Pope Francis appoints 4 Americans to Apostolic Signatura: What's that?

News: Vatican

Pope Francis this morning appointed a slate of new judges and expert advisors to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s canonical supreme court. Among the appointments were several American bishops, as well as a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.

Among the new members of the signatura, who act as judges hearing final appeals of canonical cases from across the world and through nearly all Vatican departments, is Cardinal Joseph Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark, and Bishop Mark Bartchak of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in Pennsylvania. 

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After studying at Catholic University in the 1980s, Bartchak served in the tribunal of his home diocese of Erie, and then as Judicial Vicar and Director of the Office of Conciliation & Arbitration for the diocese. In 2007, he was appointed as a consultant for the USCCB’s Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance. He was named Bishop of Altoona-Johnstown in 2011.

Cardinal Tobin, who was named as a member of the Congregation for Bishops by the pope in March of this year, professed religious vows as a Redemptorist in 1973, and studied at Mount Saint Alphonsus Seminary in Esopus, NY, earning Master's Degrees in Religious Education and Divinity. 

Before becoming Archbishop of Newark in 2017, Tobin served as Archbishop of Indianapolis from 2012, Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life from 2009, and was Superior General of the Redemptorists in Rome from 1997. 

Also on Monday, Professor William Daniel was appointed as a referendary of the signatura, essentially an expert consultant to the court asked to weigh in on especially complicated or sensitive cases. Daniel, a married layman and father of six, has been a professor at the School of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America since 2015 and is an internationally respected expert on the jurisprudence of the Church's supreme court, having published translations of its decisions and a handbook on good governance and the Church’s administrative law. Daniel is also the editor of The Jurist, the School of Canon Law’s academic journal.

A fourth American appointment to the court made by the pope on Monday was Cardinal James Harvey, a Wisconsin native, and former senior official in the Holy See’s diplomatic service and prefect of the papal household under St. John Paul II. Harvey was awarded a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University, before going on to study at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the school for the Church’s diplomatic service.

The Apostolic Signatura functions as the Church’s final court of appeal, both for canonical matters and in some cases in the civil courts of Vatican City. It is the court which hears cases appealing decisions or decrees from almost all Vatican departments on all categories of Church life. Among the few exceptions to this are disciplinary cases concerning crimes reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has its own Supreme Apostolic Tribunal delegated by the pope to handle especially sensitive criminal matters.

The bulk of the signatura’s caseload concerns appeals regarding the exercise of ecclesiastical governance through executive authority. If, for example, an individual or group with legal standing appeals against an act of governance placed by a diocesan bishop, that case is referred to the relevant Vatican department, often the Congregation for Clergy. Following the congregation’s decision, either party from the original appeal can then make further, final, recourse to the signatura.

Signatura decisions often primarily treat questions of administrative procedure and legal process, and rule on the proper exercise of authority in the Church. Members of the court are, therefore, often appointed in recognition of their technical expertise in the practice of canon law.

In total, Pope Francis named 12 new members of the court and seven referendaries. Other notable appointments include Cardinal Mario Greach, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.