When Can a Pastor be Removed From Office?

Q:  In this article you mentioned in passing that a bishop can’t remove the pastor of a parish just because the pastor does something the bishop doesn’t like.  Can you elaborate?

I ask because in Wales a pastor was castigated for celebrating a wedding during the lockdown, and there was talk in the news about the bishop possibly removing him from the parish for doing this.  I don’t see how a pastor could be removed for ministering to the people of his parish?  That’s essentially punishing him because he didn’t violate canon law… –Cameron

A:  In “Who’s in Charge of the Parish When There’s No Parish Priest?” we saw that the pastor of a parish (a.k.a. a parish priest, depending on which country you live in) by law holds an ecclesiastical office, which gives him specific legal rights and protections.  Let’s take a look at what the code says in general about removing a priest from the office of pastor, and then we can examine the specific situation that Cameron mentions.

Not every person who holds a job—even a paying job—in the Catholic Church also holds an ecclesiastical office.  We saw in the article just mentioned that there are quite a few common jobs in the Church which don’t constitute ecclesiastical offices, even though they come with a salary and benefits.  Catholic-school teachers, organists, church janitors and gardeners can rightly assert, if they like, that they “work for the Church,” but their positions are not ecclesiastical offices.  This term is defined in canon 145.1 as a position which is established in a stable manner, for a spiritual purpose, by either divine (meaning God created it) or ecclesiastical (meaning the bishop or some other church official created it) disposition.  Two very obvious examples of positions that were “established by divine disposition” are the Pope and the diocesan bishop—because we Catholics believe that Christ Himself established His first Apostles as bishops, and left Saint Peter in charge as the first Pope.  Incidentally, that’s also the reason why the Church could never abolish either the papacy or the episcopacy—because God chose to create them as integral components of His Church.

As for positions “established by ecclesiastical disposition,” the Church has plenty of those too.  These are jobs that have been formally erected, in many cases by diocesan bishops, as offices in the Church.  The most commonly known ecclesiastical office which was established by ecclesiastical disposition is undoubtedly that of the pastor of a parish.  When a parish is established in a diocese, this isn’t some casual action that is done verbally on the whim of the bishop; it is a formal act with juridical consequences.  As canon 515 tells us, when a parish is established under the authority of the diocesan bishop, it is entrusted to the care of a parish priest (c. 515.1), and the parish constitutes a juridic person by the law itself (c. 515.3; see “When Can Parish Buildings be Rented Out for Secular Use?” for more on this).  The average lay Catholic usually doesn’t see the official documents erecting a parish or naming a particular priest as its pastor—but they unquestionably exist in the diocesan chancery, and were signed by the bishop.

Let’s go back to the general definition of an ecclesiastical office that is provided in canon 145.1, because there’s another important phrase there which is directly relevant to Cameron’s question: an ecclesiastical office is established “in a stable manner.”  Stability in office is a key component of every ecclesiastical office, and it’s one of those elements which distinguish an ecclesiastical office from other jobs in the Church.

Speaking very broadly, people frequently hold ecclesiastical offices for an indeterminate period of time—which basically means they have them for life, or at least until retirement.  (This isn’t explicitly stated in the code, but it is mentioned obliquely in canon 193, which we’ll return to in a moment.)  For generations, this has actually been the norm for parish priests, and in the current Code of Canon Law it technically still is: canon 522 tells us specifically that a pastor must have stability, and therefore he is to be appointed for an indefinite period of time.  The same canon, however, immediately admits of an exception, for it notes that a diocesan bishop can (although he doesn’t have to) appoint a pastor for only a specific period, if the conference of bishops has permitted this (see “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain From Meat Every Friday?” for more on what a conference of bishops is).

And there are parts of the world where conferences of bishops have done exactly that.  In the United States, for example, the bishops’ conference has established that a diocesan bishop can appoint a priest as pastor of a parish for a six-year term, subject to possible renewal.  Similarly, the bishops’ conference in the Philippines has established that a bishop can “appoint parish priests for a term of six years renewable.”  In countries like these, diocesan bishops can still appoint parish priests for an indefinite term if they choose; it’s just that they have another option if, for whatever reason, they would rather not put a priest in such an office for what normally amounts to the rest of his working life.  The bishop’s official decree, naming Father X as pastor of Y parish, will specify if he is being appointed for a definite period of time.

When a priest is appointed for a six-year term (in countries where this is a possibility), that means the bishop cannot legally remove him after four years, or after six months, or any other length of time less than six years, simply because the bishop decides the priest isn’t doing as well in that position as the bishop had hoped, or because he somehow irritated the bishop, who now wants to “demote” him, or even because the priest is demonstrating such fine administrative skills that the bishop wishes to give him a job in the chancery.  A six-year term is exactly that!  The same holds true, of course, if a priest is appointed for an indefinite term: a bishop knows full well, when he makes such an appointment, that the man he is choosing will likely be pastor of that parish for a very long time, especially if he’s fairly young at the time of his appointment.  As canon 538.3 tells us, a parish priest is to offer his resignation when he reaches the age of 75—and if the priest is still healthy at that age, and/or nobody suitable is available to replace him, the bishop can defer acceptance of his resignation if he wishes, leaving him in office even longer.  It isn’t at all uncommon for a middle-aged priest with an indefinite appointment as pastor of a parish to stay there for many decades until his death.

So does this mean the pastor of a parish can’t be removed from his office for any reason?  Not at all.  It means that if a diocesan bishop wishes to remove him from office, there has to be a canonically sound reason for this action, and that proper legal procedures must be followed—and if the pastor wants to contest the removal, he has every right to do that.  Canon 193, already mentioned above, provides the norm for all ecclesiastical offices: an office-holder cannot be removed from office before his term is completed (or in the case of indefinite appointments, he cannot be removed at all) except for grave causes, and according to the procedure defined by law (c. 193.1 and .2).  See “How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?” for a more in-depth discussion of the term “grave cause” as it is used in the code.

With specific regard to removing parish priests from office, Cameron rightly observed that the law was referenced in passing in “Can the Bishop Cancel Our Annual Parish Fundraiser, Because of the Virus?”  Canons 1740-1747 lay out the procedure that must be followed if a bishop wishes to remove a pastor from office, and canon 1740 first makes a general statement: a diocesan bishop can remove the pastor of a parish if his ministry has become harmful or at least ineffective, even if there is no serious fault on the priest’s part.  On the one hand, this sounds pretty straightforward; but on the other, it’s easy for opinions to differ on what “harmful or at least ineffective” means in practice—which is why the very next canon provides some pointers.

Canon 1741 gives us a list of the principle reasons why a pastor can lawfully be removed from office.  It’s important to note right away that “principle reasons” are not the only reasons, so this list is meant to be illustrative but not exhaustive.  They include

  • behavior which causes grave harm to ecclesiastical communion (c. 1741 n. 1);
  • ineptitude or permanent illness which renders the priest unequal to the task of running the parish (n. 2);
  • the loss of the priest’s good name among parishioners, or their aversion to him (n. 3);
  • grave neglect or violation of his duties, even after a warning (n. 4); and
  • bad administration of the parish’s temporal goods, causing grave harm to the Church, if no other way to eliminate this harm can be found (n. 5).

Some situations are fairly cut-and-dried.  Imagine, for example, that the pastor has repeatedly been found intoxicated in public, shouting sexually suggestive comments at passing women.  It’s easy to imagine that in such circumstances he could lose his good name among the parishioners (as per c. 1741 n. 3), who can no longer bring themselves to approach him for spiritual advice in confession or listen seriously to his preaching.  Alternately, sometimes a pastor is discovered to have been gambling away the parish funds, or stealing them for his own private use, a pretty obvious example of canon 1741 n. 5.  More commonly, an aging or sickly pastor, whose physical health or cognitive faculties are failing him, may be demonstrating unequivocally that the daily operations of a parish have become too much for him to manage (c. 1741 n. 2).

Regardless of the circumstances, it often happens that a bishop decides that a pastor has to go, and the priest himself is in full agreement—in which case there’s no legal problem at all.  The priest offers his resignation (which obviates the need for the bishop to issue a decree of removal), the bishop accepts it, and that’s that.

But there are other situations which can be much more murky.  Imagine, for example, that a priest becomes the pastor of a parish which is rife with liturgical irregularities and abuses, and he strives as best he can to begin correcting them.  Let’s say, however, that his tact and diplomacy are less than could be desired—and the parishioners push back, arguing defiantly that “we’ve always done it this way,” and protest vociferously to the pastor (who rightly refuses to budge) and then to the bishop.  If chaos ensues, can the bishop argue that the pastor is demonstrating “behavior which causes grave harm to ecclesiastical communion,” as per canon 1741 n.1, or is causing the parishioners to feel aversion to him (c. 1741 n. 3)?  Such a situation can quickly become a heated, emotional mess that is extremely difficult to sort out.

There’s a process to follow if a diocesan bishop is convinced he has sufficient grounds to insist on the removal of a pastor, despite the priest’s objections to the contrary.  Canon 1742.1 requires the bishop to discuss the situation with two other parish priests of the diocese, chosen from a group established for this purpose by the diocese’s council of priests.  (See “Canon Law and Selling a Church” for more on what a council of priests, or presbyteral council, is.)  This consultation is absolutely required for the validity of the bishop’s decree of removal (c. 127.2 n. 1).  Note that these two priests advise the bishop—they can’t tell him what to do, much less force him to do it.

If, after the consultation, the bishop still believes he must remove the pastor in question, he must explain to the priest the reasons for his decision, and urge him “in a fatherly manner” to resign within 15 days.  If the 15 days have come and gone without a response from the pastor, the bishop is to make his request again, and give the priest an extension of time within which to comply (c. 1744.1).  If the priest still fails to respond, or refuses to resign but gives no reasons for the refusal, the bishop is then to issue a decree removing him from his office of pastor (c. 1744.2).

But let’s say the priest does reply within the time-limit, and provides plenty of reasons why he believes the bishop has insufficient grounds to remove him.  If he convinces the bishop of his position, that’s great—the matter stops there and the priest remains pastor of the parish.  But if the bishop is not swayed by the pastor’s arguments, a process vaguely akin to a mini civil trial takes place, with the bishop sharing his evidence with the pastor, the priest submitting his arguments in writing, and the two other pastors (whom the bishop had consulted before) participating in an examination of both sides of the case.  Ultimately, the bishop—not the two priests whom he consults—makes his decision and issues a decree, either removing the pastor or leaving him in office (c. 1745).

What if the pastor is removed by the bishop, but remains utterly convinced that his removal was unjustified?  The priest has the right to make administrative recourse against the bishop’s decree (cc. 1733 ff), which is fancy canonical lingo for lodging an appeal in Rome.  While the appeal is pending, the priest retains the office of pastor of the parish (cf. c. 1353), although in the meantime he still has to cease functioning as such (c. 1747.1).  In the meantime, the bishop cannot name another priest to the office of pastor of that parish; he can only name a parochial administrator (c. 1747.3; cc. 539-540).

Needless to say, these procedural niceties can get complicated—and if the pastor of the parish also happens to be a member of a clerical religious institute, such as the Dominicans or the Carmelites, it’s even more complex, as per canons 1742.2 and 682.2. But the bottom line is this: if a diocesan bishop wants to remove a priest from his office as pastor of a parish, he’d better have a solid reason that is buttressed by adequate proof, which will be sufficient to convince the appropriate Congregation in Rome.  Merely disliking the priest, in other words, does not cut it.

Armed with all this information, let’s now take a look at the case which Cameron references in his question.  It appears that in Wales, which is part of the United Kingdom, the bishops in recent months ordered the diocesan clergy to cancel Masses because of coronavirus—a blatantly illegal action that was discussed in detail in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?”  On top of that, the bishops also violated the rights of the faithful by forbidding the celebration of weddings (as discussed in “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?“).

During this period, a Welsh parish priest was approached by a family of Travellers, who pastor Irish travelers tinkersasked him to celebrate their daughter’s wedding.  If you’re not from this particular part of the world, this culturally unique group of people—which actually originated in Ireland—may be unfamiliar to you.  For generations, the Travellers were nomadic: they moved around Ireland in caravans, traditionally earning money largely by making/repairing items made of tin.  This prompted the Irish to refer to them as “Tinkers,” a name which nowadays is considered politically incorrect.

No matter what region of the world you live in, any itinerant group of people requires a special kind of attention and consideration from the Church (and there’s nothing new about this: here’s some marvelous old footage of travelling Catholic circus jugglers, who were specially invited in 1980 to perform for Pope John Paul II in the Vatican).  Since such groups usually don’t have a regular domicile, so far as canon law is concerned—see “Marriage and Quasi-Domiciles” for more on how this works—it is extremely difficult for the Church to ensure that Catholic members of the group have spiritual care that is consistent and long-term.  Catechizing their children over the years, ensuring that they make their First Penance and Holy Communion, and preparing them for marriage later on can be tricky—because they move so frequently from parish to parish, and from diocese to diocese.  Whether you realize it or not, the Church in many parts of the world makes special arrangements for ministry to Catholic itinerants like these.

In the case of the Irish Travellers, it is rather ironic that even though their Catholic catechesis might end up being spotty because of their constant movement, they tend to be devoutly Catholic; and in the realm of sexual mores, they are extremely conservative, marrying off their daughters at a relatively early age in order to protect them from occasions of sexual sin as they mature.  Culturally, it is a common practice of Traveller families to bring their often teenaged bride and groom to the priest at what most of us would consider to be the last minute, and ask that he marry them promptly.  Sadly, it has happened that when such a marriage was delayed for whatever reason, the girl committed suicide, ashamed because the Traveller community assumed (rightly or wrongly) that she had been sexually active before the wedding.

This is why, when a Traveller family came to the parish priest in Wales during the lockdown, and asked him to celebrate the marriage of their daughter to a fellow Traveller, refusing the request “because the bishop/government forbids it” wouldn’t just have been a violation of the couple’s rights; it could have cost the bride-to-be her life.  And the pastor of the parish, who has long ministered to the Travellers, was well aware of this.

We don’t have access to all the details, but the Archbishop of Cardiff later told the press that “the priest felt pressured by a very difficult pastoral situation” and agreed to marry the couple—in violation of not only the archbishop’s orders, but also of the civil authorities’ decree banning such gatherings.  The event probably wouldn’t ever have become public knowledge, had attendees of the wedding not posted photos and video of the wedding and the subsequent celebration on social media.

In the secular press, the archbishop declared himself “shocked and upset,” and loudly denounced the priest’s decision to marry the couple, saying that

…  he had spoken with the priest and the matter was being investigated by the church.
“I think it could be a disciplinary matter but the priest would put forward his defence of course,” he said.

As Cameron notes, there has been some talk that the pastor might be removed from office, although this was not explicitly suggested by the archbishop in public.  Based on what we’ve already seen on the subject, would he have legal justification to do this?

What the whole situation boils down to is this: the archbishop is objecting because the parish priest married a couple in his parish—even though both the state and the archbishop told him not to, “because of the virus.”  So the priest is “guilty” of administering the sacraments to people in his parish.  If you’d like to try to argue that somehow this constitutes ministry which has become “harmful or at least ineffective” as per canon 1740 (as discussed above), and merits removal from office … well, good luck with that.

Note that there is absolutely no suggestion that the man and woman in question should not have been married by a Catholic priest.  Nobody is claiming that the couple was (for example) being forced to marry, or spiritually unprepared for the sacrament, or under age, or in any other way impeded from celebrating the Catholic sacrament of matrimony.  Cameron is absolutely right: removing the priest from office for celebrating the wedding would be punishing him for following the law.

Anyone who wishes to claim that the pastor did something wrong here is basically arguing that no matter what the bishop or the state commands you to do, you have to do it—or else you deserve to be punished!  Needless to say, that’s not how it works.  A diocesan bishop is not a tyrant with absolute power, whose every irrational caprice the priests and people of his diocese are required to obey.  Exactly the same can be said of the state: it can attempt to restrict the practice of the Catholic faith all it wants to, but Catholics cannot acquiesce—because as St. Peter declared nearly 2000 years ago, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

So in theory, if this parish priest were to go through the process of removal from office described above, he would appeal the archbishop’s decision and the Vatican would of course overturn it, returning him to his office of pastor as before.  Along different but similar lines, if the archbishop were to try to sanction the priest in some other way, like imposing a suspension (c. 1333.1; see “Father Pavone’s ‘Suspension’: Priests for Life, Part II” for more on this sanction), the priest could likewise appeal to Rome and have it overturned for the same reasons.  How can you argue that you want to punish a subordinate for following the law, after you commanded him to violate it?

Now to be fair, in this case the Archbishop of Cardiff may be loudly protesting the priest’s action in public for a very different motive.  Note that he has asserted to the press that the pastor was “pressured” by the families to celebrate the wedding, implying that the priest didn’t necessarily want to do it.  We can’t be sure, of course, but it could very well be that the archbishop is actually trying to protect the pastor from arrest by the civil authorities—because the priest not only violated the archbishop’s directive, but he also broke the government’s lockdown-rules.

By publicly decrying what the pastor did, and telling the world that the priest “felt pressure” and “caved in” to the families’ unreasonable demands, the archbishop may be attempting to deflect blame from the priest, in order to spare him any potential legal problems.  Let’s not forget that around the world today, Catholics are dealing with all sorts of unconstitutional violations of our freedom to practice our religion, “because of the virus”—and at times this is forcing the clergy to find clever loopholes and tricky workarounds, in order to help the faithful without at the same time provoking retribution by the state.  It’s quite possible that this is one of those times.

So now Cameron has the answer to his question.  There’s no denying that it seems to many of us that the world has gone mad “because of the virus,” but the Code of Canon Law hasn’t ceased to exist—and even if somehow it did, Catholic theology would always remain with us.  A parish priest can’t be removed from office because he did the right thing, even though his bishop ordered him to do the wrong thing.  The process of appealing such an illegal decree can sometimes be cumbersome, but in such a clear-cut case as this one, its outcome is fairly easy to predict.

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