Monday, February 05, 2024

Is canon law the most essential thing for parishes?

Many of my friends are circulating on Facebook an article at Crisis by another mutual friend, which addresses the current Beacons of Light project with the title, A Plea for Parishes

Before I say any more about the article or its author, I want to be as clear as I can. The author is an admirable Catholic husband and father, whom I respect immensely. I consider him a friend, I believe he would say the same. I do not like that we disagree on Beacons of Light, but such things happen, and they need not jeopardize the fundamental relationship. I intend to pay him the compliment and respect of engaging with the case he's making, in hopes that as "iron sharpens iron" according to Scripture, he and I and all of us can get further toward our shared goals of living faithfully and fully the Christian life here, on the way to There -- that is, Kingdom come.

So here's the question that arises as I have read and reflected on his article. 

*** And, trigger warning: if you find my analytical or rhetorical approach to be at sharp angles to your own way of thinking, that is a feature, not a bug; that experience is often how we come to see things differently. Nothing here is a veiled "attack" or attempt to intimidate, despite what a commenter on another post the other day maintained. So, if my approach causes you upset or provokes only emotion, then please consider that this post, or me, is not your "cup of tea" and drink no more. ***

OK, back to my constructively intended provocative question:

Why should the legal-canonical structures involved in the complex reality we all call "parish" be the sine qua non of parish life? Why is the legal structure the irreducible component on which the whole reality rests? 

To be more provocative: it seems that my friend has -- certainly unwittingly -- made the argument that not even the pastor is as important as the canon- and civil-law structures.

Is that really where we want to end up? 

Let me fill this in, this may take a bit I'm sorry.

Mr. Schmiesing begins with the shocking and depressing scene of a beloved and beautiful church -- a repository of tradition and memory, a truly sacred place -- being obliterated. This is horrible. And for those who don't know me, in my 21 years as a priest, of which 18 were as pastor or administrator, I've devoted great energy and time to the maintenance and improvement of the physical structures, the churches above all. I can show you the wounds, so to speak, that I've incurred in this effort.

The point seems obvious: if we don't sustain parish life, the wrecking ball is coming, one way or another. And essential to sustaining parish life as lovingly described are the underlying legal structures.

Let me pause here to clarify something important about our language. When we use the term "parish," there are actually many realities involved. Previous to this post, I've specified three; today I'm going to add one or two more. This will take a few paragraphs, then back to the Crisis article.

Those five realities (or is it four? See below), as I see it, are, not necessarily in this order:

1. The physical place. When we say, "I go to X Parish," we almost invariably mean, that is the name of the church where we pray and take part in the sacraments, where the school, or religious education program, where members of the family are taught the faith, and where any number of other activities important to the aspect that follows, take place. So let us summarize this meaning as "parish-place."

2. The people. A parish is not merely a place, but it is a place, as Mr. Schmiesing persuasively argues.

That said, what happens when, sad to say, a tornado comes through and flattens the beloved shrine and related buildings. Is that the end of "the parish"? No. If there is no desire to rebuild, then the "parish," understood fully, was already dead. A living parish will act instinctively and with great drive, to rebuild the physical place. Less traumatically, that community of people that corresponds to the place, will often agree to make additions to the physical place, adding a school, or a gym, or play fields or even expand (and in due course, modify and dare I say, to some degree, "destroy") the old church. Sometimes such changes can bring tears, but in the best cases, the outcome is judged better. Let us summarize this aspect as "parish-people."

3. The legal entity. I take it as a given that most Catholics, when they refer to a parish, even "their" parish, they are not thinking primarily of legal structures. Yet this is a very important aspect and I hasten to point out, this plays a central role in the argument Mr. Schmiesing is making. 

By legal structure, I mean this: under canon (i.e., church) law, a parish is a defined reality which also exists, in some fashion, under civil law. It acts together, it has rights, it can engage in business transactions, it can buy and sell property. I am not a canon lawyer and I don't wish to delay this post by running off to copy down sections of canon law. It's not necessary to do that, in order to demonstrate that this aspect of a parish is real, is it? If you want to explore this subject at length, I suggest you go searching online for the Code of Canon Law and for various experts who provide commentary on the same. For now, let us shorthand this aspect as "parish-corporation."

(4) Here's where I add what might be a fourth element, or merely a part of the third, or yet another to follow: the ecclesial relationship. As real as "parish" (in all its facets) is, it never exists without the larger reality of the diocese and the worldwide church. So until I can figure out a better terminology, may we summarize this as "parish-limb," as in a parish is to the whole Church as a limb is to a whole body? 

And let's note, necessarily in passing, that insofar as the parish can only be understood in relation to the whole Church, then we are necessarily talking about a reality rooted in the teaching of the Church, the tradition of the Church, both with upper- and lower-case Ts, and ultimately, rooted in the Holy Trinity. There are theological truths involved that necessitate certain limits on our possible approaches. 

5. Here's what I was going to list fourth when I started the list, until number 4 occurred to me. While number 4 might be better subsumed under another item, this one stands alone all the same: parish-priest

If you want to idle away some hours, spend some time investigating the following Latin words: paroecia and parochus. These are the words used in Canon Law (and I bet lots of other writings of the Church) for "parish" and "pastor," respectively, or perhaps more precisely, "parish priest," because the term pastor is used by the church for both a parish priest and for a bishop. 

But here's what I invite you to discover and digest: these Latin words are cognate; they come from the same root. It's not the case in English: priest and parish; priest derives from Greek presbyter and parish from Latin parochia, and -- ding, ding! -- guess where paroecia and parochus come from? 

This etymology unveils a truth rooted deep in our Catholic Tradition: that, in a real sense, the parish (paroecia) essentially relates to, and is even, at a certain point, identified with, the priest who is pastor (parochus)

This is expressed in church law by designating the pastor, and only the pastor, as the one who can act for the "juridical person" of the parish-corporation; or, in his absence, the "vicar" who stands in his place. Church law often directs the parochus to seek counsel or even cooperation from others, such as a pastoral or finance council, and even the bishop, nevertheless, the parochus never drops out of the parochial picture; if he drops dead, someone else -- a vicar or a temporary administrator -- MUST take on his role. 

At the risk of sounding egotistical, there is no paroecia without a parochus

We might think of the family as an analogy; of course a family can have an absent father, an alienated father, a deceased father; and this is a wound; but there is no family without a father having been part of it at some point. 

Of course there can be temporary or abnormal expedients: the vicar (i.e., associate pastor), neighboring pastor, or a retired priest, can step in as needed. But these are temporary and abnormal, note well! Which means they should not be treated as the enduring, i.e., "normal" practice!

Now, let's go back to Mr. Schmiesing's article and the whole battle over Beacons of Light.

My friend is arguing passionately and persuasively for maintaining individual parish-corporations that are centered around parish-places, because they are so necessary to the continued existence of the parish as people. And he talks also about the importance of the parish-priest. 

But here's what he doesn't adequately address.

The sad reality is that not only today -- but for decades leading to today -- it has not been possible to center our existing parish-places, parish-people, parish-corporations, around an individual parish-priest. 

For decades, there has been a gradual shift from the reality envisioned by Catholic tradition and law, to an unhealthy, abnormal "normal": having multiple-personality pastors.

When a priest is asked to be pastor of parish A, and at the same time, pastor of parish B, and C (etc.), he is no longer one pastor; he is three pastors (or more, as the case may be). This is true, whether you who read these words understand the reality or not. 

Or, if you wish, you can think of a parish in such a "cluster" arrangement as having not a whole pastor, but a half- or third-pastor, which is true yet not the full story, which is worse; because it fails to convey the real and insuperable problem of being a pastor to more than one separate parishes; akin to being a parent to more than one separate families. 

I want to reiterate that I believe Mr. Schiesing and those who hear their concerns expressed in his eloquent plea are seeking, in essence, what I am seeking; the glory of God and the salvation of souls. And, to state again, I agree with him about the tremendous, even essential, value of a parish.

What I wonder, however, is how can a parish be healthy if what is demanded of the parish priest is unhealthy? Or, worse, fundamentally flawed at the root because it's contrary to what is intended?

Mr. Schmiesing asks for "pastors willing to do the impossible"; but is it a lack of willingness; or capacity? Is it truly wise to build a plan on people doing what is actually, literally, impossible? 

I have been two pastors in a prior assignment -- i.e., pastor of one parish while also pastor of another. Today, I am three pastors. It is not a matter of how much work I am prepared to do. It is a matter of not knowing how to be three distinct people. One answer is that this is a failure of mine, I readily grant. But are those who urge me to keep trying prepared to consider this: that perhaps one man simply cannot be multiple pastors and we are not considering the destructiveness of continuing to demand that?

I do not mean only destructive of the priest, although this is true and very often is dismissed as the priest being whiny or selfish or lazy. But setting that aside, have you considered the destructive effects on the cherished reality Mr. Schmiesing and all of us want to protect and strengthen: the fruitful nourishing of faith in the context of a "parish"?

Here I'll bring in a reality we all take for granted but not yet mentioned: the familial, and therefore, spousal, relationship of the pastor to his parish. There is a reason we call priests "father." Do we mean it?

I've been told that we really don't: by those who object to Beacons and also, by fellow priests, who see the moving-on from a pastorate as just one of those things, inevitable and even desireable. When I moved on from being pastor, twice, it was wrenching for me. Was I a fool to see those communities as my family? Would I be wiser to give up on that familial/spousal understanding, and see myself instead as just another professional with a job description heavy on executive and administrative responsibilities?

But if we do mean it -- and Mr. Schmiesing's article seems to take the fatherhood of a priest for granted -- then what can we possibly do with a situation where a father of a family must now take on a second family, and a third, and so forth. I mean this question in the full sense of every word: how does he do that?

How does a natural father do it? Does he maintain multiple households, preventing excessive mingling? Does he schedule himself to spend time in each? I am asking seriously: I do not see how this works. I think it necessarily is an artifice, jury-rigged, unnatural and unwholesome, not merely for the father, but for everyone. I marvel that there seems to be little public reflection on this point, other than people telling me I'm wrong to treat my fatherhood as real. It is tempting to agree as it solves many problems. Yet I can't put all the pieces together with that conclusion.

Let me put it this way.

If you identify with Mr. Schmiesing's cry of the heart that the parish reality he describes must be protected and not changed, then I must point out that your complaint is not with changes being undertaken today, or proposed for the next several years. No! You are rightly protesting changes that have been underway for decades, as the traditional reality of a parish centered, not only on buildings, people and legal structures, but also on a priest, has been gradually remodeled and ceased to exist in much of the diocese long before 2022.

A great portion of those who protest Beacons of Light are not asking for the traditional model back (because they concede that such is almost certainly impossible). Rather, they are preferring one hybrid over another. Instead of attempting a parish model with modified legal structures, resulting in a single parish-corporation intended to sustain multiple parish-places and parish-people groupings, they insist the legal structures must be sacrosanct; but at the enduring expense of the relationship to the priest. 

Canon law is a more essential substrate to parish life than the priest. That is the argument being made.

For the last time, I don't believe Mr. Schmiesing believes or intends this. But this seems to be the outcome of his argument, and I'm highlighting it for the mutual benefit of all.


Anonymous said...

Dear Father Martin,
Hi! This is my final question about my Micronation. I want to establish an ecclesiastical community ( in my Micronation and I was wondering if I can have your blessing/if you can say a prayer for me.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I already did in the other thread, but here's another prayer: May God grant you strength and peace of mind as you seek to know his will, and may your Micronation project serve to help you to grow in Christ, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen