Leading Canon Lawyers Had Pastoral Focus

By Coriden, James A. | National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

Leading Canon Lawyers Had Pastoral Focus


Coriden, James A., National Catholic Reporter


Three distinguished U.S. canon lawyers who helped shape the direction of the church in the past three decades died within a few weeks of one another. That the deaths of Frs. Bertram Griffin, Donald Heintschel and James Provost occurred in a cluster was probably coincidence. But it could just be there was an urgent need in heaven for a canonical consultation on the future of the church.

Griffin, Heintschel and Provost were all diocesan priests who had earned doctoral degrees in canon law. Each served as president of the Canon Law Society of America and each subsequently received the society's highest honor, the Role of Law Award.

Bertram F. Griffin was 68 when he died in Portland, Ore., July 28 after a long bout with heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Donald Heintschel died in Toledo, Ohio, Aug. 22 at the age of 75 after a prolonged cardiac illness.

James H. Provost, a priest of the Helena, Mont., diocese, was 60 when he died of lymphoma in Washington Aug. 26.

Canonical rules and procedures guide many of the activities of the church: the preaching of the gospel, the celebration of the sacraments, the appointment and authority of pastors and bishops, the community life of religious women and men and the freedom to marry.

After the church inherited canon law, a highly organized legal system, from the Roman Empire, it was refined into a science and has been taught as a discipline in the church's universities since the 12th century. Following the Council of Trent in the 16th century, a canonical degree became one of the requirements for the office of bishop, vicar general and judge, among others.

Attitudes and modes of interpretation vary widely among canonists, just as the mindsets and practices of civil lawyers do. Canonists are sometimes seen as careerists, people who pursue ecclesiastical law to qualify for higher offices in the church. In their canonical practice, such canon lawyers appear more interested in defending the institution than in assisting the people. This characterization is not true of the vast majority of the 1,600 canon lawyers in the United States.

For these three recently deceased canonists, such characterizations would be completely mistaken, a grave distortion of their lives. They were progressive and pastoral canonists who were devoted to making their church a communion of communities where the needs of the Christian faithful are primary.

Griffin was in Rome during much of the Vatican Council while working on his doctorate at the Lateran University. The degree was awarded in 1964. He served three parishes in the Portland archdiocese from 1970 until his death.

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