Q: Our pastor implemented a new faith formation program. It is extremely rigorous and has been met with anger and frustration from all parents. In a nutshell, the program of catechetics is “taught” by the parents…. There are pages and pages of study material, study questions, articles and also various media requirements, such as movies, book chapters, and audio books.
Can our pastor deny First Penance to those students who he feels have not complied with the new program requirements to his satisfaction? And, can he ask that parents fill out a form before he hears the confession, which includes information such as name, family number, date and priest’s signature? Our diocese says that the pastor can do whatever he wants as long as he’s not breaking the law. –Monica
A: As we saw in “Who is Responsible for Children’s Religious Education?” the pastor of a parish is obliged to see to the religious instruction of adults, young people, and children (c. 776). Monica’s description of what’s happening at her own parish indicates that the pastor is indeed doing that—but it sounds like parishioners are objecting because his catechetical program is extremely demanding, unreasonably so. Can the bishop (or some other diocesan official) overrule the pastor of a parish, and require him to change/lessen the requirements he has set for children’s preparation for their First Confession? Or is it correct that the pastor can do “whatever he wants,” provided that it’s not actually illegal? Let’s take a look.
In “Homeschooling and Catechetics,” we saw that there is a balancing-act that should take place between the responsibility of parents for the Christian education of their children (c. 226.2), and the obligation of the pastor of a parish to ensure that the lay-faithful under his care are instructed in the faith (c. 528.2). Both are expected to cooperate in the religious education of children, although the pastor is required to see to the catechesis of adults too. That means neither one can evade his duty, simply assuming that the other will take care of it.
Without speaking directly to Monica’s pastor it’s impossible to know for sure, but it sounds like he may have devised a system intended to result in not only the catechesis of the parish children, but to some degree of their parents as well. As any teacher can attest, when teaching a subject to others, an instructor unavoidably learns a lot about it too. It seems likely that even a parent who is already very well versed in the faith is going to pick up even more theological knowledge from films and books which perhaps he hasn’t read before.
At the same time, it’s logical to conclude that the obligation to work directly with one’s child(ren) on their catechism-lessons should lead a family to spend time together discussing their faith. Maybe the pastor views this as a back-door means of strengthening family life, in a Catholic context.
It’s also possible the pastor feels that far too many parents in the parish are indifferent to their spiritual responsibilities toward their children, instead presuming that the parish will completely take care of religious instruction for them. Requiring parents to work together with their kids would obviously correct this misunderstanding of the role of parents in their children’s spiritual formation.
In short, even without knowing the specific motivations of Monica’s pastor for implementing the parish’s catechetical program in this way, there are numerous reasons why he might have made this decision. Father is required, by virtue of his office as pastor, to ensure that the children of the parish are instructed in their faith, and he is doing that. The pastor of a parish has specific, direct responsibility for his parishioners’ spiritual wellbeing, and as a general rule the Church defers to his judgment on the best way to carry that responsibility out. (See “Canon Law and Parish Councils” for another situation involving the duties and responsibilities of a pastor toward his parish.)
So does this mean it is never possible for the bishop to intervene in the decisions of a pastor regarding parish catechetics? Not at all. There definitely are scenarios in which a diocesan bishop might rightly overrule the pastor’s decision regarding educational praxis within an individual parish. That’s because while a parish priest has responsibility for the spiritual welfare of his parishioners, a diocesan bishop has that same responsibility for all the faithful of his entire diocese. As canon 386.1 observes, the bishop is required to teach the truths of the faith to his people, making sure that (among other things) catechetical instruction is faithfully carried out in accord with canon law.
So when could a bishop step in? The most obvious objection that would warrant the bishop’s involvement would arise if a pastor altogether failed to do his duty, meaning that either there was no religious education program at all, or it was incomplete, excluding certain age-groups or other categories of parishioners who need it. We saw an unfortunate example of this in “Excommunication and the Authority of the Parish Priest,” where a pastor evidently had established catechism classes in the language of immigrant parishioners, but not in that of the children speaking the native language. This is a pretty clear-cut case meriting intervention by the pastor’s superior.
A different situation justifying a bishop’s intrusion into the religious-education program of a parish has sadly happened many times all over the world: the teaching of heterodox beliefs. Many parents have rightly objected to catechetical programs/textbooks questioning key teachings of our faith (the Virgin Birth, for example), or providing students with unacceptable guidelines for decision-making on matters of ethics. If a pastor promotes or at least condones the malformation of parishioners’ faith in this way, he is unquestionably failing in his spiritual duty toward them—and it is the bishop’s duty to intervene and correct this.
Yet another type of scenario which could conceivably warrant a bishop’s overturning of a pastor’s educational program/policy is much more concrete. If families were required to pay truly excessive fees for textbooks or other elements of a catechism course that are mandatory (especially for classes geared toward preparation for reception of the sacraments), and they were excluded when genuinely unable to pay, this would obviously prevent poorer parishioners from accessing the sacraments, to which they have a general right (cf. c. 843.1). It is quite understandable that parents are sometimes asked to pay reasonable registration-fees and/or buy their children’s textbooks; but even these should not be refused to a family that honestly cannot afford them. As we saw in “Stipends and Sacraments,” the needy are not to be deprived of the sacraments because of poverty (c. 848); and if the parish priest maintains that the sacraments will be withheld from anyone who fails to participate in the parish’s educational program, the net result will be that the truly poor will be unable to receive the sacraments.
Which leads us to Monica’s actual question. Can a parish priest refuse to allow children who have not satisfactorily completed their catechism class to receive their First Penance? Absolutely. If the pastor has determined that participation in a set instructional course (or other reasonable requirements) is necessary to prepare a parishioner to receive First Penance or First Holy Communion, he may therefore prevent anyone who has not done this from receiving the sacrament. There’s nothing arbitrary about this, because as a shepherd of souls, he is obliged to ensure that those seeking the sacraments are prepared to receive them by proper catechetical instruction (c. 843.2).
As for “filling out a form” before a child makes his First Penance, it’s hard to see why this would constitute a problem, unless perhaps the priest hearing the child’s first confession wanted to see it when the child entered the confessional—because this would clearly infringe on the penitent’s anonymity. In “Confession by Appointment and Face-to-Face,” we saw that the Church understands and respects a penitent’s desire to avoid identifying himself. Obliging a penitent to first hand over a card with his name on it would be a pretty obvious violation of that! Otherwise, however, if the parish priest wants to devise a system to make sure in advance that all the children of the parish are accounted for, there is certainly nothing wrong with that.
To sum up, the diocesan contact who told Monica that “the pastor can do whatever he wants as long as he’s not breaking the law” was correct—and there is no indication here that any law is being broken. That does not mean, of course, that the catechetical program established by Monica’s pastor is necessarily flawless; it may very well be that many parents are genuinely overwhelmed by the excessive amount of work involved. Perhaps the pastor may decide to lighten the requirements next year, after finding that the load was just too much for this year’s parents to handle! But the fact remains that ultimately, the call is his to make (or not). We can see here further proof—if any was needed!—of the immense responsibility of the parish priest.