Duanne L.C.M. Galles

In the ten years in which the Saint Joseph Foundation has striven to uphold the canonical rights of Christ's faithful, most of our cases have involved rights within the local church or parish. Never has the Foundation assisted in a marriage case, for example, except to point the client toward appropriate canonical counsel or a "second instance" appeal to the Roman Rota. There is no dearth of canonists for marriage cases! Also, in a few cases, we have helped priests and religious threatened with censure or expulsion from their diocese or religious community. But for the most part the Foundation's clients have been parishioners or members of local communities who feel their rights have been violated.

This experience heightens our interest in a recent article by the Reverend James A. Coriden entitled "The Rights of Parishes." It was published in the Fall, 1994, issue of <Studia Canonica>, the canon law journal of the pontifical faculty of canon law of Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, and grew out of a paper Fr. Coriden presented in 1993 at the international symposium held in Rome to mark the tenth anniversary of the promulgation in 1983 of the Latin church's <Code of Canon Law>. We might add that Fr. Coriden took his doctorate in canon law in 1961 at the Gregorian University in Rome, holds a degree in civil law as well, and since 1975 has been professor of canon law at Washington Theological Union.

The author notes in his <Studia Canonica> article that, while canons 208 through 223 set forth the obligations and rights of individual members of Christ's faithful, nowhere is there a list of obligations and rights of communities of the faithful—in particular of parishes. He then develops such a list which we should like to expand on here.

The Church is a communion of communities and in fact she mirrors or has her origins in that divine communion of persons which is the Trinity. The church is a communion of persons and not an association of individuals. That is to say, she is formed of persons or individuals ordered in relationship with one another. This is the church's spiritual and theological nature and canonical rights are merely these relations juridically ordered. It follows then—as Fr. Coriden points out—that rights and obligations in the church exist in a qualified and not absolute sense. Their exercise is conditioned by the common good (which is not the collective good) and by the rights and duties of others.

The first right Fr. Coriden lists for parishes is what we might call "the right to life." Parishes are not optional. Canon law requires that a diocese be divided into parishes (canon 374). This law, in fact, goes back to the Council of Trent which in one of its reforms demanded that dioceses be divided into territorial parishes. Trent made this demand so that there might be universal provision for the delivery of pastoral care to Christ's faithful. The geographical crazy quilt which had come about by the end of the Middle Ages left many people without an identifiable pastor charged with the care of their soul. A strict division of dioceses into parishes, each headed by a pastor, ended this confusion.

The personalism which characterizes much of the Second Vatican Council improved on this system by permitting the easy erection of personal parishes based, for example, on language, or military status, or spiritual heritage like the seven Anglican-Use Roman Catholic parishes erected in the United States beginning in 1983. Vatican II also required that the pastor be a natural person (who is a priest). Formerly a juridical person or legal entity such as a chapter of canons or a religious community could be pastor and Trent had permitted a deacon to be appointed pastor of a parish. Nowadays, the pastor must be an individual who is a priest and so today a pastor must be one who is canonically capable of providing the gamut of pastoral care of Word and sacrament.

Since the context for the delivery of pastoral care is so important, canon law declares that every parish is by law a juridical person or legal entity. By its very nature a juridical person has perpetual existence, which can be terminated only by formal suppression or <de facto> cessation of activity for 100 years. Fr. Coriden states that a parish can be suppressed or merged out of existence "only when the counter-indications of its continued life are overwhelming and only after careful consultation with everyone who is affected." He notes that canon 515 requires that only the diocesan bishop can suppress a parish and he must consult with his presbyteral council or senate of priests before doing so. Canon 127, moreover, requires that such consultation be done or the suppression is invalid.

Furthermore, we would add that the suppression is an administrative act and as such is subject to the requirements of canons 50 and 51. This means that before making a decision to suppress a parish the diocesan bishop must gather the necessary information and evidence and hear the views of those whose rights might be affected. Then he is required to make a reasoned decision and to set forth those reasons—at least in summary form—in a written decree of suppression. That there must be reasons for the decision is another way of saying that there must be a rational basis for the decision. Moreover, since canon 1737 gives any person aggrieved of an administrative act the right of recourse or an administrative appeal against it, the reasons for the suppression should be weighty. For the hierarchical superior of the diocesan bishop (the Congregation for the Clergy) or the Apostolic Signatura (the church's supreme court of administrative appeals) has on appeal the right to annul, rescind, revoke or modify the decree of suppression.

Fr. Coriden adds that the Apostolic Signatura has in fact stated that individual parishioners have sufficient personal, direct, actual and legally-protected interest (or standing) to mount such an appeal in a parish suppression case. He argues, therefore, that before a suppression takes place consultations should include the parishioners.

Expanding on this we would- argue that for similar reasons broad consultation should take place before extensive church renovations take place. These are what canon law calls acts of "extraordinary administration" and are beyond the authority of the pastor to act as an individual decision-maker. And since the right of parishioners under canon 214 to their own form of spirituality might be affected, they should be consulted as well. If suppression involves the parish's "right to life," renovations involve its "right to quality of spiritual life."

Some examples may be helpful. In this country "renovation" in practice usually means that the high altar will be removed and the tabernacle banished to some small and out-of-the-way place. This has the practical effect of suppressing such eucharistic devotions as benediction, forty hours, and perpetual adoration and clearly affects the parish's "quality of spiritual life" and its right to it.

"Renovation" also typically includes the smashing, obliteration or removal of most statues, stained glass, or frescos. The iconoclasm which has occurred in the last thirty years renders pale by comparison the deeds of Leo the Isaurian and his fellow iconoclasts or the work of Oliver Cromwell and friends. In their cult of "less is more" the renovators have rubbed out the parish's right to the cult of saints and a traditional part of the communion of saints.

Sacred music has suffered grievously in the past three decades and in few places is intact to offer its special ministry toward a parish's "quality of spiritual life." Organs are silenced or choked by endless yards of carpeting down aisles or on floors. Frequently the "queen of instruments" is supplanted by a piano, once seldom found except in Baptist churches. Perhaps this is considered musical ecumenism!

The sacred music which Vatican II declared to be frankly necessary to the solemn liturgy is largely replaced by a kind of folk-rock warbling about birds, rocks or "we," and this is blared out through over-amplified speakers. The treasury of sacred music which Vatican II ordered to be "cultivated and preserved with the greatest care" goes uncultivated in churches and is reduced to concert pieces, revived perhaps at Christmas to "make the season bright."

Fr. Coriden's bill of rights of parishes includes the right to be nourished by the word of God and the sacraments as <communities>. This means that parishes have a right to effective preaching and to fruitful celebration of the sacraments. But, says Fr. Coriden, often congregations experience "irrelevant preaching and a deficient liturgical life" caused by a "shallow, routine and thoughtless ministry."

Expanding on this point we might note that, as Pope John Paul II has said, Christ's faithful have a right to Christ's truth. This must mean that they have the right to the Gospel in all its purity without political filter and to true liturgy celebrated in accordance with liturgical law as the church, its guardian, has intended it. Using Fr. Coriden's analysis parishes, too, have these rights.

We suggest that these rights are violated when "politically correct" but not necessarily true translations are advanced for the lectionary or the Missal or the Ritual in the interest of "inclusive" English. In a saner age this hullabaloo about "inclusive" English would have been dismissed as mere political cant. It is, moreover, the abuse of language in the interest of a political cause. The whole question, in fact, is hardly intelligible to non-English speakers. It is only a "problem" to a small minority of American Catholics who are themselves only six percent of the world's Catholics! But today, lamentably, "inclusive" English must be seriously opposed in the interest of truth.

A few years ago, the legislature of the "People's Republic of Minnesota" (where I live) mandated the exclusion (in the interest of "inclusive" language) of certain words from Minnesota's statutory lexicon. Among the words to be banned were "mother," "father," and "virility." Later that same session the legislature bethought itself and was forced by linguistic necessity to recall this banished lingo and restore it to the statutory lexicon because these innocuous and highly useful words were simply too useful to be banned. But the legislature's <volte face> only demonstrated with exquisite eloquence the fatuity and futility of its act. But, I suppose, if we can legally declare persons who are inconvenient (like the unborn) to be non-persons we can declare words which are inconvenient to be non-words.

Fr. Coriden's interesting article points out that parishes have rights and that parishioners have the right to stand up for them, at least in principle. In practice, however, the results are not always positive, as we have seen from the many parish closure or church renovation cases which have been appealed to Rome without success. The proverbial fixation in Rome on "collegiality," which usually translates as "The diocesan bishop is always right, even when he's wrong," is not likely to change anytime soon. Still, the Foundation will not get discouraged and Fr. Coriden's observations will surely help sharpen our arguments in future appeals.

It remains that canon law not only gives parishioners rights, it also, through a sort of "class-action administrative appeal," gives them at least some hope of a remedy. Of course, these rights are not absolute, but recourse or administrative appeal is a legitimate vehicle for achieving them. And this is precisely because—as the last sentence of the last canon of the <Code of Canon Law> says—"<salus animarum suprema lex>," the salvation of souls is the supreme law.

[Mr. Galles holds degrees in both canon and civil law and is the Vice President for Canonical Affairs of the St. Joseph Foundation.]

Taken from the January 25, 1995 issue of "Christifidelis". To subscribe to "Christifidelis", please contact: The Saint Joseph Foundation, 11107 Wurzbach, #404, San Antonio, TX 78230-2553, (210) 697-0717, Fax (210) 699-9439.