Can Our Pastor Kick Us Out of the Parish?

Q: My husband and I have a very difficult situation with our parish priest.  He refused to allow our daughter to be baptized in 2013…. The Bishop declared that our baby should be baptized but the priest tried to delay things.  The priest announced in 2015 that my husband is not welcome (but did not say we were forbidden to attend) at Mass said by him and that he would deny my husband Holy Communion. He said that we should go to [one of the Masses celebrated for foreign immigrants by a foreign priest].

In 2016 the parish priest interrupted his own homily to tell the congregation that our family isn’t allowed to attend Masses at the parish (which isn’t true) and that we were disobeying the bishop (which isn’t true) and how we hate and despise the priest (which isn’t true).  He then finished off by describing us as crazy. And he did all this from the pulpit in the middle of Mass!

The bishop issued a statement saying the following:
None of the ministers of Communion will deny my husband Communion.
He may no longer question the pastor’s authority.
He may not spread slander about the pastor.
If my husband violates these two points and there are two witnesses who can attest to it, then he will no longer receive Communion in our diocese.

There is only one Catholic parish in our city so it has not been possible for us to switch parishes.  We feel very alone and humiliated, yet we believe that canon law is clearly on our side.  Can you please help us? –Heather

A:  We saw last time in “Can a Pastor Ban a Parishioner From Coming to Mass?” that Catholics in general have the right to receive the sacraments (c. 843.1), but we also saw that rights come with responsibilities.  The law says that a parish priest is to administer the sacraments to those faithful who genuinely wish to receive them at the appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from doing so.  This means that there definitely are situations when a priest can say no; but he cannot randomly, arbitrarily decide to refuse to allow Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones to (for example) receive Holy Communion or go to confession.  There have to be solid grounds for refusing the sacraments to a member of the faithful.  “I don’t like him,” or “I don’t feel like it,” or “she’s annoying” are most certainly not reasons for a priest to deny a Catholic the sacraments—on the contrary, this would constitute an outrageous abuse of power.

But is that what is happening in this case?  Anybody can see that there is an awful lot going on in this miserable situation—although there is likewise an awful lot of important information that is missing.  If we want to crystallize the whole mess down to just one issue, it would probably be this: is it ever possible for a pastor to refuse to administer the sacraments to certain parishioners altogether, and (in a nutshell) tell them to go away and not come back?  Let’s examine this situation and try as best we can to piece together what is really going on, and then we’ll see what conclusions we can reach.

Heather and her family live in a country with a tiny Catholic minority, and as she says, there is only one Catholic parish in their city.  When their daughter was born, they naturally wanted her to be baptized there; but for reasons which are unclear the parish priest placed specific conditions on baptizing the baby (which Heather was vague about, and which have been omitted here), and the couple refused to comply.  As was discussed in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?canon 868.1 n.2 states that for a child to be baptized, there must be a realistic hope that he will be brought up in the Catholic religion—otherwise the priest is to defer the baptism and explain to the parents the reason why.  If the priest finds it necessary to delay baptizing the child until the parents give sufficient indication that the baby will be raised a Catholic, this is intended to be a “teaching moment,” in which the priest explains to the couple the importance of rearing their child in the Catholic faith.  And if/when the parents agree, the baptism may take place.

As was already said, it’s not clear what exactly happened here; but we do know that the parents objected to what the priest told them they had to do, and appealed to the diocesan bishop (which was the correct course of action in such a situation).  The bishop evidently heard both sides and overruled the priest, telling him to baptize the baby—which he did.  Logically, one would expect any problems between the priest and Heather’s family to end right there.

But they didn’t.  Why not?

This is where it becomes critical to hear both sides of the story—and we only have one side here.  From Heather’s description, it sounds like the family shows up for Sunday Mass like everybody else, and out of the clear blue sky the parish priest begins shouting defamatory statements about them, for no reason at all.  Is this even possible?  Well, it’s not unthinkable that a priest could have mental problems, and might concoct fantasies in his mind about an entirely innocent family in the parish.  Stranger things have definitely happened!

If that is the case here, the appropriate thing for Heather and her husband to do is to appeal to the bishop (again).  And it appears that they did exactly that, because Heather gives us the bishop’s decision.  What the bishop said to both sides in this case is actually very illuminating.  We can begin to see that this is a lot more complicated than it already seemed to be.

First of all, the bishop declares that the parish priest may not deny Holy Communion to Heather’s husband, if he wishes to receive it at Mass.  This would indicate that the bishop concluded that the priest was indeed violating his right to receive the Eucharist.  If there had been a sound, legitimate reason to deny Communion to this man (see “Can Pro-Abortion Politicians Receive Holy Communion?” for a discussion of this issue in another context), the bishop presumably would not have overruled the priest on this.  So it would seem that the priest was indeed at fault here.

But what the bishop’s statement says next deserves a closer look.  The bishop asserted that Heather’s husband “may no longer question the pastor’s authority” and “may not spread slander about the pastor.”  It’s only reasonable to conclude that if the bishop is telling him to stop doing these things… he must have been doing them.

It appears that after the parish priest tried to refuse to baptize their baby in 2013, Heather’s husband began in some way to challenge his authority as pastor of the parish.  Evidently this involved making statements about the priest that were untrue—since in the bishop’s opinion, they constituted “slander.”

We can imagine what the parish priest’s basic reaction to this was.  If a parishioner is fomenting some sort of rebellion among other members of the parish, spreading false stories about the parish priest in the process, nobody should expect the priest to do nothing.  He naturally doesn’t want a civil war to erupt in his parish, especially if the mutiny is grounded (wholly or partly) on false accusations!  So while we once again don’t know all the details, it looks like the parish priest at some point decided that if this family were so determined to create a ruckus among members of the parish, they should just stop coming to Mass there.  His response, therefore, was basically to tell them to get lost.

Can he do that?  One might sympathize with a parish priest who is frustrated by difficult parishioners, but technically the answer is no.  As we saw in “Parish Registration,” the parish which a Catholic belongs to is determined simply by his street-address.  As a rule, parishes are territorial (c. 518).  If a Catholic lives at 123 Main Street, and that address is within the boundaries of Saint Ann’s parish, then he is a member of Saint Ann’s parish—regardless of whether he or the pastor likes it or not!  So a parish priest cannot legally tell a parishioner (no matter how maddening he may be) to just go away and find another parish.  Strictly speaking, the only way for a Catholic to change parishes under canon law is to move.

To be fair, it doesn’t really sound like Heather’s pastor told the family to do this.  Heather indicates that the priest told them to attend a Mass celebrated in another language by a foreign priest, for immigrants.  Since “there is only one Catholic parish in our city,” these Masses are evidently celebrated in that same parish, and there is certainly no reason why any parishioner couldn’t attend them.  Granted, it might be difficult to pray the Mass if it’s being said entirely in Vietnamese or Tagalog; but if your only alternative were to deal with a priest shouting at you from the pulpit in your own language, which would you rather choose?

One final thing that the bishop said deserves our attention.  He warns Heather’s husband that if he is ever again heard challenging the pastor’s authority, or spreading slander about him, in the presence of two witnesses, then he will not be allowed to receive the Eucharist—not only in this one parish, but in the whole diocese.  This is a serious threat, and it would suggest that the bishop has concluded that by continuing his actions Heather’s husband would, in a sense, be removing himself from communion with the Catholic Church in that area.  In general, if someone has a position of authority in the Church, and you refuse to accept that he has authority, this has the potential to constitute schism (cf. c 751), which is an excommunicable offense (c. 1364.1).

We can tentatively conclude, therefore, that whatever Heather’s husband has been doing/saying was not limited to an isolated incident, or involved an insignificant number of other Catholics.  It sounds like he has been creating marked disruption in the parish; and while the parish priest may not have been handling it in a way that was completely legal, the priest and the bishop both appear to be in agreement that whatever Heather’s husband has been doing in the parish must stop.

What a mess!  There seems to be plenty of fault here to go around.  Unfortunately, this sort of tricky scenario occurs more often than many Catholics realize!  When one encounters a dispute between two sides, it’s natural to assume that one side is right and the other is wrong—but in many cases, each side is neither entirely innocent nor entirely guilty, and sorting it all out can be like trying to untie the proverbial Gordian knot.  One thing we may safely say is that Heather is incorrect to claim that “canon law is clearly on our side.”  Rights come with inherent responsibilities, and our failing in the latter can result in our losing the former.

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