Are they Really Catholic? Part II

Q: Not far from my home is a church with a sign in front identifying it as a “Roman Catholic Church” with “traditional Roman rites.”  But the bulletin from our Catholic parish never refers to any activities going on at this church, although it usually lists events at other parishes. Also, I just found out recently that this church is not even listed in the diocesan handbook as one of the parishes of our diocese. What’s going on?  Is it possible to have a Roman Catholic parish church in our diocese, but that’s not part of our diocese?  Is it okay for us to attend this church on Sundays?  –Michael

A: In “Are They Really Catholic? Part I,” we saw that there are perfectly legitimate Catholic churches of non-Roman rites which happen to be located within the territory of Roman-rite Catholic dioceses. While some of their rituals may externally seem very different, these churches are truly Catholic, because they share the same Catholic faith, sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance (c. 205).

The parish church that Michael describes, however, claims to be of the Roman rite. The fact that it is not listed as one of the parishes in Michael’s Roman-rite diocese is a tip-off that something is canonically amiss, and he is quite correct to question its status.

The ecclesiastical governance of this parish is at issue here. By definition, a parish is a subdivision of a diocese (c. 374.1). There is no way that a Roman-rite parish could be legitimately established in a Roman-rite diocese by anyone other than the bishop of the diocese in which it is located! Since Michael notes that it is not listed in the diocesan handbook as one of the parishes in his diocese, it appears that this parish church is not in communion with the diocesan bishop.

So who are these people? Judging from the wording of their sign, it is most likely that they are traditionalists who have rejected the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and who follow the liturgical norms that were previously in force. The priests who minister in such churches are generally either members of a religious group that may or may not be openly schismatic, or they are renegade diocesan priests who have unilaterally chosen to leave their dioceses (and are usually under suspension, for this very reason). These are, for the most part, validly ordained priests, who really say valid Masses, at which bread and wine are truly consecrated and become the Body and Blood of Christ.

But they are not in full communion with ecclesiastical authorities, and do not have permission to minister to the people of the diocese where they are located. As such, their ministry is illicit (i.e., illegal).

It is important here to keep in mind a critical distinction: once a man is ordained a priest, he will always have the ability to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and nobody on earth can take that ability away from him. As we’ve noticed before, canon law follows theology, so it is no surprise that the code (c. 290) echoes the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1581-1582) in asserting that priestly ordination which is validly conferred never becomes invalid. “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech.”

At the same time, however, there are some situations in which a validly ordained priest is no longer permitted by ecclesiastical authorities to say Mass. A suspended priest (c. 1333) is usually forbidden by his bishop (or his superior, if he is a member of a religious order) to exercise the power of order, which means he is not permitted to celebrate any of the sacraments. There are many reasons why a bishop may suspend a priest, but here in the U.S. we are all unfortunately familiar with the most common example in recent years: the priest who is suspended after allegations of sexual abuse are made against him. A suspended priest always retains the ability to say Mass; he is, however, ordered not to do so. If he defies this prohibition, his Mass is valid—the consecration actually does take place—but it is illicit, since the priest was commanded by his lawful ecclesiastical superior not to celebrate it.

If the priest who operates this parish which Michael mentions is a “deserter,” who walked away from his diocese or religious institute because he wants to minister according to pre-Vatican II rituals, he is undoubtedly under suspension. Charity would dictate that we pray for some sort of reconciliation between him and his lawful ecclesiastical superiors, so that his canonical situation can be regularized once again.

Then again, the church Michael describes may be operated by one of the arguably schismatic, traditionalist Catholic organizations that operate in various parts of the U.S.  If this is the case, its pastor may have been ordained by a bishop who was himself a member of one of these organizations, so it’s quite possible that the priest has never been in a canonically regular status in the Church. The largest such traditionalist group, the Society of Saint Pius X, is headed by four bishops who were illicitly ordained by the late Bishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988, without the sanction of the Holy Father. All of them were consequently excommunicated, in accord with canon 1382. These bishops were validly ordained, but all their sacramental actions are illicit, including their ordinations of new priests.

Rome has not officially declared that the priests whom they ordain are also excommunicated, preferring instead to engage in quiet diplomacy aimed at reconciling the entire group to the Church. In more private statements, however, the Vatican has noted that these priests are automatically under suspension, because they were not ordained for a diocese or religious institute that is in communion with Rome (cf c. 265). Therefore, while they are validly ordained, they are by law forbidden to exercise their priestly ministry, in accord with the same canon 1333 discussed above.

So what’s the bottom line? Catholics who are aware that a church like this one is not legally a part of their diocese will do best to keep their distance. If, however, a Catholic were innocently to attend Sunday Mass at such a parish without being aware of its true canonical status, it would be difficult to impute to him any blame, especially since these churches advertise themselves as “Roman Catholic.” I recently heard of a case in which two tourists asked the concierge at their hotel for directions to the nearest Catholic church, and were sent to a church very much like the one Michael describes! The code does mention that no entity may call itself “Catholic” without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority (c. 216), but in practical terms there is no concrete way to enforce this, particularly when the violator is not in full communion with the Church.

It is probable that at least at some point in the past, Michael’s bishop issued some sort of statement to all the Catholics of his diocese, explaining the status of this questionable church and its pastor. Only a diocesan bishop may name pastors to the parishes in his diocese (c. 523; cf. also c. 157), and it is his responsibility to ensure that liturgical worship and the administration of the sacraments are in accord with the relevant liturgical regulations and with canon law (cc. 392, 838.4).

Ultimately, the bishop is responsible for the spiritual well-being of the Catholics who reside in his territory. He consequently has not only the right, but also the responsibility to ensure that questionable clergy do not enter his territory and attempt to minister to the people of his diocese. And we lay-Catholics in turn have the obligation to avoid attending those churches which we know are not fully in communion with the Catholic Church.

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