In this series of ti morceaux I’m explaining a little bit about the “other” work I do for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, that is, in our Diocesan Tribunal. Along with being the pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral Parish I also serve as the local Judicial Vicar, which means I head up the “judicial branch” of the local Church’s government.
In civil government, the court system has a number of duties. Among these are applying the law to individual cases when citizens bring these cases before them, and even – especially at the level of the nation’s Supreme Court – actually interpreting the law. Sometimes, especially in criminal and civil court cases, the finding of truth is the paramount goal: for example, did somebody commit a crime? or were someone’s rights violated? But often in civil cases it is simply the application of justice that is the purpose of the trial: for instance, what’s a fair division of property? or how should custody of children be assigned after parental divorce?
These “purposes” of the court system are almost the same in the Church. The Diocesan Tribunal is called upon to apply the law in individual cases, but is not free to interpret the law. But just like our civil counterparts, the finding of truth is at the heart of what we do: for example, is this apparent marriage valid or not? was this bride or groom psychologically or emotionally capable of marriage or not? what was missing in the consent of the parties to a wedding? and so forth. And in all things yes, the application of justice is paramount: what’s the fairest outcome to this dispute? can we help these people live out their faith in a better way?
You probably already have the idea from either your own experience or my examples that the Church’s Tribunal system mainly deals with questions involving marriage annulment or dissolution. You’re right about that. But there are a few other types of cases which very infrequently come before the Tribunal every now and then. In the next morceau we’ll look at the various kinds of things which the Church’s court system and its canon lawyers can be involved with.