Excommunication and the Authority of the Parish Priest

Q: What course do parishioners have to ask the bishop to correct, reprimand or otherwise relocate a priest who refuses to baptize children of parents that he doesn’t “recognize” as parishioners, even though they are on the parish roll?  He has cut the Mass schedule, making it nearly impossible for shift workers to attend Mass.  And he won’t offer English-language baptism classes, confirmation classes and CCD.

This priest threatened to excommunicate the last person who sat down to try to discuss their “concerns” with him. –Andrea

A: We have seen many, many times before in this space that the Catholic lay-faithful have certain rights, and their parish priests (and all other clergy too, for that matter) are required by law to respect them.  At the same time, we have also seen on numerous occasions that the pastor of a parish has the obligation to ensure that those who present themselves to receive the sacraments are properly prepared to do so—and if they aren’t, their request can and should be refused.  There is, in short, a constant balancing-act that invariably must go on between the rights of the faithful, and the responsibilities of the clergy.

It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that priests and people may—and often do, as we see here—disagree in practice about how these rights and responsibilities should be balanced.  Let’s look at each of the sacramental issues Andrea raises in turn, and see what the law has to say about them.  Next, we’ll examine the notion of a parish priest excommunicating his parishioners.  And finally we should have a clearer overall picture of what may be happening in this unfortunate situation.

1) Andrea’s pastor “refuses to baptize children of parents that he doesn’t ‘recognize’ as parishioners, even though they are on the parish roll.”

Canon 843.2 states that pastors of souls have the duty to ensure that those who ask for the sacraments are prepared for their reception.  That’s why with regard to baptism, parents who request that their child be baptized do not have an unqualified right to it.  As was addressed at length in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” the parish priest needs to determine that there is a realistic hope that the child to be baptized will in fact be brought up a Catholic (c. 868.1 n.2).  If the parents are not practicing Catholics, and it appears that they have no intention of raising their child in the faith, the baptism is to be deferred.  This is one scenario in which the pastor of a parish rightly should refuse a sacrament to the laity, and there certainly are no laws being violated in such a case—on the contrary, a parish priest would actually be doing what the law requires by refusing to confer the sacrament of baptism.

There is another, separate issue that might conceivably cause the pastor of a parish to decline to baptize a child: canon 857.2 notes that as a rule, an infant is to be baptized in the parish church of his parents.  In theory, therefore, if a couple were to request that their child be baptized in a parish other than their own, and there was no particular reason why they didn’t/couldn’t make this request of their own pastor, a priest could lawfully say no, and explain to the parents that the baby really should be baptized in their own parish.

But according to Andrea, the issue is different.  Andrea’s pastor is refusing to baptize children of people whom he doesn’t “recognize,” even though they are registered parishioners.  Can he do this?

As often happens in legal matters, the answer is “it depends.”  If the pastor is refusing because he knows every single parishioner personally and he has never seen these people before, that would indicate that he may believe the couple are (a) not practicing Catholics, in which case there is no well-founded hope that the child will be raised a Catholic; or (b) from another parish, which would logically mean they should have the baby baptized elsewhere.  Note that as we saw in  “Parish Registration and Confirmation Sponsors,” the mere fact that a person is “registered” at a particular parish in and of itself means nothing in canon law.  A person’s proper parish is, as a rule, determined by his home address, since the average parish is territorial (c. 518).  A pastor may find a list of “registered” parishioners quite useful for determining the demographics of the parish; but canonically, registration (or the lack thereof) does not establish anything.

If, on the other hand, Andrea’s parish has thousands of members, and the pastor is refusing to baptize anyone whom he doesn’t know personally, this obviously is quite another matter!  It’s not inconceivable that a family may regularly attend a huge parish and yet still be unknown to the pastor, who understandably can’t remember every single face.  In such a situation, showing the pastor that the family is indeed registered at the parish, and regularly supports the parish financially and otherwise participates in parish life, could prove extremely helpful in convincing the pastor that the family does indeed play an active part in the parish.  Refusing to baptize their child under such circumstances, merely because he doesn’t recognize them, would be unjust, and a direct violation of their rights.

2) Andrea’s pastor “has cut the Mass schedule, making it nearly impossible for shift workers to attend Mass.”

Canon 528.2 states that the pastor of a parish is to take care that the Eucharist is the center of the parish assembly of the faithful, and is to strive that the faithful are nourished by the devout celebration of the sacraments.  It should be pretty obvious that ensuring that parishioners are able to get to Mass on Sundays and Holydays of Obligation is a key responsibility of the parish priest.

If Andrea’s pastor has “cut the Mass schedule” unnecessarily and/or arbitrarily, and thereby rendered a significant number of parishioners unable to fulfill their Sunday obligation because they must work during the remaining Mass-times, then he is failing in his spiritual responsibility in a very serious way!  But keep in mind that there may be some other, unavoidable reason why the Mass schedule was cut.  Perhaps there used to be other priests in residence at the parish, who celebrated some of the Sunday Masses, and now for whatever reason they are no longer there.  Or maybe the pastor himself is in declining health and no longer physically able to (let’s say) get up at the crack of dawn and say a 6 AM Mass, and still retain enough stamina to say another at 9:30 AM and a third at noon.  Depending on the circumstances, it may be that the reduced Mass schedule can’t be helped.

3) Andrea’s pastor “won’t offer English-language baptism classes, confirmation classes and CCD.”

As we saw in “Who is Responsible for Children’s Religious Education?” the pastor of a parish is, by definition, obliged to see to the Catholic education of children and young people from his parish (c. 528.1).  If there are different languages spoken at the parish, it’s only logical that the parish priest make a concerted effort to ensure that the children’s catechetical program takes this into account.

Note that there are some common-sense limitations on this requirement.  Imagine a parish in rural Canada, where everyone speaks English—and suddenly a family moves into town from Hungary, with children who only speak Hungarian!  In such a case, the pastor is hardly obliged to search out a Hungarian-speaking catechist to tutor these children privately.  The logical course of action is to make sure that the children are immersed in the native language of their new country, thus enabling them to join the parish catechetical program as soon as possible.

In this particular case, however, Andrea’s parish is bilingual, with an apparently significant number of immigrants who speak a language other than that of the native population.  It would seem that the pastor is taking care to provide a catechetical program for the immigrants, but not for the non-immigrants—and this is a direct violation of the pastor’s duties and the children’s rights.  Obviously, the native-language speakers have just as much a right to learn their faith as do the sizeable number of foreign children.  It is only natural that parishioners have called their pastor to task on this issue…which brings us to the final point.

4) Andrea’s pastor “threatened to excommunicate the last person who sat down to try to discuss their ‘concerns’ with him.”

As we have just seen, the first two issues discussed above have some gray area, depending on the exact circumstances of the given situation.  It’s not impossible that Andrea’s pastor is doing the right thing by refusing to baptize the children of someone whom he doesn’t “recognize,” and he might also be justified in “cutting the Mass schedule.”  The third point is less murky, since it does seem he is failing in his responsibility to teach the faith to a significant-enough number of children from the parish.

But the fourth issue is the most clear-cut of all.  Andrea’s pastor has absolutely no power whatsoever to excommunicate anyone in his parish, period.  Here’s why.

Firstly, there is nothing criminal about parishioners trying to discuss parish problems—or at least, perceived parish problems—with the pastor.  The pastor might naturally not like the idea of being challenged by the faithful; and if they persist in doing this repeatedly, he could certainly find it time-consuming and dispiriting.  Nonetheless, if a lay Catholic does something a parish priest doesn’t like, that doesn’t automatically make it illegal!

The second point is directly related to the first.  The only persons who can create new penal laws in the Church are those with legislative power (c. 1315.1).  The pastor of a parish has no legislative power whatsoever—the diocesan bishop does (c. 391).  Consequently, if there were to be a new law in Andrea’s diocese, excommunicating parishioners who tried to discuss their concerns with the parish priest, only the diocesan bishop could establish it.

Thirdly, even if the bishop had established such a penalty (an inconceivable notion!), a parish priest would have absolutely no power to impose it—since he is not a judge.  Judicial power at the diocesan level is in the hands of the diocesan bishop (c. 391 again), who is the one ultimately responsible for determining that a crime has been committed and a punishment incurred (cf. cc. 1341 ff).

Speaking of inconceivable notions, it’s pretty difficult to imagine that a Catholic priest would not know this.  As was discussed in “Annulments and the Authority of the Parish Priest,” those Catholic clergy from poorer parts of the world might be excused for their ignorance about certain matters, because the quality of their seminary education could have been less than ideal, and through no fault of their own.  But it’s awfully hard to excuse a parish priest for not knowing that he is not a dictator whose decisions cannot be questioned!  To put it bluntly, this mentality and behavior is just plain absurd.

And when we consider the blatantly unreasonable mindset of Andrea’s pastor with regard to the grave penalty of excommunication, it suddenly puts the gray areas of her first two complaints in a different light.  If indeed this pastor has such open disregard for the Church’s system of penal law, and/or such a flawed understanding of the proper use of power and authority in the Church, it may be that he thinks the parish is his own personal fiefdom, to be governed however he sees fit.  He may very well be randomly refusing baptism to parishioners who have the right to receive it, and arbitrarily rendering parishioners unable to fulfill their Sunday Mass obligations without just cause.  Taken in tandem with the refusal to offer catechetical instruction in the native language of the country where he is ministering, it doesn’t look good.

So what should Andrea do?  This matter must be brought to the diocesan bishop’s attention.  Andrea and her fellow parishioners ideally should write him a respectful and factual letter, detailing the specific problems and striving to refrain from editorial comment.  Note that it is not the parishioners’ prerogative to decide whether “to correct, reprimand or otherwise relocate” their pastor; any determination about the best way to handle this must be left up to his superior.  The assumption should be that the bishop knows nothing about this.  Keep in mind that an entire parish may be in an uproar, but if nobody tells the bishop about it, he will have absolutely no idea that anything is wrong!

It is tragic when a priest abuses his authority, because this can do untold spiritual damage to the lay-faithful under his care.  In the Church, power is always accompanied by immense responsibility, which should give any priest in an authority-position some pause.  One day, we will all—clergy and laity alike—have to render an account of our actions to God Himself.  Let’s pray for our parish priests, that they always retain a right understanding of their authority, and exercise their heavy responsibilities with God’s help and in the way that He wants.

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