By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 19, 2008
David Castronovo uses his empty espresso paper cup on the café table to make a point about one of the finer details of canon law and marriage.
Say, for instance, you want an espresso. You ask for an espresso. The barista tells you it’s an espresso as you are handed an espresso cup.
What’s the problem? “It’s orange juice,” he said.
It is an illustration of deceit, one of the grounds for seeking an annulment of marriage. Castronovo describes deceit in the real world that can go something like this: Mary and Joe are dating. Joe is a policeman. Mary has been in jail for two years. She is very much in love, and she doesn’t want to confess to Joe. She does everything to hide her past.
After the wedding, accidentally, Joe discovers everything and applies for annulment.
Castronovo, who is 33, arrived at the Catholic Center from Italy in January 2007 at the Atlanta Archdiocese Metropolitan Tribunal as a canon lawyer, trained to make sense of the Catholic Church’s centuries-old legal code. He works as the chief advocate, working on behalf of people seeking to nullify their marriage.
“To win is not the goal. … The first and last rule is the health of the souls. And we are proceeding in that direction. We are serving the people for this. It’s not a war,” he said in his Italian-accented English. The civil lawyer turned canon lawyer talked last fall.
He also brings inside knowledge about the church bureaucracy. He has contacts with church officials in Vatican offices and comes with a list of e-mail address and phone numbers of people working on cases. It helps ensure Atlanta issues don’t get lost in the shuffle.
Diane Barr, the court administrator, said Castronovo is a good resource for ensure Atlanta Archdiocese, especially to have someone trained in Rome.
“It’s good cross pollination. That cross pollination just makes for much better understanding of the law,” she said.
From Imperial Roman To 21st Century
Canon lawyers work with the world’s oldest legal system.
Every human institution has a set of rules to live by, and the church is no different. It is a code-based system of law that dates back centuries. The law emerged from church councils, like Nicaea in 325, papal legislation, and even decrees of ancient Rome.
Canon law is similar to laws used in Europe but very different from the common law system used in the United States. One exception is Louisiana, where state law in part relies on canon law and, for example, calls its counties “parishes.”
There are some 1,752 individual laws in the seven books that make up the law of the church. It largely deals with religious issues, but it also governs areas like property, contracts and other more earthy items. Today, most Catholics come in contact with canon law only on marriage issues. Civil courts have taken over matters that used to be resolved in church courts, like wills and testaments and even criminal behavior.
Canon law was revised in 1983 as one of the final acts stemming from Vatican Council II. The revision renewed laws approved in 1918.
From Vatican To Peachtree Street
Castronovo was hired as the tribunal rebuilt itself, improving services to other areas of the local church.
He grew up in Rome, Italy, where his father works in City Hall and his mother stayed at home. Castronovo comes from a devout Catholic family. He tells the story of how his grandmother snuck out to secret church meetings when the Italian government under dictator Benito Mussolini banned gatherings.
Castronovo trained as a lawyer to handle civil matters. But he wasn’t satisfied with business law. He wanted to serve people in the church.
“Civil law is not very respectful of the human being. In canon law, it is very respectful of the human person and about the soul,” he said.
Now, he lives in downtown Atlanta and attends Sacred Heart Church. Away from the office, Castronovo plays pickup soccer games on the weekends.
Old Law, Old Language
A stint as a soldier to Bosnia fueled his interest in traveling outside Italy. He jumped at the Atlanta opportunity when he learned about the opening during his studies at the Sacred Roman Rota, a prestigious canon law school. The institution doubles as a law school and a court, the second highest court in the Catholic Church. There is only one higher. As Castronovo put it, “You can go to the pope. It’s the highest court of appeal. They can appeal to the pope.”
A distinguished training program, it takes a six-hour exam to get into the school located in the Vatican. Half the class quits before the end of the three years. Course work and instruction is in Latin, the official language of the church. Castronovo returned to Italy this fall to successfully defend his doctoral dissertation, which focused on interfaith marriages.
One of Castronovo’s tasks is to guide the other advocates in the Metropolitan Tribunal’s work with Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“He brings a really good knowledge about service to the community,” Barr said.