A eucharistic minister distributes Communion during Mass. Laity have a rightful place in the church to address the abuse crisis, say canon lawyers. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Canon law gives Catholic laypeople the right to make an impact in addressing the clerical sex abuse crisis which has re-emerged anew in the church, said a number of canon lawyers interviewed by Catholic News Service.

Much depends, though, on the degree to which a local bishop is willing to consider the voices and expertise of the laity in this or other matters, they added.

And what canon law in itself may not explicitly provide, a “motu proprio” (on his own initiative) issued in by Pope Francis in 2016 just may.


“In the 1990s, there was a big role to promote the role of women in the church, and the bishops took that up as well,” said Mercy Sister Sharon Euart, a former associate general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who is now executive coordinator of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland.

“What we tried to do,” Sister Euart said, “was to say let’s look at what women can do that doesn’t require ordination in the church. And you found there was a lot — an awful lot — of service that can be provided. Move forward 25 years and I think right now the call for laity is loud and it’s clear — but it’s not focused on exactly what it is different groups are asking.”

Susan Mulheron, chancellor for canonical affairs for Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, was among the canonists interviewed by CNS who cited “Book II” of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, titled “The People of God,” and specifically the first part, “The Christian Faithful,” as giving some rights to the laity.

Mulheron pointed to Canon 208, which says: “There exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality regarding dignity and action by which they all cooperate in the building up of the body of Christ according to each one’s own condition and function.”

“We cooperate in the work of the church” as laity, Mulheron said, and that can be read to include applying one’s gifts and talents to address the abuse crisis.

Benedictine Sister Nancy Bauer, who teaches courses in canon law and in lay ministry at The Catholic University of America in Washington, cited Canon 212, a three-paragraph canon which presumes that “the Christian faithful” are “conscious of their own responsibility” and are “free to make known to the pastors of the church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.”


It also says: “According to the knowledge, competence and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors” — bishops — “their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful.”

“I think that is actually happening. They (laity) may know this is actually happening,” Sister Bauer said. “Writing letters, speaking to the press. When one person has a right, it often gives rise to an obligation on the part of someone else. If a layperson has the right to make her opinion known, it gives rise to an obligation of a sacred pastor, a bishop, to listen.

“‘Listen.’ It’s the first word in the Rule of Benedict, which is pretty important to me,” she added. “What are we listening for? We like to call it the will of God. I think it’s more the desire of God.”

Canon 228.2 says, “Laypersons who excel in necessary knowledge, prudence and integrity are qualified to assist the pastors of the church as experts and advisers, even in councils according to the norm of law.”

Zabrina Decker, president of the Canon Law Society of America and chancellor of the tribunal for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said this canon does not apply to just any Catholic. “You have to have an expert, a medical doctor, just as you would get a civil lawyer. You have to get someone who knows what they’re talking about,” she said. “In this particular issue, this is a broad brush they can paint across a lot of different committees, a lot of particular involvement.”

Canon 229 that follows also is relevant, according to Decker. It says the laity are “bound by the obligation and possess the right to acquire knowledge of Christian doctrine appropriate to the capacity and condition of each.”

“A lot of laypersons in the church don’t know their rights and obligations that belong to them,” Decker said. “If someone is qualified, if someone has the background, then they themselves have not only the right but that obligation to assist, to announce that message, to defend that message, to use that theological knowledge to be able to serve the church in concert with the magisterium,” or teaching authority of the church.

Mulheron also cited the final 13 canons in the Code of Canon Law, which deal with “the removal or transfer of pastors.”

“When the ministry of a pastor becomes harmful or ineffective, the diocesan bishop can remove him from a parish. You can see right there the recognition of that,” Mulheron told CNS. “There’s no specific canon that provides this for bishops, but we do see some in the 2016 ‘motu proprio’ ‘As a Loving Mother.’ It basically provided this process for bishops” to be transferred. A “motu proprio” becomes part of canon law once issued, she said.

In the document, written as an apostolic letter, Pope Francis affirms that the church, “like a loving mother, loves all her children, but treats and protects with special affection the smallest and most helpless.” This care is to be carried out “in particular through her pastors, including diocesan bishops and eparchs.”

Canon law already provides the possibility of the removal from ecclesiastical office “for grave causes,” but Pope Francis, in the “motu proprio,” specifies these “grave causes” include a bishop’s negligence in exercising his role, especially in relation to cases of “sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.”

“Who’s the bishop’s authority? The pope. On a practical level, it’s a little more difficult for a bishop to be removed from office,” Mulheron said. “We’ve seen it happen in Memphis (Tennessee) just this week,” as Bishop Martin D. Holley, 63, was removed from governance of the diocese Oct. 25, barely two years after he was installed there as bishop.

Sister Bauer cautioned that the laity’s voice is “always a consultative voice. The code doesn’t provide for laypersons really to make decisions that belong to bishops right now.” Nor can they depose a bishop. “They can complain to the pope,” she said, “but they do not have the power or authority to remove a bishop.”

Since the Pennsylvania grand jury report that faulted bishops for transferring abusive priests to other parishes without any warning to the new parishes, the sentiment has been expressed that the U.S. bishops are in no position to police themselves.

“I get that,” Decker said, but “we can never forget that the church is a community. We are a community. We are here to call each other to responsibility, we are here to demand some sort of responsibility, but we are all part of that faith family. But actually scripturally, we are all called to account. The laity of the church can do that canonically. It’s up to the magisterium to be able to bring laypeople into this conversation.”

“The influence the laity can have is enormous with some of the issues raised recently in the church,” Sister Euart said. “I don’t see it as primarily saying yes or no to something, but having to influence, move the decision in a way that is for the good of the whole church.”