Why Jerusalem’s Latin patriarch opened church courts to non-Catholic lawyers

(RNS) — In a striking development, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, has opened the way for lawyers of all faiths and none to plead in Jordan’s Latin ecclesiastical courts. It’s a courageous decision that waives Catholic Canon Law in order to give more people access to the law.

In Jerusalem, parts of the occupied territories and in Jordan, many legal proceedings concerning personal status issues, such as marriage and divorce, are heard in religious courts — Sharia courts for Muslims and ecclesiastical courts for Christian communities. Judges are nominated by their respective church leaders and are approved by the government rule according to the canon law of their traditions, including Melkite and Armenian Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Protestants.

For as long as this system has been in effect, lawyers arguing before Latin-rite judges have been required to be Catholic. Effective Sept. 1, Pizzaballa canceled that requirement, no longer requiring lawyers even to be Christian, after holding discussions about the rule for more than a year with senior Latin court judges in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Amman, Jordan.

According to confidants of the archbishop, whom Pope Francis will make a cardinal Sept. 30, Pizzaballa wanted to expand the roster of lawyers beyond the tiny number of Catholics or even Christians who hold a doctorate of law in the Middle East, which is also a Vatican condition. In addition to ending the faith requirement, the new rules require advocates to have completed only three training courses on church family law.

The change breaks the monopoly of a small field of lawyers allowed to plead in Catholic courts, offering relief to families who have had to endure high fees charged by a small group of church lawyers.

What is most interesting and important perhaps is that the amendment provides for lawyers of other faiths than Christianity to participate in the Latin courts. In a recent church judicial workshop on the new rules, six Muslim lawyers attended. Some cases concerning inheritance and alimony for Christians are already decided on Sharia law principles, and some Christian lawyers have the right to plead in Sharia courts. The new rules make for an important model for the principle of a shared life among the Middle East’s faith communities and the importance of good citizenship irrespective of religion.

Not everyone is happy. Several veteran Christian lawyers have vocally opposed the new guidelines, claiming the most highly qualified members of the bar will no longer be hired for church court cases unless they take church-run workshops. This small number of lawyers is pushing the bar association and the government of Jordan to pressure church officials to reverse their decision, which they claim is a violation of the Bar Association laws granting the right of all registered lawyers to take cases in both civil and religious courts.

Senior Latin church lawyers have rejected the accusation saying Muslims and Christians wanting to take cases in the Islamic Sharia court must also take specialized courses and even write a long dissertation in Arabic about a relevant issue. The Jordanian Bar Association or the government of Jordan are unlikely to weigh in on their complaints.

By leveling the playing field and breaking the Catholic lawyers’ monopoly, everyone will be served better and more cheaply and get better legal help. Eventually, it is expected, a much wider team of qualified lawyers will be able to access the court and serve their clients.

Admittedly, it may take some time before all lawyers have the needed tools to defend their clients. But the public will benefit in the medium and long term.

(Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian Christian journalist from Jerusalem and the former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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