Who’s Supposed to Pay a Priest’s Salary?

Q: My wife and some of her Catholic girlfriends have befriended a travelling priest who stopped in our diocese for a while. He’s from [another diocese hundreds of miles away]. This priest promotes life-issues and traditional family values, etc. and he says this is his mission. He isn’t connected to any pro-life or other organization, though, he’s doing this on his own.

What got my attention is that he is soliciting money for his own support. He doesn’t seem to have much, he desperately needs new shoes, for example. Some people have contributed without hesitation. But I say that we donate to our parish every week, partly to support the priests who minister there. Why should a priest from another diocese come here and ask us to support him too? Does the law say anything about this? –Paul

A: Many Catholics might not spot anything wrong with the scenario which Paul describes, much less be able to pinpoint exactly what the problem is. But Paul has hit the nail on the head. Let’s first take a look at the law pertaining to financial support of our clergy, and then we can see what conclusions we can draw regarding this particular situation.

First of all, as we know, the Christian faithful are obliged to provide for the needs of the Church, and this includes the support of its ministers (c. 222.1). The local bishop, in turn, is required by law to remind the Christian faithful of this obligation (c. 1261.2). As was discussed in “Tithing and Excommunication,” the faithful are certainly not required by law to donate money if they genuinely don’t have any—but everyone can contribute to his parish and its clergy in some way, even if “only” by praying for their wellbeing. Note that without explicitly saying so, the assumption in these canons is that the Christian faithful will support their own parish and their own clergy, in return for the ministrations of those same clergy.

Secondly, as we saw before in “Clerical Incardination: Priests for Life, Part I,” every Catholic priest on earth must be incardinated into a particular diocese (if he’s a diocesan priest) or religious institute (if he’s both a priest and a member of an institute like the Franciscans or Benedictines). Put differently, every priest has been ordained because a diocesan bishop wants him to work in the diocese, or a religious superior wants him in the institute—so canonically he is attached to that diocese/institute. This is all explained in canon 265, which notes that “acephalous” clergy—i.e., ordained clerics wandering about on their own—are absolutely not allowed.

This naturally means that no Catholic priest on earth functions without a superior—either a diocesan bishop, or an abbot, provincial or other type of religious superior. But there’s another side to this coin: while every Catholic priest must be answerable to someone who is hierarchically above him, at the same time his superiors are responsible for his welfare, including his financial support. This is only a matter of justice! Priests dedicate their lives to God, but that doesn’t mean their ministry should be viewed as slave labor. As Christ Himself said of His 72 disciples, when He sent them out to the surrounding towns to minister, “The laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7).

With regard to the diocesan clergy, canon 384 tells us (among other things) that the diocesan bishop is to see to it that his priests are provided with decent financial support and “social assistance,” meaning that the clergy should have not only enough money to cover daily living expenses, but also health insurance and the assurance of some sort of pension when they retire. Within religious institutes, the precise arrangements for the support of clerical members will vary, especially when they have taken a vow of poverty (see “The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty” for more on this). But the basic concept is the same: priests engage in ministry assigned to them by their superiors, and in return they are provided for.

While canon 384 addresses this issue from the perspective of the duties of the diocesan bishop, canon 281.1 approaches it from his priests’ point of view.   It notes that the clergy dedicate themselves to ecclesiastical ministry; and in return, they deserve appropriate remuneration that provides for their necessities of life.

While we’re on the subject, what happens when a priest is not assigned to any ministry? The simple answer is that the fundamental responsibility of his superior to see to it that the priest is financially taken care of does not change. A priest who is felled by a serious back injury, for instance, may be unable to continue the active life he once led in a large parish; but his bishop or religious superior is still required to ensure that he is provided for. To cite another example, a priest who is sent to school for higher studies—perhaps with the intention of eventually teaching in the seminary—is not, strictly speaking, engaged in “ministry” while he spends several years as a full-time student. He is, nonetheless, fully entitled to financial support.

Unfortunately, in some parts of the world there have been multiple instances where canon 281.1 has been abused. As a general rule they involve priests who have been accused—rightly or wrongly—of sexual abuse. Imagine this situation: someone contacts all the newspapers and television stations in your area and claims that a priest working in your diocese molested him/her. This naturally gets a lot of attention. The priest strenuously denies it; and a police investigation concludes that there is insufficient evidence to charge him with any crime. Meanwhile, the diocese does its own investigation and reaches the same conclusion. In the legal sense, the matter ends right there; and the priest is to be considered innocent, since he was not charged, much less convicted of any crime. Still, there has already been such a hue and cry in the media about this priest that his bishop is afraid to reassign him to parish ministry. After all, the bishop doesn’t want to be seen publicly as condoning the abuse of children, right?

So now let’s imagine that the bishop refuses to assign this priest to any ministry at all. He thus has no work to do, at any parish, diocesan school, hospital, or even in the chancery itself. The bishop views him as a liability—because he’s afraid that if he allows him to go back to his previous ministry as if nothing had happened, the local media will mercilessly attack both the diocese and the bishop himself. The bishop is also worried that Catholic parents may protest the presence of this priest at their parish. Who knows, someone might even find a legal excuse to slap the diocese with a civil lawsuit, for allegedly endangering the safety of children!

In such a situation, what ends up happening to this priest? Well, in far too many cases, the bishop will refuse to financially provide for him in any way. This usually involves a misreading of canon 281.1, and a claim that since the priest isn’t engaged in ministry, he is not entitled to remuneration. Sometimes the priest is actually told, in a nutshell, to just go away and find somewhere else to live, and something else to do with his life. After dedicating his life to the Church… he is, incredibly, left standing there with nothing.

(See “Canon Law and False Abuse Allegations, Part I” and “Part II” for more on this subject, if you can bear it.)

In actual fact, according to canon 384, the bishop is always obliged to see to it that a priest is financially supported. This responsibility only ends if the priest has been laicized, or returned to the lay state—a concept that was discussed in detail in “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?”—because at that point, the man is no longer legally considered a priest of the diocese/a member of the religious institute. Unless and until that happens, a priest is entitled to financial support.  Period.

For years, many canonists have struggled to sort out some of the abstract legal concepts involved in this issue, including the question of whether financial support actually constitutes a right. The wording of the Latin text of the canons could certainly be clearer, too. But readers who are canonists may want to check out this letter from the Congregation for Clergy, written in response to my request a couple of years ago for a clarification. The letter states clearly that even if a priest does not receive remuneration for a particular ministerial assignment, he is nevertheless always entitled to financial support—and this is indeed his right.

So how do we apply all of this to Paul’s question? First of all, Paul is correct that the travelling priest should be provided for by his own diocese. In theory, it is entirely possible that the priest’s bishop has permitted him to engage in this unusual ministry; but if that is the case, the priest should be able to provide written evidence of this. Canon 1265.1 specifically addresses this very situation: both individual persons and organizations are forbidden to “quest”—i.e., seek donations—for any purpose without the written permission of their own Ordinary (their bishop or religious superior).

The same canon also mentions that permission must be obtained from the Ordinary (normally the bishop) of the place where the donations are being sought. In other words, nobody can waltz into Paul’s diocese out of nowhere and begin soliciting funds from the Catholic faithful, without the prior approval of the bishop of that diocese.

And it does indeed happen sometimes that a bishop will refuse to allow it! Sometimes the bishop might feel that Catholic organization that wants to raise funds is theologically sketchy, or maybe he has determined that they waste an awful lot of the money they collect. Other times, he may conclude that the people of his diocese have been hit with enough requests for donations in recent months, and it would be excessive to permit yet another one. It has also happened sometimes that “sisters” have come to town and want to ask the Catholic faithful for donations—yet it turns out that they themselves are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. (See “What is the ‘Old Catholic Church’?” for further discussion of some groups which fit this description.)

After Paul had asked his question, it was discovered that the travelling priest was actually a member of a religious order who had run away from his monastery. His superiors didn’t know where he was or what exactly he was doing, and they naturally wanted him to come back. (It appears that some sort of medical issues may be in play.) He definitely had no authorization either to travel around promoting life-issues, or to solicit donations. And Paul’s bishop had no idea that he was in the diocese, and had definitely not given him permission to ask for money.

We can see that when a visiting Catholic priest, religious or member of a charitable organization approaches us with a bona fide request for financial support, it’s fairly easy for them to be able to show us that everything is legit. If asked, they should be able to provide proof that their superiors have authorized them to collect donations, and that the local bishop has okayed it too.

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