Q. In 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?
A. The Holy Office decree in question (Acta Apostolicae Sedis xxxxv, 100) reads as follows:
The Priest Leonard Feeneyis Declared Excommunicated
Since 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.
On 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.
Given at Rome, at the headquarters of the Holy Office, 13 February 1953.
Marius Crovini, Notary
Another 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)
For 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.
The 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…)
The 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.
The 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.
One can find a treatment of this form of legislation in various commentaries on the Code of Canon Law.
The 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.
The decree excommunicating Fr. Feeney thus followed the proper legal form. The technical defects his followers allege against it on these grounds are non-existent.
(Sacerdotium 14, Spring 1995).