Q: A recent discussion with a Protestant friend led me to do some research, and when I visited your website, I saw the many questions about the withholding of Sacraments from the faithful during COVID-19. I was absolutely shocked to learn that it was in fact illegal for the bishops to decree this, and thus for the priests to go along with it. It’s still rocking my world.
My question is smaller, and due to a recent announcement that my bishop has canceled all parish fall festivals, which are usually the main fundraisers for the year. I wondered if he had the power to do that, or of that was also an overstepping of his authority—telling parishes whether/how/when they can fundraise. Clearly this is much less important than the withholding of the Sacraments (thankfully, this has ceased in my diocese, but I ache for those who are still prohibited), but I wondered nonetheless. –Anastasia
A: On the one hand, Anastasia is right: her question about the parish’s fall festival isn’t nearly as “big” as the mind-numbing illegality of bishops and priests refusing to minister to the faithful “because of the virus” (discussed in “Do Bishops Have Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” and “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?” among many others). But on the other hand, it illustrates the important balancing-act that is supposed to take place in the Church on a regular basis, between the responsibility of a parish priest to administer the finances and other property of his parish, and the responsibility of a bishop to oversee the parishes of his diocese.
Speaking very broadly, the two have worked together pretty well around the world for generations; but as we are all keenly aware, recent weeks have seen a display of tyrannical episcopal overreach that is utterly unprecedented in the entire history of the Catholic Church (see “Are We Under Interdict? Sanctions, Part V,” and “Did the Spanish Flu of 1918 Create a Precedent for Closing Churches and Canceling Masses Today?” for more on this). For that reason alone, these days any statement by any diocesan bishop, that forbids diocesan clergy or faithful to do anything, automatically merits a closer look.
Let’s start at the beginning. Canon 369 defines a diocese as a portion of the people of God which is entrusted to a bishop, for him to shepherd with the cooperation of the priests. The canon adds that by adhering to the bishop as its shepherd, and gathered by him in the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and the Eucharist, a diocese constitutes a particular Church in which the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative. For the record, this canon is taken almost verbatim from paragraph 11 of Christus Dominus, Vatican II’s Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops.
So a diocesan bishop is responsible for the entire diocese, which should be no surprise to anyone. Equally unsurprising is the fact that every diocese is divided into parishes (c. 374.1). The code defines a parish as a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (also known as a parish priest, depending on what part of the world you live in) as its proper shepherd under the authority of the diocesan bishop (c. 515.1). Canon 519 tells us that the pastor (or parish priest) is the proper shepherd of the parish entrusted to him, exercising the pastoral care of the community committed to him under the authority of the diocesan bishop, in whose ministry of Christ he has been called to share. As should be clear from this phraseology, the need for a cooperative balancing-act between the parish priest and the diocesan bishop is critical.
The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, explains in normal, non-juridic terminology the relationship between diocese and parish, and between diocesan bishop and parish priest:
The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent….
But because it is impossible for the bishop always and everywhere to preside over the whole flock in his Church, he cannot do other than establish lesser groupings of the faithful. Among these the parishes, set up locally under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop, are the most important: for in some manner they represent the visible Church constituted throughout the world.
And therefore the liturgical life of the parish and its relationship to the bishop must be fostered theoretically and practically among the faithful and clergy; efforts also must be made to encourage a sense of community within the parish, above all in the common celebration of the Sunday Mass. (41-42)
It should be evident to all that the diocesan bishop, and the pastor of a parish, are on the same team and naturally should be working together. That said, however, a parish priest has a lot of autonomy in his operation of the parish entrusted to him, and a diocesan bishop should not—and in some cases cannot, as seen in “When Can Parish Buildings be Rented Out for Secular Use?”—micromanage the everyday workings of the parish.
When it comes to financial decisions—like choosing to hold an annual fall festival as a means of raising money that is needed to support the parish—how much authority does a parish priest actually have? Canon 1279.1 gives us a general rule of thumb, which applies not only to parishes but to other church entities (like schools and monasteries) as well: The administration of ecclesiastical goods pertains to the one who immediately governs the person to which the goods belong, without prejudice to the right of the Ordinary to intervene in case of negligence by an administrator. In case you’re wondering, the canon’s reference to governing a “person” includes juridic persons, like parishes (cf. c. 515.3; see the abovementioned “When Can Parish Buildings be Rented Out for Secular Use?” for a discussion of what a “juridic person” is). The pastor of a parish, therefore, is by definition the administrator of parish goods, including finances; but once again we see that the balancing-act must be maintained, since the Ordinary—in this case, the diocesan bishop—has the right to get involved if the pastor is acting irresponsibly in his administration of the parish and its financial affairs.
What authority does a diocesan bishop have over parish property? Canon 1276.1 tells us generally that bishops must carefully supervise the administration of all the goods belonging to public juridic persons subject to them, and this includes parishes. It’s worth pointing out here that “supervise” is not synonymous with “micro-manage.” If, let’s say, it became clear that the pastor of a parish was altogether failing to handle some or all aspects of the ordinary management of parish property, including parish funds, the bishop would be obliged to intervene. The same would of course hold true if a parish priest were found to be mismanaging parish property in an irresponsible way. If you want a concrete example, imagine that parishioners repeatedly donate checks to their parish, and finally realize that the checks are never being cashed. It turns out that the pastor has been stuffing them in a drawer in his office for the past two years, instead of depositing them in the bank. This sort of incompetent mishandling of parish finances (which incidentally has really happened) justifies the intervention of the bishop. Similarly, it has unfortunately happened that a parish priest is found to have been gambling with the parish’s funds, and in the process failed to pay the insurance and electric bills. This obviously constitutes the “negligence by an administrator” referenced in canon 1279.1 as mentioned above, and warrants the bishop’s involvement in the parish’s financial matters.
But the authority of the diocesan bishop does not extend to what one might call “vicarious management” of the run-of-the-mill aspects of operating a parish. Legitimate judgment-calls about ordinary decisions that arise on daily basis are the purview of the pastor, not the bishop. (But see “Can the Pastor Buy and Sell Parish Property Without Our Consent?” for a discussion of some of the less common, “big” occasions when the bishop’s approval is required).
So how does all this apply to Anastasia’s parish? Before tackling the question, it has to be emphasized up-front that there’s a lot about this situation which we don’t know, and therefore it is difficult to reach a definitive verdict. We can nevertheless use logic, make some reasonable assumptions, and arrive at a tentative conclusion.
To begin with, it would appear that Anastasia’s parish organizes a fall festival, not simply as a social event bringing the people of the parish together in an informal setting, but as a way to raise money which the parish needs in order to function. In other words, if the fall festival is not held, the parish will be faced with a financial shortfall and be unable to pay its bills. Cancelling it, therefore, will cause significant problems for the parish.
It also appears that the parish priest and the parishioners wanted to hold the festival despite the virus—otherwise the bishop wouldn’t have needed to announce the cancellation. Under the circumstances, the question has to be asked: is Anastasia’s part of the world governed by a dictatorial civil ruler, who has unconstitutionally banned such events because they undoubtedly involve sizeable crowds of people gathering together? If the answer is yes, and the pastor of the parish was planning defiantly to flout the law—and the bishop knows full well that this parish’s fall festival would invariably end with police intervention and potentially even with violence … this sounds like a pretty clear case of a poor financial decision on the part of the pastor, requiring the bishop to get involved in the interest of peace and safety.
But if there is no secular authority claiming that events like the parish’s fall festival are dangerous “because of the virus” and therefore declaring them illegal, that changes the equation, doesn’t it? Since secular authorities have been making these decisions after consulting with medical authorities—who as we all know already have a proven track-record of grossly exaggerating the risks in most countries thus far!— these medical experts may have already concluded that in Anastasia’s part of the world, there is no existential threat to mankind if a parish church organizes a get-together attended by lots of people.
In case you’re wondering whether the pastor of Anastasia’s parish was being unreasonable in planning the festival, note that Anastasia tells us that the bishop has cancelled the festival not just for her parish, but for all parishes in the diocese. It would thus appear that multiple parish priests were planning to organize comparable events—which means that either they were all planning to buck the secular authorities, or (far more likely) no outright civil ban on such gatherings exists. This, in turn, logically begs the question: if the bishop says that it’s too dangerous to hold a festival, even though civil officials have concluded that it’s fine … what does the bishop know about the dangers of the virus in his diocese, that the politicians and doctors don’t?
Since we don’t know all the details, it is not impossible that Anastasia’s bishop has a team of medical advisors which rivals the group of experts relied on by civil authorities in his region—and the bishop’s advisors are sounding an alarm about scientific factors which the government’s doctors have unreasonably chosen to ignore. If that’s the case, it should be a relatively simple matter for the bishop to explain this publicly, to both diocesan clergy and faithful. Has he done this? Anastasia doesn’t indicate that he has.
Unfortunately, it’s also quite possible that the bishop has decided that as the spiritual head of the diocese committed to his care, this ipso facto makes him its chief medical expert on viruses and pandemics as well. There seem to be an awful lot of bishops around the world right now who for some unclear reason are convinced that advanced degrees in theology and/or philosophy qualify them to second-guess the true medical experts, who in many cases have declared that in their areas of the world the virus poses no more risk than any seasonal flu. Needless to say, that’s not exactly consistent with ordinary logic.
Another critical factor has to be considered here. If holding the festivals raises money which the parishes need in order to continue functioning, and the bishop has intervened in order to ban them all, how does he suggest that they make up the financial shortfall that this cancellation will create?
A secular analogy may help to illustrate how serious the answer to this question really is. Let’s say you’re a physician, and a member of your nation’s army. Seeing your success at prior assignments, your superiors order you to travel to City X and take charge of a military hospital that’s already located there. You arrive and spend a considerable amount of time surveying the way that the hospital operates, the manpower and supplies that it needs in order to function, and the supply-chain that enable that manpower and those supplies to keep coming.
But now let’s imagine that your superiors tell you that this year, you are not permitted to get your supplies from your usual source. This surprises you, because experts are in agreement that there’s no genuine, insurmountable reason why you couldn’t obtain them from there, as you have in the past. There is no obvious alternative source for what you need. At the same time, your superiors fully expect you to continue administering the hospital! Your reaction is predictable: “Where am I supposed to get the supplies for this year, if I can’t go to the same source we’ve always used before? And how can I do my job without the supplies we need?”
And if your superiors are reasonable and responsible people, their response should be fairly predictable too. They created this difficulty for you—and so it is only just that they help you resolve it, since you are truly unable to do so yourself. Maybe they can come up with a feasible alternative source of supplies. Or maybe they can deliver those supplies to you themselves! But what is not a legitimate option is for your superiors to shrug and leave you flailing, trying to do your job even though these superiors have inexplicably made it impossible to get it done. Such a response would be fundamentally unjust.
The parallels between our fictional military hospital, and Anastasia’s parish, should be evident. And judging from Anastasia’s question, it doesn’t sound like the bishop has provided the parishes of his diocese with any Plan B, does it? Think about it: if the bishop had offered to make up the financial shortfall for each parish out of some other source of diocesan funds, this would be a non-issue and Anastasia wouldn’t have asked the question in the first place! It would appear that the bishop merely told the parish priests, “You can’t hold your annual fundraisers, because of the virus,” and then left the clergy flailing, trying to figure out how on earth they’re going to make ends meet.
You don’t have to be a canon lawyer to know that this is not how a “high priest of his flock” (to quote the passage from Sacrosanctum Concilium mentioned above) takes care of the sheep. On the contrary, one gets the distinct impression that the bishop almost wants these parishes to fail financially! If that’s the case, then the only thing for these poor parish priests to do is to first rub their eyes and then push back against this irrational and overreaching episcopal order. If the diocesan bishop has, for whatever reason, decided to abandon his responsibilities to the people of God, that certainly doesn’t somehow entitle his clergy to do the same thing—and let’s hope that they wouldn’t dream of doing that anyway.
Before anyone objects, “but the bishop will remove the pastor!” or punish him in some other way, it’s important to note that the pastor of a parish holds an ecclesiastical office. (See “Who’s in Charge of the Parish When There’s No Parish Priest?” for further discussion of this concept.) This term is defined in canon 145.1 as a position which is established by either divine (meaning God created it) or ecclesiastical (meaning the bishop or some other church official created it) disposition. This may sound like legal semantics, but the fact that the pastor actually holds an ecclesiastical office gives him certain legal rights, which are entirely appropriate when you consider that he also holds a vast amount of responsibility.
In some parts of the world, it is unfortunately far too common for bishops to wrongly think that they can remove a parish priest simply because he does something to anger the bishop—as if holding the office of pastor of X parish depends entirely on the bishop’s whim. And in turn, too many diocesan clergy out there have inadvertently strengthened their bishops in this erroneous notion, by not objecting when they are illegally removed from office. The fact is, there is an entire subsection of the Code of Canon Law (cc. 1740-1752) devoted exclusively to the legal process that must be followed if a parish priest is to be removed or transferred from his office, and among other things it details the sorts of reasons that would justify a bishop in making such a decision, and the rights of the parish priest which must always be respected.
This process has the potential to get complicated, and is thus beyond the scope of this article; but speaking very, very broadly, try to imagine a scenario basically like this one, based on the situation described in Anastasia’s question:
1) The bishop forbids the parish priest to raise funds to support the parish, and provides no funds to cover the resulting shortfall.
2) The parish priest objects, demonstrating that there is no sound, logical reason for the bishop’s ban. He notes that as head of the parish, it is is duty to see to its day-to-day operations for the good of the parishioners who depend on him—and he literally cannot do this if the fundraiser is cancelled.
3) The bishop is enraged by the priest’s response, and declares that he will be sanctioned and/or removed from office if he does not obey.
4) The priest appeals to Rome. Vatican officials review the situation and see that the bishop is trying to punish the priest for not following an intrusive order, which the priest rightly concluded would be harmful to the parish and its parishioners.
5) Vatican officials sigh … and issue a decree in accord with the law. And readers know exactly what it would say.
A diocesan bishop who chronically believes that his word is law and his every caprice must be instantly obeyed can find himself dealing with multiple appeals to Rome by numerous clergy simultaneously—and can quickly earn a reputation in certain Vatican offices for treating diocesan priests abusively and illegally. It has indeed happened in the past that whenever a case is brought by a priest of such a diocese, Vatican officials instantly moan among themselves, “not that bishop again!” and take a sympathetic view of the priest’s argument immediately.
You have to really wonder whether the twelve Apostles—who were, after all, the original diocesan bishops—could have ever dreamed that any of their successors would behave like this. Let’s hope that the parishes in Anastasia’s diocese are not driven to financial collapse by an unjustifiable command of the diocesan bishop! And let’s all pray for our clergy, at every level, that they may never lose sight of the whole reason for their existence: the salvation of the souls entrusted to their care.