Canon Law: Degrees & Seals

At Saturday’s listening session, one of the table “report outs” included this comment:

“We need a specialist in canon law – the previous Vicar General had a doctorate in canon law, but our current Vicar does not have any such training or experience. With the Nowak case, there is the matter of the seal of the confessional – the Diocese needs to ask a canon lawyer about that.”

In response, Bishop Malone said the following:

“I should note in response to a comment this morning that Msgr. Slubecky did not have a doctorate in canon law – he had another sort of degree. Msgr. Sal Manganello does have a degree in canon law. And you’ll be interested to know that a young woman with a degree in canon law will be joining our tribunal team next month.”

As soon as I heard Bishop Malone’s response, I was bothered by it. He clearly avoided the primary point of the table’s comment: our current Vicar General has no canon law degree (regardless of the specific title of it) and this lack of experience may impact current cases within the Diocese.

Fr. Peter Karalus has no training, experience or expertise in canon law. If he did, such a thing would have been noted in the WNY Catholic article that marked his appointment as Vicar General. But it did not:

Karalus text from WNYC

In contrast, let’s look at Msgr. David Slubecky, who was Vicar General from 2005-2018. Here is what is obituary – published in the WNY Catholic and available to read here – indicated about his canon law education:

“In September of 1983, he returned to Rome to obtain a graduate degree in Canon Law. ”

So Monsignor Slubecky did not have a “doctorate” in canon law, but he did have a graduate degree – known as a J.C.L. Incidentally, this J.C.L. is the same degree that Msgr. Sal Manganello possesses. Fr. Bob Zilliox has one too.

J. C. L. stands for juris canonici licentiata, which means “licentiate of canon law.” It is an advanced graduate degree within canon law. You obtain such a degree through study at a pontifical university. In Msgr. Slubecky’s case, he received his degree from the Gregorian University in Rome.

There is a doctorate in canon law and if you reach that level of study, you can put J.C.D. after your name. That suffix stands for juris canonici doctor or “doctor of canon law.” To my knowledge, the only priest of our diocese who possesses this doctorate is Msgr. Jerry Sullivan, a retired priest who serves on the Diocesan Review Board and is a Promoter of Justice in the Tribunal.

In Msgr. Slubecky’s case, his full title was as follows: Rev. Msgr. David S. Slubecky, S.T.L., J.C.L. That S.T.L. suffix refers to a licentiate in Sacred Theology, which is an ecclesiastical degree in advanced theological study. Msgr. Slubecky received that degree from the Angelicum University in Rome.

Now let’s look at what qualifies a priest to be the vicar general of a diocese:

Canon 478 §1: The Vicar general is to be a priest of not less than thirty years of age, with a doctorate or licentiate in canon law or theology, or at least well versed in these disciplines. He is to be known for his sound doctrine, integrity, prudence and practical experience.

As we can see, Msgr. Slubecky was qualified by virtue of his licentiates in canon law and theology. No, he did not have a doctorate, but he did have two licentiates in the proper fields of study.

Being the Vicar General of a diocese is a very significant role as canon law makes clear:

Can. 479 §1: In virtue of his office, the Vicar general has the same executive power throughout the whole diocese as that which belongs by law to the diocesan Bishop: that is, he can perform all administrative acts, with the exception however of those which the Bishop has reserved to himself, or which by law require a special mandate of the Bishop.

The Vicar General is the highest-ranking official in a diocese after the bishop. It is a huge responsibility and a very demanding job.

I hope you can see why the point raised by that listening session table was a very valid one: “We need a specialist in canon law – the previous Vicar General had a doctorate in canon law, but our current Vicar does not have any such training or experience. With the Nowak case, there is the matter of the seal of the confessional – the Diocese needs to ask a canon lawyer about that.”

But instead of speaking to their concern about a lack of canon law experience in our current Vicar General and how that absence impacts current cases, Bishop Malone chose to instead point out that Msgr. Slubecky didn’t have a doctorate. That wasn’t the point, Bishop Malone, and you know it! A lay person doesn’t need to know the distinctions between a doctorate and a licentiate in canon law. I believe the table that raised this point meant that Msgr. Slubecky had a degree in canon law – discussing the fine points of that degree is a tactic to avoid the greater question. This is typical Malonese… pointing out someone’s error (he loves doing that) while avoiding a challenging question.

Based on their reference to “the Nowak case,” the question raised by that table seems to have been prompted by this recent Charlie report. In this report, a Seminarian for the Diocese of Buffalo alleges that Fr. Jeff Nowak “broke the seal of confession and has used information obtained from within the confessional to my detriment.”

Canon law is VERY clear about the inviolability of the seal of confession. Canon 983 states: It is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion. Canon 984 goes on to say: The confessor is wholly forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent.

The penalty for violating the seal of confession is appropriately severe:

Can. 1388 §1. A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.

Back to Latin… latae sententiae means “the sentence has already passed” so we can call this automatic excommunication. This is contrasted with a ferendae sententiae excommunication, which occurs after a canonical trial has taken place. A latae sententiae excommunication does not require such a trial because the individual essentially brings this excommunication upon himself due to the severity of the offense he has committed.

(Please note that excommunications can be lifted if an individual admits to what he/she has done and atones for their offense.)

I don’t want the point of this post to be lost in Latin and suffixes and details such as those. The point is that Bishop Malone referred to an important question but instead of actually addressing it, he nitpicked about the type of degree in question. 

Bishop Malone: your Vicar General does not have any experience in canon law other than a few courses at the Seminary, which every priest of our diocese has to take. Who is advising you on matters of canon law? Is canon law being considered and consulted when it comes to the Nowak case? For the sake of everyone involved, the serious allegations raised by the Seminarian need to be carefully examined and investigated according to canon law. Civil law needs to be considered as well due to the harassment and stalking allegations, but canon law cannot be forgotten or neglected.



3 thoughts on “Canon Law: Degrees & Seals

  • Wow. This just keep getting worse and worse. Bishop Malone please resign and take EVERYONE in that Catholic Center with you!! We need to start from scratch


  • How unkind of you Louise! There are devout folks working there trying to serve God instead of quarterbacking from the sidelines.


    • Shelly I worked there, not speaking from sidelines. The deceit, greed, and self preservation is what rules the day. The defense of and loyalty to the bishop and the cover up of abuse is rampant there. Yes there are some good people but I stand by by comment. We need to clean house and start over.


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