Last week I dealt with an Instruction on Parishes. (At another time I will talk about how that belittles lay people with faint praise.) An Instruction is a document from the Holy See that talks about how to implement law. There are canons in the Code and Instructions that deal with preaching. Who can do it? What is the purpose? Answers, clerics (men only) and to use the scripture to instruct in the faith. Whenever I talk with a cleric/canon lawyer about this, they say things like “Well lay people are forbidden to preach at Mass!” That is harsh and negative. It also begs the fact that there is room, albeit limited, for exceptions. I would think that priests would be glad for the help of someone preparing a homily instead of them.
Recently I said something on a canon law listserv to the point of how much better homilies would be if women were giving them too. One of the priests/canonists answered back that my post was not appreciated because in his judgment, it was not canonical enough and that the style of my post was more Facebook than academic. He continued that he refuses to be a Facebook subscriber because of the trite nature of most of the posts. I tend to think that nobody wanted to be his friend. Note that this whiner is just another member with access to the listserv, he is not the Moderator. So initially I ask myself, who made him the canon law police?
Next, I believe that if I were a man, more exactly, a cleric, this whiny cleric would not have minded my comments half so much. And third, if I were a man/cleric he would never had had the nerve to attack me. Welcome to the world of clericalism at its worst. And I see a great deal of that in canon law.
I got thirty-eight private emails praising me for what I said on the listserv, all supportive and even encouraging me to tell him off because they never liked him anyway. These same people said they did not want to say it publicly on the listserv because of people like the critical cleric. If this were the civil law world, there would have been a real and public argument starting with First Amendment rights to say anything I want short of “Fire” in a crowded building. (If you do not like what is on the TV, don’t watch or grab the remote). That would have been fun on this listserv but honestly, the critical cleric is no competition. I have to admit though, I truly appreciated the thirty-eight emails of support. And I will continue to say what I want, where I want, and not be intimidated by a collar, even one with a canon law degree behind it. So not impressed.
I stick with my initial premise. If women could preach at Mass, the homilies would be better, maybe even great.
The Canon Law Society of America is making plans to stage a virtual Annual Conference from October 12 through October 16. That sounds good but the fees could be a problem for many members. So many Dioceses are not able to send participants to conferences this year and this is expensive if you are paying for it yourself. They are charging $425.00 for a virtual conference. This is slightly below what they charged when they had a real meeting with a banquet, three continental breakfasts and a cocktail party with top shelf booze, not to mention the free, carry all, portfolio with CLSA emblazoned on it, all included in the past price of registration. CLSA is giving each paid participant only two weeks to access the presentations once the conference has concluded; then they close that library. So although it is the only chance to “attend” a canon law conference this year, make sure the program fits your needs. Because unless it’s a business write off (like it is for me) it is probably not good value.
There is a positive, coming out of the Holy See on the closing of parishes. It is no longer easy for a Bishop to close a parish because it is getting poorer every week, or because of the priest shortage, or because there just are not enough parishioners to form a true community. Remember that the Instruction “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church”, has no legal effect. It is not law, just some information on how a parish could and should be closed or “grouped”.
For Canon Lawyers the most notable part is the appeal process or “recourse”. A Bishop cannot issue a blanket decision, a one size fits all, for a group of parishes in his diocese. He must deal with each parish individually with clear and specific reasons and its own decision or “decree”. That will make the appeal process less vague for all sides involved.
In the past Bishops repeatedly used the trio of financial distress, not enough priests and fewer parishioners as their mantra for every decision to close. The Holy See is saying those conditions are not enough on their own because they can be reversible, even temporary. But in the end, the Instruction says they can be considerations, just not the only reasons.
Is there a way for Bishops to get around this? With the Holy See and Bishops, of course there is. They are not in the canonical business of being in conflict with a local Bishop. They like to support Bishops. The way out here has been in the back pocket of US Bishops for some time. It lies in the condition of the parish buildings. Ten years ago when there was parishioner push back in a NY state diocese, to the closing of a beloved parish in a downtown area, the Bishop had a structure assessment of the Church. Expert opinions usually favor the persona paying their bill. This one did. The Church was suddenly hidden behind scaffolding to save the people who had been worshipping there the day before. Then there was no diocesan money to complete the work and the parish closed. It was a successful strategy and Bishops all over the US went busy getting Church structure evaluations of all their parish buildings. They are still in those back pockets of diocesan files ready to “save” the parishioners.
So in the future the burden of proof to affect any parish could be to “save the people” from imminent danger in the building structure. In Philadelphia we have a Church with that issue and it has gone on for so long that the Church is now in tatters and there is no money anywhere to turn back the continued deterioration that occurred while the fight of the parishioners played out and the Church stood empty and closed.
We are looking at a new wave of parish closings and mergers. It will probably be more radical than the first. The Holy See knowing this, had to finally say something on this issue. It just did not say enough.
This professional society is an international association promoting the study of canon law. Membership is open to to canon lawyers from anywhere in the world. It is very eclectic in nature and the topics of their program are complicated. The seminars are all done in simultaneous translation. You must be a member to attend their conferences, which take place every three years. I have been to the conference in Venice and Washington, D.C. I am glad I went because of the members. They are mostly canon law professors letting down their hair for some good conversation and academic debate. This year the conference was one I was not going to miss. Then came the pandemic. This tri-annual conference has been rescheduled and will take place September 14 through 17, 2021. It will take place in, wait for it, Paris, France. Now that is a great business expense! The theme is set at “Persons, law and justice: the contribution of canon law in contemporary juridical experience.”
The Instruction from the Holy See on Parishes was published on July 20, 2020. Before I read it, I had an initial thought based on my experience. The first time I served as an Advocate (lawyer) for a parish fighting merger was in 2004. After that initial case, over the next sixteen years, I probably did another ten parish cases as Advocate. I knew of hundreds more from other canon lawyers (on both sides of the issue) and from news accounts. We could have used a little more direction from the Holy See on these matters over those sixteen years of nothing by way of guidance.
Understand, in canon law, unlike civil law, there is no precedent. Case decisions are made in a vacuum. You may hear of an outcome, but not why or what was considered in coming to a decision. There is no publication of cases and decisions. I represented a parish that was being merged into a neighboring parish for all the wrong reasons. We worked hard appealing to the Holy See. After two years of appeal (not a long time in these cases at all) we got a negative decision of the Court, in Latin. I could translate it but I was sure that I could not do it the justice that Rome could. A word or two off here or there could make a huge difference to these parishioners’ understanding the outcome.
I will not take on a parish case unless the people inquiring can show that one hundred registered members of the parish were supporting fighting the merger. In a parish that is looking at being merged or suppressed into nothing, that can be hard to show. But if you do not have that minimum number, failure is a certainty. This parish had more than one thousand registered parishioners sign Mandates (papers appointing me to serve as their Advocate) that went to the Holy See showing their active support of the case. All one thousand of them had followed the case start to finish and never lost interest as happened in many parishes after a year or two. So I wrote to the Apostolic Signatura, the Court handling the case at that point, and I asked them for their English translation of the decree and decision which was rather lengthy. I explained how many of the parishioners were involved and how understanding what happened in the appeal might be what kept these folks from leaving the faith and from not merging into the other parish. The Signatura wrote back and said no, you got what you got. Just the fact that Rome did not care about these people enough to go that extra mile, was enough for many of them to just walk away from the parish merger and go another route in their religious life that was not Catholic.
This issue of parishes is one of the most highly charged emotionally I have seen as a canon lawyer. I believe from my experience and from other canon lawyers with experience in these cases, that when a merger or suppression is started, forty percent of the parishioners it affects, will not go along to get along in the Catholic Church. They will not go to the newly named or appointed parish. They just will not. We lose them and we lose them for good. I absolutely believe this and I am gutted by it. I just wish the Church were as concerned as me.
My next blog will deal more with the Instruction itself and some more of my experiences in these cases. Maybe I can get some of those forty percenters back. Join me for more on this topic. It is so important to us as individuals, as Catholics and as a Church.
One of the most important documents to come out of the Holy See this summer is an Instruction on the merger or suppression of parishes. It is named Instruction on “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church”. It was issued by the Congregation for the Clergy on July 20, 2020.
Let’s start with the term Instruction. In Canon Law processes, like marriage annulments or penal trials, the case is instructed, as in instruct as a verb. It means the taking of evidence in the case. The actual gathering of evidence is the instruction of the case.
When you switch that around and have Instruction as a noun, you are talking about guidelines for interpreting canon law. Those are covered in the Code of Canon Law, in canon 34 of Book 1 on General Norms. Instructions are meant to clarify the law and determine an approach to be followed in implementing the law. Instructions are given for the use of a person whose concern it is to see that the laws are implemented and/or used.
Persons who have executive power to issue such Instructions can only do it in their field of power. An Instruction does not change the law or contradict the law. If it seems to, the law wins. Again, Canon 34 is three short paragraphs on Instruction in the Code, and a quick read.
This summer’s Instruction on parishes is twenty-three pages long. It covers a lot of ground and yet doesn’t really say a lot. The fact it is an Instruction, a document with no force or implications for not being followed, pretty much highlights that it is not necessarily the first document on your In Pile, that you need to read. If you are one of the many hurt and confused parish members who have seen their parish life turned upside down though, this is important reading.
So that’s Monday’s lesson in Canon Law. Tomorrow in “Tuesday’s Issue”, I will deal with this Instruction on parishes. Stay safe and if you know someone who is interested in this topic, let them know. We can all meet up here in our next blog entry.
The Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand postponed their 2020 conference until August 31 through September 3, 2021. That will be held in Melbourne. This is on my bucket list because anyone who has gone from here, says it has great people, a great program and a great country for a back drop. Details for next year will be available in February, 2021. For more info: