At times, I have been approached by Catholic faithful citing some grievances against fellow Catholics—fellow laypersons, or religious, or at times even clerics. What brings them to consult a priest is oftentimes their desire to resolve the matter amicably—intra Ecclesia—rather than suing in a civil court. What they don’t know is that even within the Church, the canonical mechanism exists for legitimate redress.
After exhausting the extra-judicial means to resolve a con¬flict, the faithful—or canonical juridic person—who esteems that a legit¬imate interest has not been satisfied, can exercise his right to action by presenting his cause before a judicial tribunal. What follows is a series of acts aimed at obtaining a reso¬lutory decision from the tribunal. This is the judicial pro¬cess.
4. Kinds of Processes
a. Ordinary Processes
There are two types of ordinary processes contemplated in the CIC, conceived in their regulation with reference only to formal categories and independently of the juridic matter, which have to be submitted to them. Thus, both types of processes can be used for all types of objects of litigation.
1) Written Contentious Process, which has the following characteristics:
a) Written, as the name implies, which means that all the elements of the process are in written form.
b) Divided into preclusive periods, each with a time limit. Certain processal acts can only be carried out within a given period, since the subsequent period offers other processal possibilities (cc.1501-1655).
2) Oral Contentious Process, which is characterized by the following:
a) Predominantly oral, although there are some conces¬sions to writing, especially in the introduction of the cause (c.1658).
b) Concentration of the processal confrontation in one session—or in a few if one is not enough—in the presence of a tribunal as designated by cc.1661 and 1662. This session is called an audience, and is regulated by the cc.1656-1670 (aside from many canons in the regulation of the written process, which are also applicable to the oral one).
c) More agile and rapid process, and therefore more economical.
d) Less thorough than the written process. Hence, the CIC excludes from this type of process the causes of matrimonial nullity (c.1690).
e) Always celebrated with a single judge in the first instance (c.1657). Thus, causes that need to be heard by a col¬legiate tribunal—like the cause of matrimonial nullity—are ex¬cluded from the oral contentious process.
b. Special Processes
Part III of Book VII of the CIC designates with the term special processes those types of processes that receive special regulation by virtue of the matter, which constitute the object of such processes. The special regulation aims at offering the peculiar mat¬ter in each case a specific and suitable treatment to facilitate a more rigid and correct resolution. Examples of special processes are:
a) Matrimonial cases (cc.1671-1707).
b) Nullity of sacred ordination (cc.1708-1712).
c) Penal processes (cc.1717-1728).
d) Reclamation of damages (cc.1729-1730).
5. The Pastoral Character of the Judicial Function in the Church
The Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium n.27, at the same time that it teaches that Bishops have the sacred right before men, and duty before God, to judge within their respective competencies, also declares that to them is entrusted fully the pastoral function—i.e., the habitual and daily care of their flock. No ecclesial function is excluded from this principle of power-service which belongs to the Hier¬archy. This includes the judicial function.
At first glance, there seems to be two divergent principles bearing on the processal activity in the Church:
1st, The Institutional Finality of the Judicial Process—which is directed always to ascertain the truth and to apply justice, regardless of its consequences (cf. the classic personification of judicial justice as a blindfolded woman).
Certainly, the ecclesiastical judge or tribunal cannot violate justice on the grounds of pastoral concern. Thus, for example, he cannot decree the nullity of a prior marriage where there is validity—even for the sake of regularizing an existing union—since that would be to falsify reality. Neither can he disregard procedural norms, since these guarantee the protection of the equality of the parts and the processal options they enjoy.
2nd, Canonical Equity and Salus animarum. The Code, in its last canon—which is at the same time the last canon of the Book De Processibus—clearly declares the paradigm for the conduct of the ecclesiastical judge: with due regard for canonical equity and having before one’s eyes the salvation of souls, which is al¬ways the supreme law of the Church.
Despite the seeming divergence between the strict pretension of the processal activity and the pastoral care of souls, such pastoral concern is shown by the ecclesiastical judge or tribunal in the following:
1) Expeditious Processing—The effort to expedite matters, avoiding that processes take longer than one year in the first instance, or six months in the second instance (c.1453).
2) Flexibility in Processing—The authority given to the Judge to do away with procedural norms which do not affect the validity of acts in the oral contentious process (c.1670).
3) Effort to find a pacific solution—arrived at through consensus preferably before the start of the process or in any moment afterwards but before the sentence is dictated.
4) Care for procedural correctness—of all processal activi¬ty, thereby avoiding falling into procedural nullities.
5) Caution in the investigation prior to penal cases, to protect the good name of the accused (c.1717).
With all the foregoing discussion, it should become obvious to the ordinary faithful that Canon Law indeed has the necessary institutions and mechanisms for the protection of the rights of all the faithful, whether they are laypersons, members of institutes of consecrated life or clerics. What is important at the present time is a greater education on the rights and duties of all the faithful, so that all might indeed work together in harmony, for the upbuilding of the Mystical Body of Christ which is the Catholic Church.