My own parish went through something of a kerfuffle about a month ago regarding a renovation of our church building, which is only fifteen years old. Political tiffs are somewhat unusual for us, thanks be to God. I expressed my own reservations to my pastor (with my wife) in writing about three or four weeks ago, raising three points: (1) the question of elective interior decorating of our church at a time when the Pope has called for greater pastoral sensitivity to the poor; (2) failure to communicate the full scope of the project, which has been until now discretely referred to from the pulpit as a necessary replacement of the HVAC and the flooring; (3) a lack of parish consultation smacking of clericalism. The full project plans were unexpectedly released to parishioners via a widely circulated emailing of the blueprints by a bidder on the project, I believe. I received emailed copies from parishioners I don't even know. Shortly thereafter, we were officially awash in elevations and budgets from the office, but from a public relations standpoint for our parish, it was the clumsiest rollout since Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner at the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant.
[To keep from getting too serious here on matters of parish unrest, I must interject my favorite Wizard of Id cartoon. Sir Rodney rushes into the king's chamber, and exclaims, "Sire, the peasants are revolting." To which the king mutters, "You can say that again."]
In the bigger picture of the American Church, our local issue is, relatively speaking, small potatoes. Fiat of bishops routinely and legally, from the vantage point of Church Law, close parishes and schools. Some parishes have been rocked by criminal scandal, usually monetary and not always child abuse. My present parish has not suffered this sort of turmoil, though as a pastor I was victimized by a $60,000 embezzlement many years ago. All the same, some of my own fellow parishioners who have little experience in the rough and tumble of parish life have contacted me via multiple channels with the question, "What are our options to protest the church plans?" Well, the time-honored method of protest is with check book or the feet. I am not advocating these as first options, because the relationship of pastor and parishioner is important, and the more dignified--and possibly more fruitful--strategy is direct dialogue with the pastor, in person or via a civil and signed correspondence, pen and paper, not email. Among the other values of this approach is the opportunity for the parishioner to think through his or her position carefully. (And, in this case, the funding is coming from reserves and there is no capital campaign.)
But cutting to the chase, the fact is that a parishioner in any Catholic church has little or no effective "power" in the Church. There is some confusion on this point; Vatican II devoted considerable ink to the importance of the laity in the life of the Church and particularly in the exercise of ministry alongside the clergy. Lay persons have made significant strides in nearly all aspects of parochial life, even in chanceries. However, in terms of the exercise of juridical or legal Church authority, the standard authoritative voice of the Church is the Code of Canon Law. Even with the revision of the Code in 1983, most commentators of my acquaintance would hold that the Code reflects a pre-Conciliar, pyramid approach to Church authority, with laity at the bottom of the pile.
Church law is different from United State Constitutional Law. The sole, primary "client" of Canon Law is the good order of the Apostolic mission, the working of the universal Church. This is a significant difference from the American philosophy of emphasis upon individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Church Law is inherently protective of the good order of the Faith; the close calls will generally go to the ordained ministers due to their consecrated link to the Apostles. A link to the full Code is here; you might wish to scroll the table of contents. You can buy a full copy, or a commentary, on Amazon, among other places.
This is not to say, however, that Canon Law is not advantageous to the laity. If a loved one is dying, Canon Law insures that a validly ordained priest must meet your request for the Last Rites of a loved one. If a priest is unjustly accused of misconduct, he has appeal to an internal Church court trial to restore his name and ministry. [Church tribunals do not replace or override civil/criminal courts where civil statutes are violated, as in matters of child abuse.] If a divorced Catholic seeks to remarry in the Church, a Tribunal must accept the request and expedite it with appropriate timeliness.
In the management of a diocese or parish, however, the bishop or pastor has virtually full authority. In the past decade or two, it has happened that clusters of Catholics have retained Canon lawyers to restrain their bishops from closing a beloved parish church; some groups have been successful, some have not. In such cases Vatican judges still revert to the basic principle of the good of the universal Church, in these cases the best allotment of priest personnel in the judgment of the local bishop. Civil courts rarely become involved in church property cases due to the principle of corporate sole, which I will explain below.
In Church Law, there is very little a bishop cannot do. He must “take possession” of his diocese within four months of his appointment of the pope. In the United States, a bishop of a diocese is recognized in civil law or secular authority as the sole owner of everything in a diocese under the principle of “corporation sole:” a legal entity consisting of a single ("sole") incorporated office, occupied by a single ("sole") natural person.” In short, civil courts recognize the local bishop as sole owner of everything Catholic, from your parish church to diocesan cemeteries. Some dioceses have attempted to break this tradition by incorporating each parish, to avoid the financial onus of expensive abuse settlements (I would not be a happy camper in a Sacramento parish.)
Canon Law states in several places that bishops ought to consult with various bodies within the Church, but he is not bound to follow their advice. A diocesan financial council, composed of at least three laymen, is required by Canon 492ff, as is a priests’ council (Canon 495ff) and a pastoral council (Canon 511ff). The bishop chooses all or parts of each body; the law is clear that these bodies are consultative, not deliberative. Bishops have virtually no restriction on reassigning priests nor are they bound to explain the reasons for transfers. This unfettered authority over priest transfers contributed to the scope of the priest abuse scandal, as those of you who watched the movie “Spotlight” will easily recall.
There are several instances where bishops must consult with Rome. My Canon Law is rusty, but I believe that the sale of churches (“alienation of church property”) is one of them. I was president of my diocese’s priests’ council twice under two bishops; both bishops were affable with me but I cannot recall any major issues of substance coming our way for deliberation; I always had the sense that the enclosure of the chancery building and proximity to the bishop was where substantive matters were discussed.
On the parish level, despite popular belief, there is no universal requirement for a parish council. A bishop can mandate parish councils if the priests’ council recommends it. On the other hand, Canon 537 mandates a parish finance council “to aid the pastor in the administration of parish goods.” Neither a parish council nor a finance council is elective per law; the pastor is entrusted with making prudent decisions on membership. I never had difficulty over the principle of appointed boards; good stewardship mandates careful selection by the pastor of those with whom he consults. On the other hand, the spirit of the law—and common sense—would seem to dictate that the identity of the boards and access to the members by parishioners at large is a value to be promoted, along with notifications and public minutes of meetings. [As pastor, I had one significant rule of disclosure: discussion of individual staff salaries was not a matter of advisory meetings.] My own parish today is woefully lax in this regard; one can scour church bulletins, mailings, and official websites without a hint of the name of the parish council president. This is one reason, I believe, that misunderstandings in my own parish arose.
Pastors can hire and fire as they see fit; they are, of course, bound to appropriate civil laws on matters of safety and a state’s labor relations statutes. As Church officers, they are free to fire even contracted employees such as Catholic school teachers if they discover violations of the Catholic moral code incorporated into every standard contract, on matters such as living together outside of marriage, marriage outside the Church, or same-sex marriages. Of course, bishops enjoy the same absolute power over pastors, as the clergy of Memphis, Tennessee, discovered this month.
Surveys of those who have left the Church identify many reasons; specific absence of voice in parish affairs does not jump out of the dozen or so most cited reasons. What does emerge clearly is the importance of the relationship with the pastor. In the elongated interviews of the above-mentioned study, I came across a case where a mother’s request for a church burial rite for her nine-year-old son was refused by a priest because the cemetery wasn’t Catholic!
The heart of all disputes among believers arises from the Church’s continuous theological struggle to define authority and its interplay between clergy and laity. Theological writing on the matter continues to this day. I am currently reading Richard R. Gaillardetz, ed., A Church with Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium (2015). Gaillardetz (pp. 87ff) makes an excellent point: the structures of authority we currently employ in the Church are derived from the centuries old secular model of government, where power is a zero-sum game. That is, kings have most of the power, and the peasants virtually none.
Gaillardetz contends that such a concept of authority and power is counter to Jesus’ sense of power, which is based upon the concept of diakonia or service. In discussing “greatness,” a preoccupation among the disciples, Jesus consistently stresses that the greatest among them is the lowliest, the one who sees himself as servant of all. Even Gaillardetz admits that there is something utopian about this model of humble authority, but the same could be said about much of Jesus’ teachings. We might be a holier church—and probably a more peaceful one—if we approached our life in the Church with more Biblical insight and less cultural sentiment on the ways we live together as the Body of Christ.
It’s good to be at the desk again after a two-week trip up north for family visitations and a little sightseeing. The trip was anchored around my niece Mandi’s wedding in Western New York on June 3 and Margaret’s grand-niece’s baptism last Sunday. I did not post my absence on the Café’s Facebook site for security reasons, but I did several entries as time allowed from a portable platform on the road.
I will have the Gospel post for Sunday’s Feast of Corpus Christi available by Friday at the latest, and will get back into a regular routine for the next five weeks or so until it is time to pack a suitcase again.
The mail box contained several inquiries and news stories providing topics that I can address as particular issues, and each does deserve at least a full post. For several weeks now I have been getting personal and emailed questions about a renovation of my own parish church, generally along the lines of the rights of parishioners to weigh in on the decisions of pastors where large expenditures of funds are involved. I have corresponded privately with my pastor about my own concerns, in my case a sense of dissonance between cosmetic ecclesiastical interior decorating and Pope Francis’s rather pronounced preference for the poor and away from the “bling.” I weighed carrying this over to the blog, but Catholics in any parish do have a right to understand their duties and powers in the full Church legal structure. In a few days get ready for a trip into Canon Law—and prepare to be surprised.
Another question--on general parish life--had to do with assignment of priests as pastors from other countries and continents. The fear seems to be that the sermons would be unintelligible. I will address this as a day’s entry, too, but for the moment I would offer three considerations. With the multiple closings of parishes around the country (see this story about the Archdiocese of Hartford and reader comments), the presence of a pastor who is struggling with English is (1) not only a heroic thing to witness, but (2) represents a bishop’s effort to allow a parish to keep its corporate identity instead of closing it. A further point (3) is the popular belief that Catholics receive all their doctrine and spirituality in a ten-minute dose on Sunday. Truthfully, a Catholic adult must be a daily reader and student of Scripture, a self-starter, so to speak. I hesitate to add this final point, but (4) there are a lot of sermons in perfect English which are unintelligible, too but without excuse.
While I was on the road I received this news item from the conservative National Catholic Register about the Archdiocese of Denver restoring the order of the sacraments, so that children would receive Confirmation in the third grade, at the same Mass as their First Communion. Today’s Register updated the story; several dioceses, including Manchester, N.H., are undertaking the same move. Portland, Maine, in fact, has been following this practice for 20 years. Again, this news is worthy of consideration here at the Café.
The United States Bishops are meeting in Indianapolis presently, their annual spring assembly. The Register focuses on the agenda—issues to be discussed, and some that need addressing but will not be mentioned. I find it interesting that the bishops, who generally avoided all things Obamacare over the past eight years because of the contraception mandate, are now voicing considerable concern over the threats to health care for the poor under the present regime. Interesting. And finally, I learned that my own Orlando will be hosting a large convention of clergy and laity July 1-4, “A Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America.” Again, the Register has the details here. I tried to get tickets, but the event is by invitation only.
The event is hosted and organized by the USCCB. Several thousand people will be in attendance; $500,000 has been spent on scholarships alone. The purpose of the meeting is a national sharing of vision, goals, and strategy for the purpose of evangelization. Ideally, the term “evangelization” means bringing the good news of Christ to the world. In practice, it often means bringing people back to the Catholic Church, in this case the “Nones” who are mentioned in the article. The social scientist in me screams out for some evidence that our current ways of evangelizing show any measure of success. Or from another direction, what does research tell us about why so many Catholics have left the Church, or organized religion, for that matter.
I end on this note because I did not abandon my theological reading in the lounges of Best Westerns and Hampton Inns, particularly the ones with 24-hour coffee. I read significant portions of Richard Gaillardetz et. al., A Church with Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium. One point brought home by Gaillardetz: in terms of evangelization, we might do well to listen for a change, with the assumption that there are a lot of good people out there who might bring something to the Church if, indeed, the doors were opened. Having just attended a weekend Catholic sacramental celebration with very intelligent millennials, I would have loved to pick their brains. Hopefully, this will become the Church's project, too.
The "Family Life Markers" tour continued yesterday (Tuesday) with a trip on the commuter North Metro line from Croton to Grand Central Station in Manhattan for a day of socializing and sightseeing. It was the first day of my life I ate two meals in GCS, if you could two giant black and white cookies as a supper meal before catching the 6:52 back to Croton.
After a leisurely two-hour lunch Margaret and I struck out on foot for the 40-block hike along Fifth Avenue to the Metro Museum of Art. Along the way we visited temples to God (St. Patrick's Cathedral) and mammon (Trump Tower, yes that Trump Tower). We thought about walking in and walking out of the latter just to say we did it, but suffice to say that the personnel and the firepower gave us cause to pause.
We stayed in the Museum till they threw us out at 5:30, and judging the speed (or absence thereof) of traffic, we decided to walk back instead of hailing a cab, and we did get back to GCS much faster. I don't have time to elaborate on the museum's collection, but the medieval collection is very interesting, particularly if you have any background in medieval spirituality or theology. It would be great to incorporate prints of such art into the blog from time to time; perhaps with some technical assistance down the road we can make that work.
The main reason for trekking into NYC was lunch with one of Margaret's good friends and former religious superiors. Quite a few years of collective religious experience and reflection at our little table. All of us had experiences with superiors in our formations who can only be classified as "crazy." We laughed (now, of course) but on a serious note we did reflect upon the mores of the times in the Church when such abuses went unchecked.
It would be nice to say that such abuses of power are a thing of the past, but I get regular emails personally and through the Cafe from individuals still suffering confusion and anger about excesses of clerical authority, even in my own parish. My generation still has enough foot soldiers to fight the wars, but the research and statistics are there to see that the younger generations are voting with their feet and moving on to other Churches or more likely to no defined assemblies, the "Nones" as they are called. I hope that CARA or PEW gets around to talking to these folks who used to be among us. At the end of the day, they just might have less patience than we did.