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Leading canon lawyers had pastoral focus


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. In addition, he worked in the Portland chancery and the marriage tribunal. He was a frequent speaker at national meetings of the Canon Law Society and was long regarded as one of the most insightful and resourceful of American canonists.

Heintschel had received his doctorate at the Catholic University of America in 1956. He served as the executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society for six years and then as the associate general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington from 1982 to ’89. While at the conference he developed the organization of the National Advisory Council, a group of lay men and women, religious men and women, priests and bishops who advise the bishops’ conference and the U.S. Catholic Conference on issues facing the church. He oversaw the construction of the new bishops’ conference building. The author of many canonical articles, he was also an editor of The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary promulgated in 1985.

Provost studied theology in Louvain, Belgium, and earned his doctorate in Rome at the Lateran University in 1967. He taught canon law at The Catholic University of America from 1979 until his death and was chair of the Department of Canon from 1987 to 1998. He served as executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society for six years. He had been managing editor of The Jurist, a journal of canon law since 1980, and was also director of the Church Order section of the international journal Concilium for 10 years. Perhaps the most prolific and influential canonical writer and speaker in the United States over the past 20 years, he contributed scores of articles and presentations to journals and conferences all over the world.

Donald Heintschel, Bertram Griffin and James Provost were truly canon lawyers for the people of God. They urged reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Council “in season and out of season.”

Don Heintschel felt great pain and frustration when interference from the Roman curia harmed the pastoral life of the U.S. church.

Bert Griffin described as “frontier justice” the ways those in the church of the Northwest accommodated the rules to the needs of the times.

And Jim Provost was a master of subtle suggestion and imaginative innovation when it came to issues of church policy.

Don, Bert and Jim will be sorely missed. Each was highly esteemed. But what a contribution they will make to that heavenly consultation. n

Fr. James A. Coriden teaches canon law at the Washington Theological Union.

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000