ZAP! Your church is renovated! SLAM! Your parish is closed!

Author: Duane Galles/Charles Wilson


Duane Galles

[The following article is drawn from legal opinions and pleadings in the files of the St. Joseph Foundation. The primary contributor is Duane Galles. The editing and a small portion of the text is Charles M. Wilson's and he accepts full responsibility for any flaws.]

We know that Christ's Church is not a democracy and we acknowledge that those who exercise the ministry of governance are not accountable to those they govern. We understand also that the faithful are obliged to follow whatever legitimate authorities determine as leaders of the Church, but the above two citations—and lots of others which could be used—tell us quite a lot about the way in which ecclesiastical authority should be exercised. Unfortunately, there have been times during the 2,000 year history of our Church when these principles have been honored more in the breach than the observance. Perhaps the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had this in mind when they said:

"By the power of the Holy Spirit the Church is the faithful spouse of the Lord and will never fail to be a sign of salvation in the world; but it is by no means unaware that down through the centuries there have been among its members, both clerical and lay, some who were disloyal to the Spirit of God. Today, as well, the Church is not blind to the discrepancy between the message it proclaims and the human weakness of those to whom the Gospel has been entrusted. Whatever is history's judgment on these shortcomings, we cannot ignore them and we must combat them earnestly, lest they hinder the spread of the Gospel" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, <Gaudium et Spes>, No. 43).

When we think about this, most of us will recall those sad moments in history when priests, bishops and even some popes were guilty of grossly scandalous conduct and showed themselves to be unworthy of their offices.

But we might also consider those times when Church leaders exhibited other less spectacular weaknesses such as capriciousness, arrogance, cruelty, duplicity, intransigence and authoritarianism. When linked to conditions which have frequently permitted the exercise of power with unrestrained discretion on the part of ecclesiastical authorities, we can rightly wonder if these flaws have not over time caused more harm to the Church and the loss of more souls than the excesses of the likes of John XII, Benedict IX and Alexander VI. It is this exercise of discretionary authority by bishops or their bureaucrats which has resulted in recent heated controversies over many issues, prominent among them being—especially in the United States and Canada—the renovation of parish church buildings and the closure of parishes.

Before proceeding to the consideration of these particular issues, it would be worthwhile to take just a glance at how episcopal discretion has been exercised in the United States and those parts of Canada where English is the predominant language. Going back to the end of the eighteenth century, we see that both had very few Catholics and that, coupled with the difficulties in communication, resulted in Rome taking a more or less "out of sight, out of mind" attitude. In sum, the day-to-day governance of the dioceses was, for better or worse, left almost entirely in the hands of the bishops.

Anyone who holds a position of authority, subject only to a distant and not overly concerned higher authority, is tempted to exercise power not in a spirit of service but often arbitrarily and sometimes abusively. We see an example of this in the nineteenth century when the American bishops, at the First Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1829, attempted by decree to overstate the obligation of obedience of diocesan priests to their bishops and, in effect, reduce them to the condition of religious priests with respect to their superiors. Although, thankfully, the Holy See did intervene to suppress that decree, the bishops resourcefully employed other means to achieve the same end.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the American bishops refused to erect canonical parishes and thereby prevented diocesan priests from acquiring the rights and security of tenure conferred on pastors by the universal law of the Church. Unlike priests in the Catholic countries of Europe, their American counterparts were canonically merely rectors of missions with delegated instead of ordinary powers which could be withdrawn at the pleasure of the bishops.

Indeed, then, the power of the American bishop over his clergy was awesome. He could appoint, remove, transfer and discipline them at will. He controlled their compensation and regulated their lifestyle to an extent and in a manner that no European bishop would have dared. The situation was such that even Pope Pius IX could joke about it. When asked one day by a supplicant for a favor, the pontiff reportedly replied: "What you ask is not in my power to grant, but there is an American bishop in town. Go ask him!"

Another contributing element was the fact that not only were the American bishops subject to little restraint by the Holy See, they were not subject to the type of influence which certain civil authorities could employ in Europe. Centuries of intricate relations between state and Church on that continent resulted in many constraints upon ecclesiastical authority that were never implemented in North America. One example was the right of presentation, or the right of civil governments to propose candidates for Church offices. Even the election of popes could be influenced, as happened in this very century when the Emperor of Austria exercised his right of veto and blocked the election of Cardinal Rampolla as pope in 1903.

An important and beneficial change took place with the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which instantly transformed the "missions" in North America into canonical parishes and thereby transformed their "rectors" into pastors, with all the protections of the law. An even more sweeping change flowed from the ecclesiology of Vatican II, which reemphasized the notion of authority as a ministry of service rather than one of power.

We see this reformed ecclesiology made present in the law in several ways. In 1967 Pope Paul VI in his apostolic constitution, <Regimini Ecclesiae Universae,> created the Second Section of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura to enforce the rights of Christ's faithful even against public ecclesiastical authorities. Sixteen years later, the revised Code of Canon Law, in contrast to its predecessor, codified the rights and duties of the faithful. Perhaps the most important of the 1752 canons in the new Code is number 128, which states that "Anyone who unlawfully inflicts damage upon someone by a juridic act, or indeed by any other act placed with malice or culpability, is obliged to compensate for the damage inflicted." This means that the arbitrary and capricious use of discretionary power is no longer acceptable under the 1983 Code.

The Effects Of The Reforms

While the reforms of Vatican II and the 1983 Code look good on paper, the sad fact is that one can see few positive changes on the parish and diocesan level. Aside from the historical reality that change sometimes takes place very slowly in the Church, our conclusion is that there are three reasons for this: (1) Since Vatican II, the concept of "collegiality" has become something of an obsession and the Holy See has been extremely reluctant to interfere-even when there are good reasons to do so-in diocesan affairs. (2) Too many bishops in the United States and Canada have allowed their authority to be undermined by "experts" on their staffs. (3) The canon 221, 3 of the 1983 Code stated that the "Christian faithful can legitimately vindicate and defend the rights which they enjoy in the Church before a competent ecclesiastical court in accord with the norm of law," but the Code says very little as to how this theoretical right can be put into practice.

There are others who have come to similar conclusions, not all of whom may share our theological views. One, for example, was Fr. Joseph A. Komonchak, Associate Professor of Religion and Religious Education at the Catholic University of America, who said;

"More than a few lay people have noted that their rights to participation in the Church have not always been better respected by the addition to the traditional clerical hierarchy of a new and larger body of "professionals" and "experts". It is an occupational hazard of bureaucrats to believe that they know better than the people in the field how things should be done. And if they turn to management theories elaborated for business and government for ideas on how to plan for the Church's future, it is not surprising to hear complaints that the Church appears much more like a giant and impersonal organization than like a living community of brothers and sisters-a complaint, by the way, that by no means is aimed only at episcopal or papal targets" (<Origins>, April 2, 1987, p. 378).

A prominent American canonist has added a legal dimension to Fr. Komonchak's observation and applied it to parishes, which are often the victims of those "professionals" and "experts."

"Parishes and other local congregations are not branch offices or local outlets of a central corporation, like banks or auto agencies or service stations. They are unique communities of Christian people. They are authentic Churches, just like those described in the New Testament (in Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Corinth, in Ephesus), and they must be respected as such. The Church is "built up from below" by these local communities of God's people...

Sometimes the impression is given that the parishes exist for the sake of the diocese, when just the opposite is true. The organization and governance of the Church is most often stated and interpreted by those in diocesan offices. They subtly begin to believe that their functions are primary, and that they represent the first and most important level of the Church's life' since they are more immediately related to the bishop's authority. They gradually come to consider parish communities as derivative and secondary, almost as managerial units. They speak of planning for "clusters of parishes" or "pastoral zones of the diocese" (meaning that they are preparing to suppress or merge parishes) and of reorganizing local communities for reasons of more efficient use of personnel and financial resources. [In a footnote, the author adds, Economy and efficiency are praiseworthy, but the dignity and quality of local communities is even more important. Ed.] They relate to the local churches in the same ways that corporate executives of Safeway and McDonalds relate to their local stores.

No one is baptized in a chancery office. People enter the Church, grow in faith, give praise to God, and lend loving assistance to their neighbors in parishes and other local communities. These local congregations of the faithful have a proper and authentic autonomy which must be respected> ("The Vindication of Parish Rights," by James A. Coriden, <The Jurist> 54 (1994), pp. 23-24).

Much more along these same lines could be said, but we believe Frs. Komonchak and Coriden have adequately and fairly summarized, for the purposes of this discussion, the atmosphere that prevails in the majority of dioceses in North America.

Renovation Of Church Buildings

We must admit that church buildings are places of worship, not museums, and that hardly any, including St. Peter's Basilica, never undergo some changes. Even so, the many "horror stories" in our case files and those we have seen elsewhere confirm that most "renovations" go far beyond—and in some cases are even contrary to—the legal norms. And this is not a problem that has arisen recently. Almost twenty five years ago, the Holy See issued the following sound advice: "<Mindful of the legislation of Vatican Council II and of the directives in the documents of the Holy See, bishops are to exercise unfailing vigilance to ensure that the remodeling of places of worship is carried out with the utmost caution>" (Congregation for Clergy, Circular Letter <Opera artis>, April 11, 1971).

Virtually all renovation projects are grounded in what the parishioners are told are the needs of the reformed Vatican II liturgy. In fact, they are often motivated by erroneous interpretations of liturgical law arising from the Council's Constitution on the Liturgy, <Sacrosanctum concilium> (SC). Three key concepts of SC, it seems, are commonly misinterpreted and misapplied. This, in turn, has motivated the iconoclasm and destruction of so much cultural church property in the United States and Canada.

The first key concept which has been misinterpreted and misapplied is <participatio actuosa> of SC. It has been mistranslated as "active participation" which, in English, can imply that for participation to be genuine it must involve physical activity. For a proper understanding of the phrase, one can paraphrase the original Latin of the 1958 instruction, <De musica sacra>, to say that participation ought to be internal and, certainly, exercised with a spirit of piety and heartfelt affection. Given this understanding of the concept, "actual participation" might be a more accurate translation. In any event, the liturgical "establishment's" understanding has had pernicious consequences, such as the attentive assistance at Mass and participation in the changes in posture or responses being dismissed by some liturgists as inadequate. Thus, communion rails are destroyed, altars thrust forward like theaters-in-the-round, statues are removed and the Blessed Sacrament banished, since their presence would inhibit a maximum of activity, which inevitably deteriorates into mere busyness.

The second concept misinterpreted is that of <nobilis pulchritudo> (noble beauty) of Article 124 of SC, which has often been translated as "noble simplicity." In the name of "simplicity," altars have been smashed, statues trashed, paintings whitewashed, organs silenced and the ignoble—burlap vestments and crude ceramic vessels, for example—introduced into the temple to serve as its ornaments.

The third concept misunderstood is that of the common priesthood of the laity. In advancing this notion beyond its proper scope, some liturgists demand the abolition of any distinctions whatever between the sacred minister and the laity. Thus, any physical barriers between them are taboo. Communion rails are especially hated and any physical reminder of a "holy of holies" must go, so hordes of lay functionaries can swarm in and out of the "sanctuary."

In addition to the physical renovations themselves, the methods by which they are inflicted are of equal or even greater concern. The "process" leading up to the actual arrival of the bulldozers begins with the appearance of the ubiquitous "experts" and "professionals" who tell the people only what they are supposed to hear. Glossy, one-sided hand-outs are distributed at "listening sessions" while the people are assured that "no final decisions have been made." Usually, a renovation committee consisting of carefully selected parishioners emerges' to announce the final plans, while any alternative suggestions or proposals are stifled by whatever methods-gentle or not so gentle-that circumstances require. There are no credible estimates that we know of as to how much money has been wasted over the last thirty years on needless renovations of North American church buildings, but it must be in the hundreds of millions, or perhaps billions, of dollars.

To close this part of the discussion on a hopeful note, there is a rather remote but growing possibility that (if our prayers are answered) most of the renovations may eventually have to be undone. The first signs of a true "reform of the reform" may have appeared and are reported on page two of this issue. Should this come to pass, even more billions will be needed to set things right. But, we suspect, the people will not mind putting up the money.

Suppressing (Closing) Parishes

Just as we admitted that places of worship cannot remain unchanged forever, we must concede that not every parish has a right to perpetual existence. Acknowledging this general rule, though, does not mean that we have to agree with every suppression decreed by every chancery.

There is one very important difference between renovating church buildings and suppressing parishes. Buildings, of course, do not in themselves have rights and the renovation, or even destruction, of a parish church does not alter the legal status of the parish, which has what is called a juridic personality. In other words, a juridic person in canon law is roughly equivalent to a corporation in secular law. And like a corporation, a juridic person has rights and duties under the law. The primary and fundamental right of any person, natural or legal, is to existence. Father Coriden puts it this way:

"Once a stable community of faithful people has taken shape, it has the right to canonical recognition (e.g., first as a mission or quasi-parish, then as a parish; c. 516). Once established as a parish, the community possesses juridic personality and is, nature sue perpetual (cc. 515, #3; 120, #1). In other words, the parish should remain in existence until overwhelming reasons for its alteration or suppression are clearly demonstrated."

After hearing about or becoming directly involved in parish suppression cases throughout the country, we have yet to see a single example of "overwhelming" reasons. Indeed, virtually all suppressions—and absolutely all which are contested by the parishioners—are justified on the basis of a shortage of priests, more efficient use of facilities, even distribution of people, financial considerations or other factors which have little or nothing to do with the vitality of the community.

Sometimes the reasons given for suppression make no sense at all. For example, the city of Clinton, Iowa, in the Diocese of Davenport used to have five parishes. In 1990, all five were suppressed and one "mega parish" was created in their place. The bishop's letter announcing and attempting to support the action said this:

"And yet, I see that the needs of the past, e.g., for ethnic parishes, are not the needs of today. In fact, the need for unity and united action are the paramount needs of today.

In other words, five parishes competing for people, funds and personnel is not what the Catholic community needs."

In truth, none of the five parishes was "ethnic" and all were vibrant communities of faith. No one in Clinton has ever understood why their city could not have more than one parish when other cities in the diocese (Davenport, Iowa City, Muscatine, etc.) continue to have several. No one in the chancery has ever been able to explain why either.

Although renovations and suppressions are different kinds of actions, the "process" leading up to them is often remarkably similar. The ever-present "professionals" and "expert consultants" arrive to "soften-up" the parishioners with unctuous assurances that "no decisions will be made without everyone having their say." Then, as in the case of renovations, all those who have opinions contrary to the outcome desired by the chancery are marginalized or excluded from the discussions by whatever means necessary. We have even seen instances where elderly parishioners were threatened with denial of Christian burial if they continued to object.

Should the consultation process produce recommendations which the bishop does not like, such as recently happened in the diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he simply rides roughshod over the procedures he himself established and decrees whatever he wishes.

In short, the decisions to suppress are utterly lacking in reasonable motives and the "consultation processes" lack even a scintilla of justice. The ultimate injustice occurs when a parish suffers the "double whammy" of being forced to renovate its church and then, several years later, being suppressed.

In Conclusion

In spite of the discouraging trends, there are reasons for hope. One of these reasons is that many of the courageous faithful who try to save their churches from the renovators or their parishes from the axe simply refuse to give up. Even when they lose, as often happens, their efforts are not wasted. We know of cases where renovations were prevented and parishes slated for suppression were saved because the "professionals" did not want to face another struggle which might even involve an appeal to Rome.

And who knows? With enough prayer and hard work, we may even see in our lifetime a system of appeal which will see cases decided on the law and the facts instead of ecclesiastical politics and influence peddling.

Taken from the November 1, 1995 issue of "Christifidelis". To subscribe to "Christifidelis", please contact: The Saint Joseph Foundation, 85882 Water Works Rd. Hopedale, OH 43976 Phone: 740-937-2054 Fax: 866-257-6883.