Friday, September 11, 2009

Looking to Catholicism to predict the future of Mormon church courts

Last week here was some speculation that former congressman Joseph Kennedy II might run for the Senate seat vacated by the death of his uncle, Ted Kennedy.  Mitt Romney’s name was also tossed about, but both he and Joe Kennedy have stated they would not run for the seat.  I looked up some information on Joe Kennedy and got sidetracked by an interesting quasi-legal proceeding in his past. Joe Kennedy asked the Boston Archdiocese to annul his first marriage with Sheila Brewster Rauch, but Rauch  refused to agree to the annulment. The Boston Archdiocese eventually granted the annulment over Rauch’s objections, and she later appealed to the Vatican. The annulment was overturned in 2005 by the Roman Rota, the highest appellate tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church.

I was not familiar with the hierarchy of Roman Catholic tribunals, so this process was fascinating to me. Apparently there is a rehearing mechanism that is part of the Roman Rota, in which another panel of the Rota could hear the matter again (somewhat like an en banc rehearing).  I thought it was interesting that Rauch, who is not Catholic, still had “standing,” for lack of a better word, to appeal the Boston Archdiocese’s decision.
The Mormon Church has its own system of church courts, mostly focused on the ward and stake level. My understanding is that an “appeal” from a stake disciplinary hearing goes straight to the First Presidency. I also believe that, in some situations, such as a temple divorce, a determination is made in conjunction with the First Presidency and local leaders.  (Commenters with better information are welcome to clarify or correct me as to these policies.)

The Roman Catholic Church is a much larger worldwide denomination than the LDS Church. But despite the disparity in size, the two churches have much in common because they are both centrally operated. As the Mormon Church deals with the challenges of operating in many countries, I think it would be instructive to look to Catholic procedures to see how it handles similar challenges. With a membership of over 13 million, a surprisingly large number decisions in the Mormon Church are still made at the level of the First Presidency. However, as membership and population bases spread, I can imagine a time in which the First Presidency assigns some of these proceedings to a separate body. For example, a panel of members of the Quorum of the Twelve or the Presidency of the Seventy could be assigned to examine some appeals, much as the Roman Rota would hear an appeal from an archdiocese.

Obviously, this is pure speculation on my part. But in our lifetimes we have seen the Quorums of the Seventy expanded significantly, and the general trend in the LDS Church is to designate more autonomy away from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve to the Seventies and Area Authorities. So some modifications to church court appellate procedures are certainly possible.

Image credit: Cris Pierry.