Mary Van Scott, one of the original 16 students of Seton, recently became a canon lawyer.   I wanted to know more about canon lawyers, so I asked her answer some questions.   So here is the interview.

 What is a canon laywer?

Someone with a degree in canon law is qualified in the eyes of the Church to perform different functions like in marriage tribunals, causes of canonization, Church notaries, etc. Also you are kind of an expert in anything that has to do with Church law.

 What is a canon?

I'm pasting in from (gasp!) wikipedia for the definition and etymology of that word! Etymology:  Greek kanon / καν?ν, Arabic Qanon / ?????, Hebrew kaneh / ???, "straight"; a rule, code, standard, or measure; the root meaning in all these languages is "reed" (cf. the Romance-language ancestors of the English word "cane"). And, back from wikipedia and in my own words, just to throw in: "code" comes from the Latin word "codex" which means a board. The idea being that book covers are boards, with lots of sheets of paper between them. (Actually in Polish that's a lot easier to grasp because their word for bookcover is the same as the word for board!) We've had canon law ever since the New Testament but not a CODE of canon law until 1917.

  Canon law is Church law; it automatically contains and presupposes God's law and defends it (don't let people throw "it's not against canon law" in your face. Anything against Catholic moral teaching is against GOD'S law; canon law is an instrument of God's law!) It covers Church "crimes" and other unfortunate situations but most of all it's a guideline to keeping things ticking the Catholic way, and it's a source of unity for the Church. Some of my professors describe canon law as a (humongous–my word not theirs) pastoral tool.

  What applications are there of this degree?

I already mentioned some of them in the first question. For some Church jobs you need a licentiate in canon law and for some you are really supposed to have a doctorate (but there can be exceptions). Here's a list of some jobs where a canon law degree is important (some of these are open only to priests but actually most of them can also be filled by laity as well): Chancellor of a diocese, Episcopal Vicar (priest only), Defender of the Bond, Promoter of Justice, tribunal judge, tribunal advocate, notary (there are a bunch of versions and types of this), postulator of a cause for canonization. Also having a canon law specialist would come in really handy for any kind of Church association, institution, or institute of consecrated life, in all kinds of ways. Probably there are more applications than these, too.

  How do you foresee you using your degree?

The main reason I was sent to study canon law was because in our group, Miles Jesu, we didn't have any canon lawyers. For an institute of consecrated life, canon law is a pretty big deal and really any such group should have some in-house canonists, as well as consult often with really expert ones. The main use for my degree then is that I'll be the person who knows–or, more likely, the person who knows how to find out and where to look it up–things like election procedures, Church rules for admitting (and dispensing) members, things like how big of an expenditure needs the approval of the Holy See rather than just an internal decision, Church rules for working with bishops, publishing spiritual readings….all kinds of things.

  What have you found most interesting in your studies?

I'm not sure if this is really an answer to the question, but it's what comes to mind. I definitely learned not to be scandalized by scandal, and that terrible messes can be cleaned up and are worth cleaning up! Every one of us is a potential mess-maker and scandal-producer, like it or not! Canon law helps us keep things running smoothly and when necessary shows us how to fix what is broken. In many of my classes we had to talk about distressing things–all kinds of distressing things, and with lots of real life examples!–but it was always in the light of how to retrieve the situation. It is very Christ-like in the sense that it is not a place for self-righteousness or loss of faith but facing human weakness, recognizing it, and dealing with it.

  And the many applications of canon law that are NOT about scandals and messes are also beautiful because they are geared to leading people to God, and to unity within the Church. They are the practical conclusions of the Church's deepest philosophy and theology. They are a living historical link between the Christians of the first century to today–of course not the only link, but a really down to earth one!

  Is there more studies in the future?

You mean for me? Yes and soon–I will be continuing in the doctorate program starting October 2012. Please pray for that!

  Why did you first decide to seek to become a canon lawyer?

I didn't really "decide." In fact I was working at a textbook company in Phoenix when one day our superiors called from Rome and said that they wanted me to move there and study canon law. That was in the fall of 2006. I didn't have a theology degree so the first two years of studies were in theology and philosophy at the Angelicum in Rome, in the English language section. (A requirement to studying canon law is a university-level grounding in theology and philosophy). Once the study of canon law per se started, all the schools in Rome have it only in Italian so I changed to the Pontifical University of the Lateran because we particularly liked their reputation as canonists. But then after a year I was transferred to our community in Lublin, Poland and so I finished the degree here. I got a masters degree on June 21 and a licentiate on June 25. They do it that way here because the master's degree is what the government demands for a university diploma but the Church recognizes only licentiate and doctorate.  So you do the state requirements for a master's then after that take a horrific comprehensive exam and if you pass you get the licentiate. After decades as a high school graduate I got two degrees in four days! Talk about making up for lost time! Just for fun, and to give an idea of some of the things canon law covers, here are some of the questions from the "canon law bar exam" to get a licentiate:

1) complete rules for reception of Holy Communion–who can, who can't, what are the various fasts required, what about ecumenical situations, etc., It's much more complicated than you might possibly think!

2) the categories of shrines (did you know there are categories of shrines?)

3) what is the difference between a vow and an oath

4) history of Polish Plenary Synods of the 20th century–who called them, what they were about, where they took place, which section of the Holy See do they report to, etc. (somehow I don't really foresee ever using that information again!)

5) the 12 detriment impediments to valid canonical marriage, including which can be dispensed and by whom (it varies!)

6) the historical subject matter of concordats, not to be confused with the subject matter of contemporary concordats

7) the historical development of secular institutes and their canonical recognition

8) "the apostolate" of religious institutes (if you think this sounds deceptively simple, you're right!)

 I dodged a lot of bullets, though! There are canons on just all kinds of things–how to count time (two ways, even–"useful time" and "calendar time"), definitions for "resident, semi-resident, traveler, and vagrant," each category having a different canonical status, a long list of the rights and duties of the Faithful, a lot of material on the teaching authority of the Church, an REALLY lot of material on "processes" (a little like civil and penal trials or any form of conflict management), etc. Don't worry though–they all did come up in final exams over the years!

  Are canon lawyers licensed for a particular country, or does each have universal faculties?

No. Canon law must be one of the only degrees that means the same everywhere. It is a real law system, one that is in force all over the world, within the Catholic Church. In 2002 the Vatican set out very precise directives of what you have to study to get a canon law degree so the diploma itself tells everyone what you (presumably!) know and are capable of. Canon law is meaningless outside the Church except for where it would be used in a secular venue to explain Church law. So no matter how you slice it, it's a degree for use by and in the Church which as we know from our creed is "one" and "catholic." So your canon law licentiate or doctorate is acceptable everywhere the Church is. Which is lucky for me because I am American and started studies in Rome and finished them in Poland!

  What are the requirements for becoming a canon lawyer?

  Theoretically you don't even have to be Catholic! But most of the Church positions that want you to have a canon law degree have other requirements also, which almost always include being a Catholic in good standing. The only way you can get a canon law degree, especially as of the year 2002, though, is to take a very specific course of studies that lasts for about five years minimum. If you pass that, then you are a canon lawyer.

  Who is considered the greatest canon lawyer of today?  Of all time?

The patron saint of canon law and canon lawyers is St. Raymond Penafort, an early Dominican (boy we owe those early Dominicans a lot!) who put together "Gratian's Decretals", an early comprehensive collection of canon laws, in the year 1140. This was done at the request of Pope (surprise) Gratian. St. Raymond was also, I think, the third Master General of the Dominicans. In more recent history a very important canonist was Cardinal Gaspari, who was the first to "codify" canon law (set it into a modern, much better organized system along the lines of State law codes). He began this project at the request of Pope Pius X and completed it under Pope Benedict XV, and the first Code of Canon Law came out in 1917. In our own times, one person who comes to mind is Raymond Cardinal Burke. He has degrees in theology and philosophy (but I don't think canon law). As Archbishop of St. Louis a few years ago he became rather famous for his very clear stance on denying Communion to pro-abortion political figures. Not too long after that Pope Benedict made him head of the Apostolic Signatura. This is an extremely important position in the Vatican, and the "Chief Justice" of the Church's "Supreme Court." The Apostolic Signatura is the highest authority of canon law, and he's head of it. So we Americans have a reason to be proud, when it comes to canon law! Another really interesting thing about him is, he was ordained a priest by Pope Paul VI himself, consecrated a bishop by Pope John Paul II himself, and made a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI. What an amazing pedigree! I wonder how many can match it?

  Have your studies given you a greater appreciation of the Church?

Well, I like to think of myself as having a long-term, very lively appreciation of the Church! Studying canon law has given me a more "real" awareness of the continuity of the Church throughout history, especially in the role of a Mother teaching and promoting unity and keeping order in the family.

  One professor I had in Rome had a few books on canon law that were literally 600 years old! He was very proud of them and brought them to class one at a time. He'd invite us all up to his desk and encourage us to thumb through them. I remember when it was my turn to look through one of them I came across a page where someone had crossed out a couple of paragraphs and very neatly and carefully written in something new in its place (it was all in Latin). The idea that someone–who knows in which century!–had done that really got me by the imagination! And actually in canon law you need to keep writing notes in the margins. The current Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983. Since then interesting things have been added–the Anglican Ordinate is a recent well-known example, and some things have been altered–on a less pleasant note, the "statute of limitations" for pedaphilia was considerably lengthened a couple of years ago by Pope Benedict. So you find yourself putting in little notes in your copy of the Code just like that canonist from a past century. In fact you are a sloppy and irresponsible canonist if your copy of the code isn't a good bit marked up!

  Are women canon lawyers common?

My class here in Poland consisted of about half men and half women; maybe women in the majority. But most of them were doing a double major of secular law and canon law (!!!!!!!!) In general my impression is that most canon lawyers are priests although lay canonists aren't so unusual. Among my professors we had mostly priests and a few married women–and not even one lay man.

  Are lay canon lawyers common?

Well to add some different material to what I said above….there are some canon law positions that a country's own Episcopal Conference is free to open or not open to lay canonists. For example in the US, lay men and women canonists can be judges on tribunals, although there is still a requirement that the majority of judges be priests. In Poland it can only be priests. Also, depending on the culture (and probably, the availability of priests as well as perceptions of what is "priest work" and what isn't), laity can have other pretty high positions. For example the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago (at least, last time I checked) is a lay person. That is the highest administrative position of a diocese (as opposed to an executive position–but still it's VERY high). You wouldn't see that here in Poland. In fact many times various professors here "warned" us not to expect to make a living as canon lawyers. And at the closing speech after we took our final "canon law bar exam" the Dean of Canon Law said he hopes that in the future there will be a greater openness to lay canonists, and more work for them. In a way this doesn't apply to people in a position like mine because I was sent to study canon law to be a specialist mostly for our group Miles Jesu. (There were several sisters studying with me, for similar reasons.) Also, I think there are many more possibilities for a lay person to practice canon law in the US than in Poland. I don't know about other places but the countries I mention here may actually represent the two extremes.

  Do all canon lawyer students study in Rome ?

There's a list on the internet I checked for this question! No you don't have to study in Rome, although there are a lot of the best schools for it there, unsurprisingly. A total of 36 universities in 18 countries offer a canon law degree. No school can award a canon law degree unless they have authorization from the Vatican. Rome has quite a few universitise which offer canon law and after that only Madrid is a city with two universities to choose from. Poland has a total of three schools. North America has one for each country; Catholic University of America is the only one in the US.

I have to be true to my school and put in a plug for my alma mater university and town! I got my diploma from the Catholic University of Lublin (Poland) and also will continue to study there pursuing a doctorate. In Polish the name's not too different–Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski, usually called KUL (rhymes with "cool"). KUL was the ONLY private university in the entire Soviet bloc to function during the many years of communism in Eastern Europe. And, even more brag-worthy: Karol Kardynal Wojtyla held the philosphy chair there for 25 YEARS–right up until the time in 1978 when he was called to Rome for the second conclave in two months. And the cherry on top: Stefan Kardynal Wyszynski, a tower of strength who stood up against the communists like no one else in the darkest years of oppression and with his holiness and courage helped Poland retain many of the human rights that were denied to other Soviet countries (and who spent three years in prison but later went on to be the backbone of Poland for close to 30 more years) began his episcopal career as Bishop of Lublin. So I am in quite exaluted company!

  Which is your favorite canon and why?

  I have to tell you, my first reaction to this question is to laugh, then to roll my eyes, and then to ask myself if you're serious or just running out of ideas! But now I will give you a "real" answer! (By the way, did you know when you wrote that question that there are 1752 canons?) The last bit of the last canon (canon 1752)–and I am sure they did this on purpose so as to end the whole code this way, says "because the most important thing is always the good of souls." Actually the canon is about something more grim than edifying, transferring a pastor out of a parish against his will. But anyway the idea of the good of souls is the ideal of the whole code and they definitely finished the list of canons on the right note with that reminder. And just to show my heart is really in answering this question despite my eye-rolling, here's my second favorite canon: canon 605. It's short but packed with a lot of meaning, in fact I wrote my whole 83 page thesis with this canon as the basis! It's one not close to my heart but IN my heart because it gives the criteria for the Church allowing new forms of consecrated life It says the bishops are supposed to help encourage such movements and guide them and/but only the Holy See can approve a new "form" of consecrated life. Existing forms are basically religious institues (any group where the members are referred to as "sisters" or "brothers", to put it loosely) and secular institutes. There are also societies of apostolic life which look a lot like one or the other of the groups just mentioned but canonically are not. Also we have hermits and consecrated virgins and widow/ers, people living the consecrated life but not as part of a community. Anyway, I am a member of Miles Jesu, a group that comes under a new but not yet officially approved form of consecrated life known as an "ecclesial family of consecrated life." Canon 605 is kind of like a place marker for the new kinds of groups while we await the long process of canonical identification.With my recent thesis still very fresh in my mind, I'm going to stop myself from saying any more about it here so as to spare you readers! (Here's our website though!:




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