A thousand years ago, Catholic canon-law courts had an active docket and an extensive jurisdiction that covered contracts, property, torts, and much else. Over centuries, in a process Harold Berman famously described in Law and Revolution, the docket dwindled and the jurisdiction contracted. As a result of secularization, church courts lost most of their jurisdiction and importance in Catholic life. Nowadays, canon-law courts are reserved principally for marriage annulments.
According to an AP story this week, though, things may be starting to change, at least in the United States. The AP reports on a significant recent rise in litigation before church courts. Some litigation involves priests accused of sex abuse, but much concerns everyday matters like parish closings, use of church property, even complaints about non-liturgical music. More and more, it seems, Catholics see church courts as the proper place to air their grievances and seek redress. In fact, something of a new practice area seems to be developing. The AP story describes the practice of attorney Michael Ritty from upstate New York, who employs three lawyers in his canon law firm. A small practice, to be sure, but indications are the field is growing. “‘Most of us, when we were training, were preparing for marriage tribunals, marriage annulments,’ said Monsignor Patrick Lagges of Chicago, a canon lawyer for three decades…. ’Now there’s such a broad range of things. It’s a much broader field.’”