What does it take to stump a canon lawyer? On the evening of Thursday, April 12, more than a dozen people gathered to find out at Blessed Sacrament School in Milwaukee, where canonists Fr. Mark Payne and Dr. Zabrina Decker gave a presentation on the Church’s 1752 canons, or universal laws.

Decker is the tribunal chancellor for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and holds a doctorate in canon law from the Catholic University of America. Fr. Payne is the pastor at Blessed Sacrament Parish as well as the tribunal vice-chancellor; he holds a licentiate in canon law from Catholic University of America.

Susan Peterson McNeil, director of the office for lay ministry, introduced the canon lawyers by explaining that, as the moderator of the popular Facebook group Milwaukee Catholic Mamas, she often jokes with Fr. Payne that she needs his cell phone number to help her answer late-night inquiries posted by members of the 2,000-strong group about issues like annulments and godparent eligibility.

Describing the practice of canon law as a ministry, Fr. Payne explained that “in studying the law, you don’t study it just from the book. You study it from shared experience.”

“You use it (the law) — it’s not simply words in a book,” he said. “Good fences make good neighbors. So when we know the law and how it protects us and helps us grow, it also furthers our relationship with one another and how we interact with each other.”

“The law is not to be used as a weapon,” said Dr. Decker. “The law is to be used as a conduit to help, as a way to assist someone in their life with the church.”

She read from the last canon of the code, Canon 1752, which says that “salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.”

“The salvation of souls — that’s what we’re here for,” she said.

The session began with a brief overview of the history of canon law delivered by Decker. Rooted in Scripture, canon law developed through the centuries into a universal code that could be applied to Christians living all over the world. Far from being an arbitrarily laid down set of rules and restrictions, the canons are, in fact, a means of helping Christians to live in harmony with God’s plan for their lives, and were formulated in response to common issues experienced by the faithful.

“The law follows life,” explained Dr. Decker. “Show me a code and I will show you what it is in response to.”

Some discussion points of the evening included:

If you are divorced can you still receive the sacraments? Yes — “It’s when you enter into a new marriage, then you cannot receive the sacraments,” explained Fr. Payne. “Until you go through the process (of obtaining an annulment), you are still married.”

Do two Catholics who are getting married in a Catholic church need to be confirmed? No — but it is encouraged.

Does a Catholic have to be confirmed in order to be a godparent? Yes. “You are not a godparent (if you are not confirmed) — you are a Christian witness,” said Fr. Payne. One confirmed Catholic is necessary to act as godparent for a baptism.

If two people get an annulment, are their children illegitimate? No. “It has nothing to do with the children, only the relationship between the two parties,” said Decker.

Can the children of a couple in an irregular marriage be baptized? Yes.

Does your parish priest have access to your annulment file? Never. “That is confidential information,” said Fr. Payne. A final decree is issued, which can be presented to a priest when either of the parties wishes to remarry. Members of the tribunal take oaths of secrecy, added Decker.

How much does an annulment cost? Well, quite a lot — but the cost is almost entirely born by the Catholic Stewardship Appeal, which funds the tribunal and its staff. Petitioners themselves are only responsible for $525, but if someone cannot pay, “we waive the fee,” said Decker. “And Fr. Payne and I don’t know who pays — it’s handled by one notary in our office. This is not tied to money.”

Can you fire godparents? No, and you can’t have their names removed from the baptismal certificate.

Can a Catholic get married at Disneyland if a priest performs the ceremony? “If there’s a priest marrying a couple outside the Catholic Church, he’s in trouble, unless he’s got permission, and that’s rare and far between,” said Fr. Payne. But the marriage can be validated in the Catholic Church after the civil marriage took place elsewhere. “But in the eyes of the Church, there was one wedding ceremony — ours,” said Decker. “And the date they celebrate is the date of the validation.”


Decker and Fr. Payne are available to visit other parishes to host similar presentations, said McNeil. To inquire, email or call 414-769-3300.