In 1983 Pope John Paul II approved publication of a revised Code of Canon Law. I reviewed the portions applicable to rights of the laity per se, specifically Canons 208 through 231. Some of the rights may surprise you: Canon 212 (2) states that “…the Christian faithful are free to make known their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires to the pastors of the Church.” Canon 217 declares the rights of a Christian education. Canon 221 states that “Christians…can legitimately vindicate and defend the rights which they enjoy in the Church before a competent ecclesiastical court in accord with the norm of law.”
Unfortunately there are 1700 other Canons with multiple subsets that in many ways nullify the little specific recourse available to laity. Canon Law, and the American practice of incorporating dioceses under the category of corporate sole, renders the powers of a bishop, and to significant degree a pastor, as virtually unimpeachable.
How does this impact the Catholic parishioner, staff professional or catechetical volunteer? One of the most basic rights of the baptized is access to vital information. If Mass attendance is falling in a parish, or collections are dropping, the matter needs open discussion as this is a matter of joint responsibility in terms of the parish’s assessment of why this is happening, what needs to be corrected, and how evangelization efforts can be brought to bear.
Financial obfuscation is perhaps most viscerally troubling. A few days ago I cited a National Catholic Reporter in-depth analysis of shortfalls in priests’ pensions and the generally poor accountability practices of dioceses. Professor Jack Ruhl argues that “every diocese should post a full set of audited financial statements on its website within 60 days of the close of the fiscal year, and that such disclosures should include the entire diocesan accounting entity (including, for instance, seminaries and pensions). He also suggests that priests and laity should assume the roles of financial watchdogs over diocesan resources, and that all dioceses with projected pension shortfalls should initiate a plan to fully fund the shortfalls within a reasonable period (he suggests three years).” Without this kind of openness, donors are correct to be cautious and direct funds to Catholic institutions whose practices are marked by transparency.
Another highly troubling feature of parish life that may directly affect many readers of this blog is the matter of workplace rights. Except for those cases specifically outlined in federal law (age, illness, handicap, race) bishops and pastors may and do fire at will with no recourse open to a parish employee. There is some rumbling now in the press about this state of affairs. The firing of whistle blowers in child abuse cases, and the more recent efforts of bishops to classify Catholic school teachers as ministers (essentially ending whatever state worker regulations might be in play) are beginning to awaken concerned Catholics (but unfortunately driving many more from the fold).
Many of you who volunteer under the guidance under a competent religious education coordinator would naturally find it difficult to see your coordinator unexpectedly terminated. In the current climate there is the unfortunate tendency of some to immediately suspect moral turpitude. In truth the reason for the firing might rest with the pastor’s issues: his “gut” perception that the administrator is too liberal, or less than enthusiastic about the pastor’s eccentric spiritual whimsies, or his discomfort in working with a strong woman. How does an employee find redress in the current structure?
These kinds of issues add worry and stress to an already demanding lifestyle of Church ministry whether you are paid or volunteer. I have counseled many individuals caught in a mesh of ecclesiastical unfairness that was not of their making. I generally made these points; (1) workplace imbalance and injustice is not constitutive of the Church of Jesus Christ; (2) The errors of a pastor or administrator do not invalidate the competency and commitment of a Catholic worker; (3) there is something to be said for Jesus’ advice about shaking the dust off one’s feet.
And I also would remind them of a provision that is not included in the 1983 Code; an individual is not bound to worship or serve in the territorial parish in which he or she lives. The good of souls (specifically your own) takes precedence.