Early in the Church’s life, the need was recognized for some sort of structure to adjudicate questions of justice raised by its members. Jesus outlined the order to be followed when one Christian follower had a complaint against another including the need for witnesses and possible punishment (Mt. 18: 15-17).
The Mission of this Tribunal under the guidance of our Bishop is to reflect and experience Christ in the ministry of justice through the compassionate and equitable application of church law and to protect the rights and dignity of each person without discrimination and to provide an opportunity for healing.
St. Paul chided early Christians for bringing lawsuits against each other in civil courts rather than approaching the Church first. He writes, “As you know it is the saints who are to judge the world; and if the world is to be judged by you, how can you be unfit to judge trifling cases?” (1 Cor. 7:2). Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church continued to build on the foundation set by Jesus and spread by the apostles believing that the Lord had given his Church the power of loosening and binding.
Today, centuries after apostolic times, the Church recognizes the authority of many civil courts in most areas of life. But the Church, as a society of believers, claims the exclusive right to answer questions that involve spiritual matters (e.g. sacraments), members’ rights, and violations of Church law. In a more formal way, this is done through the Church’s own court or legal system. At it’s most basic level, this court system exists in every diocese through a tribunal. The diocesan tribunal of Harrisburg is the first level or instance of the multi-tiered court system of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Harrisburg tribunal conducts ecclesiastical trials involving Catholics or those persons in relationship to Catholics. An ecclesiastical trial is similar to its civil counterpart in that it is conducted in order to discover the truth, but it is dissimilar in that the dramatics of some civil trials are not present. There are three possible objects of any Church trial, all with an ultimately pastoral purpose: (1) to prosecute or to vindicate the rights of physical or juridic persons; (2) to declare juridic facts; (3) to impose or declare the penalty for offenses against Church law.
Most often, a person (Petitioner) asks the tribunal to make a declaration concerning the juridic fact of a marriage, that is, the Petitioner wants the tribunal to answer the question: “Did the binding quality of marriage occur when I exchanged marital vows with my former spouse?” Or, to put it another way, “Was my marriage valid or invalid?” This question is asked by the previously married Petitioner who wants to know whether he or she is now free to enter a future valid marriage in the Catholic Church. If the tribunal, following a complete investigation of the facts, finds that a previous marriage was invalid, a Decree of Nullity is issued, termed in common speech an “annulment”
Canon Law, or the law of the Catholic Church, has a long and complex history. Its roots can be found in the early Christian community, in Scripture, in the writings of the Church Fathers, and in the developing practices and customs of the Church as it expanded across the borders of the Roman Empire, especially after the Edict of Constantine.
It was, however, with Gratian (circa 1140 A.D.), the “Father of the Science of Canon Law,” that canon law actually became a discipline, separate and distinct from Theology. Today, theology and canon law are studied as separate but complementary disciplines, since the Church’s law has its foundations in the Church’s beliefs. Indeed, Pope John Paul II has noted that “canonical theory and practice always need to be informed by a sound ecclesiological understanding.”
The Church’s current Code of Canon Law was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983 and was the direct result of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Pope John Paul II has called the current Code “the final document” of this Council. Thus, the Code and the Council are intimately joined and direct the Church’s activity, both internally and in its external affairs.
The role of law in the Church, according to the Holy Father, is to provide a service “which is ultimately pastoral in nature” since “it seeks to strengthen the bonds of communion in the Church through fidelity to the Gospel and the promotion of justice.” In the application of the canonical norms, the Church is called “to bring healing and hope in fragile situations of human weakness and sin…” always keeping in mind “the pastoral nature of all Church law, while never derogating from the demands of truth.” Canon law is to become, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “an effective instrument for the continual renewal of ecclesial life.” Indeed, canon law helps provide order and discipline in the Church, it protects the rights of individuals, and it seeks to provide justice based on equity for all its members. The ultimate purpose of law in the Church is “the salvation of souls.”
For more detailed information on the history of canon law, the specific material contained in the current Code of Canon Law, and the characteristics of the new law, please see: CANON_LAW (downloadable document).