Can the Pastor Expel Another Priest from the Rectory?

Q:  Our parish priest (let’s call him Priest #1) retired, leaving the parish with a large amount of money before his retirement was announced.  He volunteered to stay on as pastor emeritus and say some of the Masses at the parish.

The new parish priest (Priest #2) started spending a lot of the money re-doing the rectory, making renovations that Priest #1 considered unnecessary and undesirable; and Priest #2 ended up throwing Priest #1 out of the rectory!

Priest #1 is still pastor emeritus of the parish, but he is not to be found there if you are looking for him (something I learned the hard way).  He is driving from church to church, saying Masses and conferring sacraments in at least two other parishes.  I am unsure how he has been managing financially….

While I suspect Priest #2 didn’t appreciate good advice and/or was jealous of Priest #1 and his popularity with the laypeople, and Priest #1 might well have gotten cantankerous in his old age, I am writing to you because I don’t know if there is anything that can be done about Priest #2, including but perhaps not limited to ecclesiastical sanctions for breaking the canon law by causing someone to end up a vagabond cleric.

If the Cardinal is no help, how do I take this to Rome? –Laura

A:  There are a couple of different issues in this messy situation that need to be identified and addressed separately.  The first one involves the right (or not) of a parish priest to expel another priest from the parish house where both are living.  The second one is less concrete, and involves the distinction that must be made between an illegal action, and an action that is subjectively perceived as rude, insensitive, or just not nice.

Priest #1 in Laura’s story was the pastor of the parish until his retirement.  When he retired, he “volunteered to stay on as pastor emeritus and say some of the Masses at the parish.”  Laura is quite correct when she indicates that he didn’t have to do this.

Canon 538.3 tells us how the retirement of a parish priest is supposed to work.  When a priest reaches his 75th birthday, he is asked to offer his resignation to the diocesan bishop.  The bishop can choose whether or not to accept it—which means that the mere act of submitting one’s resignation does not automatically cause it to happen.  If a priest turns 75 but is still in robust health, and/or the bishop really needs him to continue in his parish ministry, the bishop may simply decide to defer acceptance of his resignation until some later date.  In practice, this sort of deferral happens all the time.

But once the diocesan bishop accepts the priest’s resignation, the bishop is obliged to make provision for the financial sustenance of the retired priest and for his residence somewhere.  The Latin wording of this part of the canon is very strong; it indicates that the bishop cannot ignore this responsibility, leaving the priest to try to deal with it on his own.  In other words, financial support and a suitable place to live are the legal right of a parish priest when he retires.

The world is a big place, and so the way that individual bishops handle this obligation in all the different countries around the globe will naturally vary.  What constitutes appropriate support in Australia (for example) might be excessive in Zambia; what is sufficient in Honduras might be grossly inadequate in Germany.  Thus the code does not attempt to impose a detailed “one size fits all” approach on every diocese on earth.  The local residents—including the Catholic clergy—know the general cost of living in their region, and how much a retired priest should reasonably receive as a pension.

This means, logically, that Priest #1 has been receiving an adequate pension from his diocese since he retired.  (And if he isn’t, then the priest can and should make legal recourse.  See “Who’s Supposed to Pay a Priest’s Salary?” for more on the issue of financial support for priests.)  But what about a place to live?  Note that canon 538.3 says that the bishop is required to make provision for a residence for a retired priest—but he is not required to provide a place in the same parish rectory where the priest was living up until his retirement.

At the same time, this canon obliges the diocesan bishop to provide the retired priest with a home, but it does not force the retired priest to accept it.  A bishop could, for example, suggest that the retired pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish may live in the huge, mostly empty rectory at St. Andrew’s.  Maybe it would be a very pleasant arrangement, objectively speaking; but if the retired priest never ministered there, doesn’t know the current pastor at St. Andrew’s, and doesn’t want to live in that town at all, he can decline and arrange to live elsewhere if he wants.  In fact, there’s no reason why the retired priest really even needs to live in his own diocese!  Some retired clergy will move across country to live with their siblings, or to some other place that they decide is where they’d like to spend their retirement years.

So, if we return to Laura’s case, Priest #1 volunteered to stay in the parish where he had been pastor, and the bishop was apparently okay with that.  But from the sound of things, the retired Priest #1 has clashed with his replacement, the new pastor Priest #2, about the way parish money is being spent.  One could argue about which of the two is being reasonable and which is not, but the bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter—because the new pastor is in charge of the parish, and he has the authority to decide how to spend parish funds (c. 532; see “Can the Pastor Buy and Sell Parish Property Without Our Consent?” for more on this).

In contrast, the retired pastor, Priest #1, has absolutely no right to involve himself in parish finances at all.  He may not like the way his successor is doing things—and it might well be that the new pastor could handle parish finances more efficiently!—but the retired Priest #1 has no say in these matters any longer.  True, if Priest #1 discovered that Priest #2 was actually stealing parish funds, or otherwise engaging in objectively dishonest mishandling of them, then Priest #1 should naturally report this to the diocesan bishop.  But that does not seem to be the issue here; rather, the clash appears to be a matter of opinion, since the new pastor was “making renovations that Priest #1 considered unnecessary and undesirable.”  Canonically, it makes no difference what retired Priest #1 thinks of the renovations—this decision is entirely the prerogative of the current pastor.

So one may gather from Laura’s description that the retired Priest #1 is attempting to micromanage the current pastor, Priest #2… and the current pastor is fed up with it already.  But does that give him the right to expel his predecessor from the parish rectory?

Actually, the current parish priest is obliged to reside in the parish rectory, as per canon 533.1.  Therefore nobody can throw him out!  But the retired pastor is another matter.  He is living there solely because the current pastor (and of course the bishop) allow him to do so.  If he’s causing a ruckus by criticizing the activities of his successor—which seems to be the crux of the matter here—then he can easily be “dis-allowed” to live there in his former parish.  In other words, Priest #1 has no right to live in that rectory, while Priest #2 does.

It sounds like Priest #1 has found himself a new place to live, presumably at another parish rectory in the diocese; and he is helping out at parishes other than the one he used to run.  This is fine, so long as both the diocesan bishop and the pastor of that other parish have no objection—but once again, Priest #1 has no legal right to live in that particular place.  For example, if the bishop decided to appoint an assistant pastor (a.k.a. parochial vicar) to the parish where Priest #1 is now living, the new assistant would be obliged to live there in the rectory as per canon 550.1—and if there isn’t enough space in the rectory for everyone, Priest #1 could be asked to leave.  And, of course, if he were to cause trouble for the pastor of his new parish-residence, Priest #1 could be shown the door once more, and told yet again to find another place to stay.

Laura is concerned about “how he has been managing financially,” but there is no particular reason to worry.  As was already discussed above, Priest #1 is receiving some sort of pension, which is sufficient to support him; and if he is living rent-free in his new rectory-home, it’s probable that he’s actually pretty well off, receiving more income than he needs to cover his living expenses.  Consequently, the notion that being obliged to leave his first retirement-residence rendered Priest #1 a “vagabond” is totally incorrect.

It seems clear that Laura (and perhaps others from her parish) is a big fan of Priest #1, and feels that he has been treated heartlessly by his successor Priest #2.  But in actual fact, the current pastor Priest #2 has violated no law at all.  It might seem “mean” to tell an elderly priest to move out, but it’s very misleading to suggest that he is therefore penniless and living in the street.  On the contrary, you have to wonder whether he is excessively anxious to remain involved in parish affairs (evidently any parish will do!), when in reality it’s high-time for him to ride off into the sunset, and let younger priests take charge.

In short, it’s certainly an unpleasant situation, but Laura’s fears are unfounded.  Retired Priest #1 is being taken care of by the diocese, and there are no laws being violated here.  Would that the answer to every canon-law question were the same.

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