Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Fr. John Boyle says canon law expresses both rights and obligations of the faithful.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Fr. John Boyle says canon law expresses both rights and obligations of the faithful.
This is part of a series on Catholic family life in western Oregon.
When he teaches Church law, Father John Boyle spends the first class nixing misconceptions.

“The law is not there to restrict but to enable and protect,” says the 56-year-old English-born priest, gentle but with a sharp intellect. “It’s a very freeing thing and it comes with a guarantee: this is the mind of the Church and wherever I go, this is what the Church has to offer.”

Father Boyle, who last year became director of the Archdiocese of Portland tribunal, sees canon law as making present the ministry of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

He explains that families, and all the people in the pews, have rights guaranteed by the canons, including access to the sacraments and proper formation so they can spread the gospel effectively. The priest issues a reminder: along with rights come obligations.

A tribunal is a team of experts who act on behalf of the bishop as interpreters of canon law, usually in questions over marriage but also when it comes to sacraments, priesthood, consecrated life, relations with other faith groups and dozens of other categories. When problems arise, tribunals aim to set things straight in a loving way.

“The Church seeks to persuade rather than impose,” explains Father Boyle, a slim man of 6-foot-4 who often commutes by bicycle. “But in the end we must protect due order in the relations of the members of the Body of Christ.”

Canon law — of human origin, but based on revealed truths of scripture and tradition — protects Catholics from dictatorship and caprice. For example, Father Boyle says, the people have a right to the liturgy celebrated as the Church says it should be celebrated, not according to the preferences of individuals or groups.  

The law also protects the sanctity of sacraments for all. For example, Canon 915 says that Communion is to be withheld from Catholics who are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.” That could mean murderous gangsters and abortion doctors. It also means those who have been divorced and have attempted a new marriage, endangering the integrity of two sacraments: Eucharist and marriage.  

Like all Church penalties, prohibition from Communion is meant as medicine to convince the person to straighten out his or her life. In the case of those who tried to remarry, the tribunal can investigate and offer a ruling on the initial marriage, often freeing the person to enter into the second relationship, which can now become a true marriage. At times, the process will free the Catholic to return to Communion.

It’s a rigorous procedure that includes interviews, documentation and an automatic appeal.

There are many reasons in canon law showing that what appeared to be a marriage might be declared null. Here are a few:

• One or both parties were not totally free and aware at the start. Perhaps they were pressured into marriage by families or even by culture.

• They failed to see that marriage is a total self-giving and total receiving of the other and were not mature enough at the time for such total commitment. Canon 1095 says that those who lack sufficient reason or who fail to exercise sufficient discretion or judgment cannot contract marriage validly.

• A “divorce mentality” that in essence says, “If it does not feel good, I can always get out.”

Father Boyle is the eldest of six children born in England to Irish immigrants. His parents were married for more than 42 years before his mother died. He could see that marriage took work to last.  

Ordained for the Archdiocese of Southwark, which covers southern London and the County of Kent, he had finished a term as a parish priest. He asked his old canon law classmate — Bishop Alexander Sample of Marquette, Mich. — if he could come to the U.S. for a sabbatical. The priest wanted to keep improving his pastoral skills. Bishop Sample welcomed him and gave him an associate’s post at the cathedral in Marquette and then as pastor at a small town parish. When Bishop Sample became Archbishop Sample in Oregon last year and there was an opening in the Portland tribunal, the archbishop asked Father Boyle to consider the position, which is an expert organizer, not a judge.

A bishop is actually the chief judge in his diocese, but he often delegates the role to someone else. In western Oregon, that man is Msgr. Patrick Brennan, the judicial vicar since 1985.

“Law gives us order,” says Msgr. Brennan. “It makes sure we don’t bump into each other. It makes sure the Church functions as it should.” He adds that canon law can right wrongs, establish justice and enable Catholics to live in communion.

Msgr. Brennan, who officially recommended Father Boyle for the director’s post, says the priest is highly qualified and “has a good pastoral heart.”

On Father Boyle’s desk sit statues of St. Francis of Assisi and St. John Vianney. He admires the simplicity of the saints and their dedication to souls. Father Boyle, who, along with other administrative staff, prepares cases for those who act as judges, worries a bit over each file.

“It is important that I see this as a pastoral work,” he says. “My parishioners are those whose cases come across my desk.”

One petitioner, unwilling to dredge up old woes, seemed ready to abandon the process when Father Boyle issued an invitation for a personal meeting. After that, the case went forward.

“Some people see it change from a painful process to a very healing process,” Father Boyle explains, citing the final canon, which says, “. . . the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.”

The Vatican’s October Synod on Families is expected to take up the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics and how best to minister to them.