I am on the road this coming Saturday, though not exactly for a long drive. I am going “cross town,” actually, to teach for my diocese in of all places the parish of my former pastorate, where I was stationed for the entire decade of the 1980’s. Over the years I have made occasional or annual visits, perhaps to the parish’s fall festival, for example. I do not worship there as we are members of the parish where my wife was the school principal for two decades before she retired. Also, I felt it was good protocol to make a clean break from the parish where I had served the longest. The Vatican requests this as a condition of the laicization process, though the local bishop has the final word on the activities of laicized priests. In my diocese all of them have been very congenial to my educational work. On a practical note, it is also good ecclesiastical politics to get out of the way of succeeding pastors. What I do find amusing is that having been gone now for 26 years, it is rare to encounter anyone there who remembers me. Sic transit gloria mundi. (“So goes the fame of this world.”)
I will be teaching one of our advanced sacraments courses, and I need today to update the outline and add new sources, so I don’t have a full Wednesday entry. But like manna from heaven, a very interesting link fell into my lap as I opened my email during “Morning Joe.” I heard from First Things, the conservative ecumenical/Catholic journal available in multiple formats including email (free, as far as I can tell, along with a daily newsletter I subscribe to.) This most recent email newsletter/essay is compiled by George Weigel, the noted Catholic author and biographer of Pope John Paul II. Weigel reports that the Synod of the Family, which begins on October 5, will be covered for First Things by Xavier Rynne II. There is great historical humor in this, as the original Xavier Rynne reported under the Rynne pseudonym during Vatican II. In that instance it was a progressive observer reporting on a Council controlled by conservatives; in this instance Rynne Junior is a conservative covering a synod that many conservatives believe stacked in favor of progressives. I can’t wait to begin reading these reports, and you may wish to subscribe to daily updates or connect First Things to your “favorites” tab. Rynne II’s second installment is here…I just found it.
Weigel also writes today about a new memoir from Vatican II by the theologian and noted peritus or Council advisor Henri de Lubac—you will recognize the names of some of the players from our own look at Vatican II here at the blog—and he includes an excellent thought on John Paul II’s vision of the family. While I occasionally disagree with some editorial positions of First Things, it is a strong academic, literary and orthodox contributor to Catholic thought today that I never ignore.
Thursday’s Catechism Analysis on Paragraph 19 is nearly finished and should go up tonight or early tomorrow.
If you are currently an administrator in the Church or you are planning to make leadership in church ministry a long term commitment, I’m going to give you a free piece of advice that will save your parish or local church an incredible amount of time and confusion, as well as improve the utilization of the talents of your members and potential volunteers. Here it is (and I feel like I should demand your VISA card number first, because this is so valuable):
Don’t change anything.
You heard me right. Don’t change anything. Instead, improve what you have. I have learned this lesson myself the hard way, working with the Church and with government entities as a therapist for my state. Change is difficult for the human organism—both for the ones originating it and for the ones who have to implement it and clean up the mess afterward. Baptism indeed should be challenging to all, but the challenge should emanate from the Word and Sacraments, not bureaucratic self-aggrandizement or utter administrative panic.
Now I have been around long enough to know that if someone is making a change—in personnel, teaching material, position titles, names of programs and the like—he or she will inevitably defend this on nebulous intellectual belief and particularly the emotional hope that “change equals improvement.” A few honest folks might admit to me privately that “changes” are financial necessities where two positions have been merged into a new third position with a new title to disguise the fact that in fact there is one less minister in the field.
I believe in a forward looking, prophetic church—local and universal—as much as the next guy, but there is much to be said for stability. We are approaching a Synod on the Family, and more than once we will hear about the importance of stable family life. Would it be fair to say that the same principle holds true in the “parish family,” that we have a collective set of family rituals in church and home that bind us together, that we might return to through the inevitable passages of the life cycle? Consider your own parish’s music: are you building a tradition for your children or grandchildren, a cross generational staple of unity and praise?
I suspect that were Jesus walking the earth today, we might quote him as saying “Rend your hearts, not your programs.” Change of externals distracts from the changes of the heart in ways we may not ever comprehend.
(1) Change is driven by discontent of some sort: personal, relational, financial. Do we ever embrace the best way to examine this discontent, which may have very personal—even subconscious—roots? It is not fair for a church minister to inflict unresolved personal tensions on the body of the faithful.
(2) Change is rarely, if ever, research based. Strategies, tools and techniques are bandied about by word of mouth or conventions, but do we have a proven track record for the kinds of change we have in mind? My guess is that the price of such research—from such eminently qualified entities as CARA-- is considered a luxury in most budget-strapped churches and dioceses at a time when it is needed most.
(3) Change is strangling our ability to communicate about ministry. The last generation has seen a proliferation of eccentric local nomenclature for positions which used to bear regional and national recognition. Remember directors of religious educations, assistant pastors, CYO? Recently I actually came across an “assistant director of discipleship” in my travels. Aside from confusion and frustration these local mutations have no standard job descriptions, no standards of training, no salary ranges, and no way to gauge effectiveness. There is a lack of transparency for parishioners who fund these ministries in many cases.
(4) Change is rarely initiated from the ground up, unless it involves parking facilities. Collegiality and subsidiarity, two of Vatican II’s most significant statements of principle, are non-existent factors in parochial life. Canon Law notwithstanding, there is a true moral sense in which the parish faithful own the parish; the right to change the life of the faithful in ministry and liturgy must be earned.
(5) Change implies a pejorative judgment of previous church leaders and personnel who served the community with distinction. It often overlooks the strong attachments of parishioners to previous personnel, programs, parish traditions of worship, etc.
(6) Change, as an administrative policy, runs the strong possibility of injustice to paid and lay ministers alike. If there is a genuine problem of performance, have the moral (and in many cases, legal) strategies been first exhausted? Do ministers have a written job description? Do ministers receive at least annual concrete performance assessments? Do administrators document problems and discuss them with individual ministers? Are ministers schooled or trained in the skills necessary for their work? Addressing workplace problems by quick-draw personnel changes almost always guarantees a repeat of problems with the new hire.
(7) Building on the above paragraph, a hasty and/or habitual recourse to personnel change is counter to the Catholic tradition of working through difficult relationships, most notably in marriage and the religious life.
(8) Change as “declaration of policy” is rarely convincing or effective. Educators speak of their profession as behavioral change, built upon a lengthy cursus of principle and practice. St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of virtue as the gradual acquisition of the habit of sequential good works. Effective change comes about “in the doing,” not from the desk.
(9) A recourse to change as improvement is usually overkill: it is often the case that ministerial programs are more often in need of more spade work, training and patience, as participants and leaders develop a natural rhythm. Every cancelled parish initiative drives another nail in the coffin of ministerial continuity.
(10) Children develop best in an environment of discipline and stability. Catholics of all ages have more freedom to cultivate spirituality in a stable environment of consistency and quality.
So, before you do anything rash….
I regret that I could not be home today to post, but tomorrow (Thursday) we will have the Thursday Catechism discussion and on Friday a look at the changes in annulment procedures announced in Rome this week.
Pope Francis surprised the world by his announcement that he was granting “faculties” to all priests to absolve the sin of abortion during the Holy Year of 2016. It was a magnificent public gesture. It also has probably confused many if not most Catholics who believed that a priest could absolve anything. The Canonical guidelines are somewhat more complex; I never examined them closely because most of my priesthood was spent in the Franciscan Order, whose priests have had a number of “privileges” in the confessional for centuries. Let me begin here by noting a simple fact of life: a priest cannot preach or hear confessions in a diocese without the permission of the local bishop, who grants temporal or permanent faculties. In the case of the friars and some other orders, a priest receives universal faculties so long as he is in good standing with his order. At the reception following my ordination in Washington, DC, my local religious superior poked me in the chest and said, “You’ve got faculties.” A good thing, too, because I spent the first five days after ordination offering Mass and hearing confessions at all the high schools I had worked with inside the beltway over my five years in DC.
Sweeping the internet this morning, it became clear that the pope’s announcement caught the Canon Law community off guard. The official site of the Canon Law Society of America was not posting this news and its implications as of 11:45 AM today. I had better luck with two conservative news/blog sites for a detailed analysis here and an even more detailed explanation here. The progressive National Catholic Reporter coverage is interesting but not technical.
The fact is that the 1983 Code of Canon Law, as did the 1917 Code, identified a number of actions which are both mortally sinful and crimes against the community of the Catholic Church. Generally these sins bring an instant excommunication, or what the law refers to as a latae sententiae, that is, the act itself is the excommunication, without any formal external proceeding by a bishop, for example. Excommunication excludes the subject from any Church benefits, including sacraments. Thus, the penitent who confesses cannot be absolved by the confessor until the excommunication can be lifted. When I studied Canon Law in the early 1970’s, we were still under the 1917 procedures, which were quite detailed. Reserved sins, as they were called, required submission to a Roman Office, the Sacred Penitentiary. While the contents (in writing) of the sin and its circumstances were dispatched to Rome, the secrecy was maintained. The Penitentiary would issue its decision to the bishop of the particular diocese, and in turn to the specific confessor.
The 1983 Code gave individual bishops much more power to act in such cases, and it reduced the number of reserved sins required for Roman review to a handful. The 1983 Code of Canon Law identifies reserved sins as follows, although I omitted a few technical ones, and I am including the Canon number for your own research, if interested: (1364) Apostasy, Heresy, Schism; (1366) parents who hand their children over to be baptized or educated in a non-Catholic religion; (1367) throwing away or desecrating consecrated bread or wine; (1370) physical attack upon the Holy Father; (1371-73) various acts of public defiance against the doctrinal teachings of the Church; (1374) membership in “secret societies” such as the Masons; (1377) illicit use of Church funds or property, “alienation of Church goods;” (1378) impersonating a man in sacred orders; (1380-81) purchase of religious position of authority; (1382) unauthorized episcopal consecration by another bishop; (1385) trafficking in Mass stipends; (1386) bribery of Church officials; (1387) solicitation of a penitent by a priest in the confessional; (1388) violation of the confessional seal; (1390) violation of reputation; (1394) a man in orders who attempts a civil marriage; (1395) clerical concubinage; (1398) “a person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication. If my memory is correct, 1390 applies to, among other things, false allegations of solicitation against priest confessors.
The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary observes that there was some considerable discussion in the drafting involving “the disparity between the penalty for abortion and for homicide.” (p. 930) However, the 1917 Code had placed such emphasis upon the matter that much of its force was carried into the 1983 Code. Factors such as “Roe v. Wade” were not unknown to the draft writers, either. I searched exhaustively to discover if the 1983 Code differed from the 1917 Code in terms of what was necessary to lift the latae sententiae excommunication. Just about every source indicated that the power to lift the excommunication today resides with the local bishop, not the Roman Penitentiary. I also discovered from several canonists that in a number of dioceses in the United States local bishops have already given their priests standing faculties to absolve the sin of abortion in the confessional. I saw a few blog posts by priests who complained—not without merit—that the paperwork for the lifting of the excommunication was as simple as a routine request for a marriage in a Protestant church, a “dispensation from form” request which is just about always given.
In his statement yesterday Pope Francis noted the pressures that sometimes lead an individual to seek this most unfortunate course of action. This statement of his is part and parcel of centuries of Catholic teaching regarding mortal sin, most recently summarized in the Catechism, (CCC, 1857-59). For an individual to commit a mortal sin, there must be (1) grave matter; (2) full knowledge, and (3) deliberate consent. Whether all of these factors are in play is ultimately determined by the confessor in discernment with the penitent. So Francis did not change a wit of Catholic traditional teaching, truth be told, but he did add a pastoral instruction to priests. “May priests fulfil this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.” Popes write nothing by accident; a few days ago he reflected publicly on the sin of arrogance among those who consider themselves “real Catholics,” among whom, I am sure, are some of the so-called young “John Paul II priests” who carry a poorly hidden contempt for Francis and what they see accommodation to the modern world.
A point of some irony is the fact that Francis has granted the same confessional authority to priests of the Fraternity of the Priests of St. Pius X; these men were ordained by bishops presently under latae sententiae per Code 1382. Well, who am I to judge?