Objection, Your Holiness!
How do you become a lawyer for the pope?
The Vatican has prepared a legal strategy to defeat a suit filed in U.S. federal court that accuses the Pope of helping cover up clerical child abuse. How do you become a lawyer for the Vatican?
Go to law school. Just like any other large organization, the Vatican retains civil lawyers to handle routine, and not-so-routine, legal issues. For local matters, the Holy See hires attorneys who attended law school in Italy and know the country's legal system, which is nearly identical to the Vatican's. Aspiring papal lawyers apply to work for the Governorate of Vatican City. Outside Italy, each archdiocese retains its own general counsel to handle everyday legal issues independent of the Vatican. (The Berlin archdiocese hires German lawyers, the one in Dublin hires Irish lawyers, etc.) The pope doesn't normally have his own lawyer in the United States, but after being sued in Kentucky and Oregon, the Holy See retained a team of American civil defense lawyers led by California attorney Jeffrey Lena.
The Holy See also employs canon lawyers—experts in the religious law of the Catholic Church. Most canon lawyers first attend seminary then go to canon law school. The biggest school of canon law in the United States is at Catholic University. The largest one in Rome is at Gregorian University. American canon lawyers frequently go on to work as judges or advocates in the ecclesiastical courts run by dioceses around the country. Their Vatican counterparts do the same in official church tribunals. The best of them reach one of the top three ecclesiastical courts of Rome: the Roman Rota, the church's highest appellate court; the Apostolic Penitentiary, the secret court that deals with private matters that come up during confession; and the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's supreme court. (The most common cases to reach the Signatura involve administrative disputes, like the transfer of priests.) In each court, a panel of judges investigates and rules on religious matters from disputes over excommunication to marriage annulments. Anyone who appears before the court has the right to a canonical attorney.
The work of civil lawyers and canon lawyers often overlaps. For example, it's fairly easy for couples to get divorced under American civil law. Canon law, however, makes it more difficult to get a marriage annulled in the eyes of the church. A Catholic couple may therefore want to consult both civil and canon lawyers. In the child-abuse cases, both the plaintiffs and the Holy See have consulted canon lawyers to help shape their arguments. The plaintiffs in the Kentucky suit, for example, claim that a 1962 Vatican document mandated that bishops not report sex-abuse cases to authorities. Lawyers for the Vatican argue that the document, as interpreted under canon law, says nothing of the sort.
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Explainer thanks Robert John Araujo of Loyola University and Ladislas Orsy of Georgetown University.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Pope Benedict XVI by Mimmo Chianura-Vatican Pool/Getty Images.