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.