why Paul managed successfully on numerous occasions to convince local officials that he had, in fact, broken no Roman laws whatsoever (see Acts 18:12ff and Acts 19:34ff, to cite just a couple of examples).

While Paul was repeatedly exonerated in accord with both Roman law and the cardinal virtue of justice, subsequent accusations of this type against Christians/Catholics have not always been resolved with similar success.  More recently in Christian history, the rise of atheistic communism in many countries has led to Orwellian situations where (for example) parents were/are accused of breaking the law and violating constitutional provisions on “religious liberty,” because they dared to teach their own children the tenets of the faith.  Along comparable lines, many courageous believers of the 20th century have found themselves in prison for “treason” or “crimes against the fatherland” or suchlike, because they had organized prayer groups, notified the faithful that a priest would be coming to celebrate Mass, distributed Bibles, prayer books and rosaries, and/or undertaken other innocuous activities which were “against the law” in their repressive totalitarian regimes.  You don’t have to be a legal scholar to appreciate that such “laws” were in themselves violations of human rights, and that the law enforcement officials who arrested and convicted both clergy and laity of “breaking” them had their own ulterior motives—which had nothing to do with punishing genuine criminals, and everything to do with persecuting the faithful in order to try to stamp out their faith completely.

All that being said, there are nevertheless plenty of cases where Catholics are arrested for committing crimes which are true crimes!  For example, it should be obvious that laws against theft (and variants like embezzlement and fraud) are fully consistent with Christian morality; and the same can be said of many crimes against the person, like assault, rape, and of course murder.  Laws like these exist, not because some godless regime is violating people’s basic rights, but because any reasonable country wants to protect its citizens.  Thus if, let’s say, some Catholic leader is found to have stolen thousands of dollars, he’d be hard pressed to claim that his arrest constituted religious persecution.  In such a case, prosecution in secular courts would have justice as its aim—and justice is one of the four cardinal virtues.

In Scott’s case as he describes it, a Catholic seminarian was “pressured” to engage in homosexual activity by his superiors in the seminary (which is unquestionably immoral, if true), and he “reported this to the authorities in the Church, but nothing was done and he was attacked for making the complaints.”  On the surface, at least, what Scott recounts certainly does sound like genuinely immoral activity—in terms of not only sexual ethics, but also the proper exercise of authority once the immoral activity was reported.

  1. If a crime or immoral act has indeed been committed, can the problem be resolved internally within the Church, without going through the civil courts or some other secular process?

Canon law governs both Catholics and Catholic institutions; and beyond a doubt, it contains procedural mechanisms to permit church officials to address the sorts of unethical conduct alleged in Scott’s case.  But those mechanisms don’t work on their own—they have to be used correctly by those with the power to do so.

Church law has changed and evolved over the centuries, as has its relationship to civil law and its jurisdiction over Catholic clergy and other officials in specific situations; but as a general rule, legal recourse has long been used within the Church to seek (and hopefully achieve) justice internally, when all sorts of different laws have been violated by a Catholic official or institution.  Let’s take an imaginary but completely realistic scenario, where Father John, the parish priest of St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, has seduced a lovely 20-year-old parishioner and got her pregnant.

The girl’s parents, of course, hit the ceiling when they find out what happened.  They approach the bishop and demand that he remove Father John from his office and from the parish altogether, keep the priest away from their daughter, and also provide some kind of monetary assistance for the birth and raising of the child.  Since their daughter is in college, she’ll now have to take at least one and possibly two semesters off, putting completion of her education markedly behind schedule.  At the same time, the parents are naturally concerned about their daughter’s reputation, and for that reason they don’t want any of this to become public knowledge.

What we have here is gravely immoral conduct on the part of a Catholic priest, probably combined in some way with abuse of his authority.  Let’s say that Father John admits that the accusations are true (or even if he didn’t, that sufficient concrete evidence exists to prove his guilt).  Let’s imagine that after a thorough investigation, and after listening to both sides of the story, the bishop promptly responds by
(a) removing Father John from his office as pastor of St. Andrews (see “When Can a Pastor be Removed from Office?” for more on this), or perhaps “inviting” Father John to resign for vague personal reasons, and taking steps to ensure that he will henceforth stay very far away from the girl and her family (and from other lovely young women as well!);
(b) arranging to assist the girl financially with the birth and upbringing of the child, while doing everything possible to protect her and her family’s privacy; and
(c) apologizing profusely to the girl and to her parents, and expressing genuine pastoral concern—as a true shepherd—for both their physical and spiritual wellbeing.

Let’s say that the girl and her parents are satisfied with all that the bishop does in this case.  Why would there be any need to get civil courts involved here?  Yes, a grave moral wrong has been committed—but as we can see, the diocesan bishop has exercised his own authority within the Church as the head of the diocese and as Father John’s hierarchical superior, and has done his best to make amends while also avoiding public scandal.  Let’s imagine that all evidence suggests that from the start, the bishop’s focus has been on doing the right thing, whatever that would turn out to be.  Speaking broadly, it would be hard to come up with a reason in this sort of situation for taking Father John, or the bishop, or St. Andrew’s parish, or the diocese to civil court.  Justice has already been served, as far as that is humanly possible.

Unfortunately, most of us Catholics already know that nowadays, the outcome of this imaginary scenario is far from the norm.  Canonists and non-canonists alike are well aware that credible horror-stories exist all around the world, of both Catholics and non-Catholics falling victim to all kinds of different injustices committed by clergy, teachers and administrators in Catholic seminaries, schools and universities, and employees at Catholic hospitals and charitable organizations … and when these victims protest to the perpetrators’ superiors, they are met with (at best) silence and indifference, and often even with overt hostility and attacks on their own reputations.  In such cases, church officials are plainly not interested in justice, and in doing what is morally right; instead, their focus is on “circling the wagons” and protecting their own interests, and their fellow-clergy or their own employees.  Like the bishop in the fictitious situation just described, it is their responsibility to listen to (for example) victims of alleged sexual abuse, to ex-teachers who were fired in retaliation for raising ethical objections to Catholic school practices, to parishioners who were defrauded of money by thieving parish clergy, to parish priests who are being calumniated by vindictive parishioners who clearly have ulterior motives, and to countless others who rightly protest the way that they have been treated by individuals working on behalf of Catholic entities; but they prefer to eschew that responsibility and make it painfully clear that they want these complainers to just go away and leave them alone.

Needless to say, this is not supposed to happen in the Catholic Church.  So what are these “complainers” to do, when the church officials who should be helping to resolve these kinds of situations refuse to do anything at all?  Remember that justice is still a cardinal virtue, even if members of the Catholic hierarchy and others in authority positions within the Church choose to ignore it!  This is why we are hearing more and more of cases involving Catholic institutions being brought to civil courts, instead of being settled internally.

Let’s return for a moment to that fictional scenario addressed above, and change the story a bit.  Let’s say that the pregnant girl’s parents went to Father John’s bishop, and he rebuffed them.  In fact, maybe he even refused to meet with them at all, once he realized what they wanted to discuss!  Let’s imagine even that the bishop subsequently put Father John in charge of “youth ministry” in the entire diocese, which meant Father John would routinely be interacting with lots of lovely young women—despite knowing full well what had happened to the 20-year-old at St. Andrew’s.  It’s not too far-fetched to imagine too that in his homilies, Father John haughtily starts taking public pot-shots at “hyper-critical parishioners,” in ways that make it clear he’s talking about the girl’s parents.  What should the girl’s parents do in such circumstances?  They’d brought a grave injustice to the attention of their bishop, and instead of getting the assistance which they expected and which the situation warrants, even greater injustice is being heaped upon them!  It’s only logical that if they can’t obtain justice from within the Church, they will seek it from without—and bring a case for civil damages before the secular courts.  The parents might also be concerned that if Father John has done this to their daughter and got away with it, he might do it to other girls too—and so it may perhaps be reasonable in their eyes to take their story to the press, in order to warn their fellow Catholics of this possible danger.

Note that in so many cases, plaintiffs like our imaginary parents have already attempted to get church officials to rectify the problem themselves—and have been snubbed.  Returning now to reality, it definitely sounds like Scott’s case fits this description: Scott tells us that the seminarian went to “the authorities in the Church, but nothing was done and he was attacked for making the complaints.”  While there are always two sides to every story, it certainly does appear that this seminarian sought assistance in rectifying this situation (maybe needing emotional/spiritual support as well, after his experience), and in return he was criticized for making a complaint.  It seems reasonable that if this one seminarian was sexually harassed and pressured to engage in homosexual activity in the seminary, others were/are too—and so after making known what happened to him, this seminarian should logically obtain not only some sort of justice in his own case, but also protection from the same threat for other seminarians in future.

Let’s now go back and reread Scott’s original question.  By this point, the answer should be clear, even though that answer isn’t spelled out explicitly in the Code of Canon Law.  Reason, logic, and a basic understanding of civil legal procedures should make it plain that if a Catholic has genuinely been treated unjustly/unethically by a Catholic official or Catholic institution of some sort, he isn’t “attacking the Catholic Church” when he objects to that treatment and demands a resolution of the problem in accord with justice!  Yes, there definitely are cases where someone wishes to bring a lawsuit against a Catholic diocese, school, or other entity for frivolous (if not outright false) reasons, but not all allegations against church authorities fit into that category.

If someone has been mistreated within the Church, it only stands to reason that he should bring it to the attention of the appropriate superiors, and expect them to take the situation seriously and attempt to rectify matters.  Justice is supposed to be the business of both the Church and the civil courts, so if the Church can resolve the problem as much as humanly possible and make amends where necessary, there logically shouldn’t be any point in getting secular authorities involved (at least as a very general rule).

But if Catholic leaders irresponsibly choose to turn a blind eye to a real injustice which it is their duty to correct, no theologian or canonist could possibly make a sound argument that the Church should therefore get a free pass, that the perpetrators should continue on their merry way with impunity, and that the victim should simply suffer the injustice in silence.  If the Church’s leaders refuse to work for justice, then unfortunately the civil sphere will have to do it for them.  It’s a tremendous indictment of many Catholic officials (both clergy and laity) that it should have reached this point.

So if we assume that Scott can ascertain to the best of his ability that the seminarian’s allegations are true, he can and should do his best to help achieve a just resolution in this case.  This seminarian-victim, and all potential seminarian-victims in the future, deserve as much protection as they can be given from sexual harassment/abuse—and irresponsible seminary administrators, bishops, and any other officials who were involved in the failure to address the seminarian’s concerns should be held to account.

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