Canon Law and Getting What You Want

Q1: My fiancé and I wish to be married in a chapel [instead of the parish church]. This chapel… has been the most pivotal part of our faith life and relationship with one another.

However, we were informed that we would need permission from the Archdiocese to be married in a private Catholic Chapel, which they did not grant us.  We honestly didn’t even foresee this issue coming about….  Our main frustration comes from the fact that this law is interpreted differently depending on the bishop and diocese.

How common is it for bishops to grant exceptions to the rule in a scenario like this?  Do you know which diocese are more likely to do so? Or is there any way to get a different diocese or bishop to overrule?  Is there any way to look up records regarding the exceptions they made in the past during other bishops’ terms?  Do we have any case here regarding the fact that canon law is interpreted differently from bishop to bishop?  —Sara

Q2: This year our pastor asked the diocese for permission to say an outdoor Mass at a carnival, with the keyboard, loudspeakers and microphones on a makeshift stage. The diocese gave the permission.

I would not say I trust the diocese…. can they permit a carnival Mass under carnival attributes? –Valentina

A: On the surface, these two scenarios appear to be completely dissimilar.  Legally, however, they both boil down to the same question: “I don’t like the bishop’s decision.  What can I do to make him change it?”

We’ve certainly looked at other situations in the past where a bishop’s decision could (and even should) be appealed.  But this time around, neither Sara nor Valentina has a case.  Why not?  Let’s take a look.

As is true of civil law in most places, canon law has a set procedure enabling people to appeal a decision in certain circumstances.  If Catholics didn’t have the right to appeal, that procedure wouldn’t exist!  But if an appeal is to be successful, it has to show that the original decision should never have been made for a specific legal reason—and thus should be overturned.  In the past we’ve seen a number of instances that fit this description.

The countless tragic examples of priests being wrongly sanctioned in response to unproven allegations of sexual abuse, discussed in “Canon Law and False Abuse Allegations, Part I” and “Part II” are cases in point.  Diocesan bishops have, of course, the authority to discipline the clergy of their diocese when those clerics are proven to have committed crimes or engaged in other reprehensible actions that merit punishment—nobody’s denying that.  If a priest molests a child, and the bishop finds out and sanctions the priest in accord with canon law, the bishop is doing his job.  Yet when a bishop punishes a priest for sexual abuse, but the accuser’s story is obviously suspect (maybe the alleged victim claims the abuse took place in a city where the priest has never been, or keeps changing the story when the “facts” are repeatedly proven false, or has told friends that he’s making the story up in order to get money from the diocese), that’s another matter altogether!  In such a situation the bishop is not doing his job at all—he is making an unsound decision that is not based on objective facts, and violates the rights of the priest under his authority.  This is the sort of case which obviously merits an appeal.

We saw a different, yet comparable type of situation in “Can Catholics be Prohibited From Marrying in Lent and Advent?”  In that case, the faithful were being told that they could not celebrate the sacrament of matrimony for long periods of time—but the bishop/parish priest had no legal authority to make such a decision, which directly contradicted the Code of Canon Law.  The rights of the Catholic faithful who wanted to marry during those periods were thus being unjustly violated, and it was entirely proper for them to appeal.

In situations like these, the people who appeal the bishop’s decision are obviously unhappy with it. But that’s not the sole ground for their appeal. They appeal because for some reason they’re convinced that the originally judgment is legally flawed—and so their argument is based on the law, not merely on their personal preferences.

Neither of the scenarios described in our two questions meets this criteria.  Let’s examine the issue raised by Valentina first.  She is correct that, as we saw in “Does Mass Have to be Said in a Church?” Mass is supposed to be said in a sacred place, ordinarily a church or chapel (c. 932.1).  The outdoor stage at the “carnival” that Valentina describes is of course neither of those.  But the same canon adds that Mass may also be celebrated elsewhere if necessity requires it, in which case it should be held in a decent place.  “Decent” is a pretty broad term!  But does it cover the carnival too?

Without knowing the full situation, it’s impossible for us to judge for ourselves whether having a Mass on an outdoor stage at this carnival was prudent or not.  If the Mass was presented as simply one more means of entertainment, together with the cotton-candy, the ferris-wheel, and the games of chance, this would degrade the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—which is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (c. 897)—and the answer would clearly be no.  But if the Mass were celebrated at (let’s say) the beginning of the festivities on Sunday afternoon, and was intended to attract Catholics who might be coming to the carnival without having attended Sunday Mass first, it’s possible that this could be a form of evangelization.  Perhaps the priest celebrating the Mass could invite his outdoor congregation to consider attending Mass regularly if they don’t already, and provide literature on Catholic doctrine, or the parish’s schedule of Masses and other events, at its conclusion.  Who knows, celebrating the outdoor Mass for carnival-goers might even attract non-Catholics to the faith!

In short, this sounds like one of those “it depends” situations, without a black-and-white answer.  From what Valentina says, it appears that the parish priest concluded that he should check with the diocesan bishop before agreeing to celebrate an outdoor Mass at this festive event.  (Given the uncertainty of the situation, this was a wise move on his part.)  The bishop listened to the request and gave his approval for the Mass to take place.  Since the carnival was held in his diocese, and the priest is the pastor of a parish in his diocese, the diocesan bishop naturally had the right to make the judgment-call when it was presented to him.  He evidently determined that the outdoor stage constituted a “decent place,” as per canon 932.1.

Valentina plainly was unhappy with this decision.  But to her credit, when she was later told that the bishop had the right to make a decision in this case, and acted in accord with the law, she accepted it.  She certainly wasn’t required to agree with the bishop’s decision; but she did have to acknowledge that this was the bishop’s prerogative, and respectfully defer to him.

In contrast, let’s now look at Sara’s question.  Sara knows that as a rule, Catholics marry in their parish church, as per canon 1118.1.  (See “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?” for more on this.)  But the canon also notes that the wedding can be held in another [Catholic] church with permission of the local bishop.  And since Sara and her fiancé want to marry in a different Catholic church building, they asked the bishop for permission to do this.

The bishop refused to grant his permission, instead requiring the couple to marry in the parish church.  Sara plainly doesn’t like this, and wants the bishop’s decision overruled.  But are there any legal grounds in her favor?

We don’t know what the rationale for the bishop’s decision was, but we do know that he had full authority to make it.  If he had somehow misunderstood the request (let’s say he erroneously thought the couple wanted to marry in a Lutheran chapel, when in fact the chapel was Catholic), Sara could conceivably have presented evidence on appeal to show that he’d gotten the facts wrong—but such does not appear to have been the case.  Note also that the bishop didn’t violate the couple’s rights in any way; he forbid them to marry in the chapel as they wanted, but he clearly did not forbid them to marry altogether.

Sara’s reaction is, therefore, canonically unjustifiable, not to mention confusing.  To start with, it makes no difference whatsoever that her own bishop denied her request, while a bishop in a different diocese might have granted the comparable request of another couple.  A diocesan bishop has the authority to judge as he sees fit—and he certainly isn’t bound by the decisions of other bishops.  Still less does one diocesan bishop have the power to overrule another!

It’s not clear why anyone would think that statistics are compiled and maintained in the Church, regarding the number of requests which are approved and denied by any bishop.  A request like Sara’s is a private matter, and her bishop presumably did not publicize his decision (although Sara can if she likes).  Thus there’s no way of knowing whether the bishop always denies requests of this nature, or whether his predecessor always granted them—and frankly, it doesn’t matter anyway.  Think about it: if you appeal a bishop’s decision, the next-higher level that you’re appealing to is… the Pope.  For theological reasons, the Vatican as a rule strives to respect the decisions made by individual bishops in their dioceses (unless of course they are illegal, as was already discussed above), and only in the rarest of circumstances, and for the gravest of reasons, would Rome interfere in an individual diocese by overruling the local bishop’s decision.  Does anyone seriously think that the Vatican would do so in this case?

In short, in the past we’ve seen that church authorities have made decisions which warranted appeal—but these two cases cannot be included among them.  It might be nice if our bishops always gave us what we wanted; but when they don’t, responding with “Aw, come on!” does not constitute substantive grounds for appeal.  We don’t have to like these decisions; but when they’re made by competent authority, and in full accord with the law, we do have to accept them and move on.

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