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.