a letter to the editor of Latin Mass magazine
(November–December 1994), Gary Potter stated that the Holy Office’s 13 February
1953 decree excommunicating the Rev. Leonard Feeney was dubious because it was
“signed by no one except a mere Vatican notary.” I have also heard this
argument from other supporters of Fr. Feeney. Is there anything to it?
Holy Office decree in question (Acta
Apostolicae Sedis xxxxv, 100) reads as follows:
Priest Leonard Feeneyis Declared Excommunicated
the priest Leonard Feeney, a resident of Boston (Saint Benedict Center), who
for a long time has been suspended a
divinis for grave disobedience toward church authority, has not, despite
repeated warnings and threats of incurring excommunication ipso facto, come to his senses, the Most Eminent and Reverend
Fathers, charged with safeguarding matters of faith and morals, have, in a
Plenary Session held on Wednesday 4 February 1953, declared him excommunicated
with all the effects of the law.
Thursday, 12 February 1953, our Most Holy Lord Pius XII, by Divine Providence
Pope, approved and confirmed the decree of the Most Eminent Fathers, and
ordered that it be made a matter of public law.
at Rome, at the headquarters of the Holy Office, 13 February 1953.
supporter of Father Feeney, Thomas Mary Sennott, in his book They Fought the Good Fight, likewise hints
that the effect of the decree was open to question:
It is to be noted that this document does not
contain the seal of the Holy Office, nor is it signed by Cardinal Pizzardo or
the Holy Father. The only signature is that of a notary public. (256)
an American, the phrase “notary public” summons up the image of the
frizzy-haired, gum-chewing 18-year-old girl down at the bank who puts her
notary stamp on your fishing license.
reality here is quite a bit different. In legal systems based on Roman law, a
“notary” is a type of lawyer. He does not merely witness signatures; he is
trained and authorized to draw up complex legal documents. In the Curia,
certain Notaries had the right to function in ceremonial positions of honor at
the Solemn Papal Mass. (when none of them, presumably, chewed gum…)
form of the decree against Fr. Feeney, in fact, was an oraculum vivae vocis — a legal act the pope or a Roman congregation
first gives orally in an audience or a Plenary Congregation. Such an act is
taken down in writing by one of the curial officials present, who afterwards
puts it into an appropriate legal form.
act is then promulgated (as a decree, decision, declaration, etc.) under the
signature of a Notary, who is giving official written testimony of what he has
heard in the audience or congregation. His testimony is given full faith and
credit, and the act is law.
can find a treatment of this form of legislation in various commentaries on the
Code of Canon Law.
oraculum vivae vocis is a standard
form for many Roman decrees, including excommunications. For examples, see Acta Apostolicae Sedis, xii (1920), 37;
xiv (1922), 379–380; xxii (1930), 517–520.
decree excommunicating Fr. Feeney thus followed the proper legal form. The technical
defects his followers allege against it on these grounds are non-existent.
14, Spring 1995).