When Can a Bishop Lawfully Transfer a Pastor to Another Parish?

Q:  I belong to a very large parish… Up until a couple of years ago we had an excellent pastor who was not only well-liked by nearly everyone in the parish, but had many years of experience, and was instrumental in obtaining funding to grow the buildings in the parish.

A couple of years ago our bishop relocated the pastor to another parish. We now have a new pastor, who has only been a priest for a few years. It seems apparent he is in over his head.

My question is I understand that parochial vicars can be moved from parish to parish, but can the bishop require a pastor to do the same?  Thank you. –Stuart

A:  What Stuart describes here happens all the time, all around the world.  But is it legal?  As with so many other law-related questions, the correct answer is, “It depends.”  Let’s take a look at the canons governing the general issue of assigning/transferring pastors of parishes, and then we’ll see why Stuart’s question is more complicated than he may realize.

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) 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.

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 in a stable manner 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.

The stability specifically mentioned in canon 145.1 is one of those rights.  By definition, the pastor of a parish needs time to establish a relationship with his parishioners.  Parish ministry is rather like a spiritual version of parenting: just as a mother or father can’t suddenly appear in a child’s life one day and instantly create a solid rapport with that child, so too a pastor has to gradually get to know the people whose spiritual wellbeing has been entrusted to him.  This is a two-way street, of course, because the parishioners in turn need time to get to know their pastor, to learn more about him (his personality, his background, his methods of interacting with others, etc.).  One may certainly hope that eventually, even the most skeptical parishioners will come to trust their pastor, once they are convinced that he is indeed looking out for their own welfare and the welfare of their parish.

At the same time, on a more practical level, a priest who is assigned to a parish as its pastor needs time also to figure out the overall workings of the parish.  He has to learn who’s in charge of what (and whether those people are doing a good job or not!), how routine matters are handled, and what problems exist that need to be addressed.  The priest obviously also needs to sort out financial matters: if the church roof is leaking, for example, is there money in the parish accounts to pay for it?  There are a million different aspects of parish life—many of which will naturally vary from parish to parish—which a pastor has to get the hang of, and he can’t do this overnight.

Consequently, it would make no sense (as a general rule) for a bishop to appoint a priest as the pastor of parish X, and then move him a month or two later!  This wouldn’t be good for the parish and its members, and it definitely wouldn’t be constructive for the pastor either.  Even if for some reason a pastor gets off to a rocky start at his new parish, it’s only reasonable to give the situation some time to straighten itself out.

For all these reasons, canon 522 stresses the stability in office that is to be enjoyed by a pastor, and tells us how long he is to remain in that office:

A pastor must possess stability and therefore is to be appointed for an indefinite period of time. The diocesan bishop can appoint him only for a specific period if the conference of bishops has permitted this by a decree.

There’s more going on here than meets the eye, so let’s take this canon apart.

First of all, canon 522 provides us with the norm: when a bishop appoints a priest as the pastor of a parish, he is appointed for life.  It’s not at all uncommon to encounter pastors in parishes all around the globe who have been ministering to the people of their parish for 30 or 40 years!  Just as the father of a family ordinarily cares for his wife and children until death (or at least until the children grow up and move out of the house), so too a pastor can regard his ministry to the people of his parish as a lifelong spiritual responsibility.

That being said, canon 522 then tells us of a possible alternative: this canon gives episcopal conferences the legal authority to establish that within their territory, bishops can appoint pastors for a set term of office.  (See “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what an episcopal conference, or conference of bishops, is.)  There are only a handful of places in the Code of Canon Law where the Church actually gives bishops’ conferences the authority to make laws governing all the bishops and all the Catholics in their territories—and this is one of them.

The wording of canon 522 indicates that a bishops’ conference doesn’t have to issue a decree on this subject.  If it doesn’t, that means simply that all diocesan bishops in that part of the world are to appoint all parish pastors “for an indefinite period of time.”  If—and only if—his episcopal conference has permitted it, a bishop can (but doesn’t have to!) appoint a priest to be pastor of a given parish for a set period of time, rather than for an indefinite period.

That’s why, for example, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has decreed that within the US, bishops can, if they wish, appoint pastors of parishes for a term of six years.  But diocesan bishops don’t have to do this; they are always free to appoint pastors for the “indefinite period of time” mentioned in canon 522.  The decree also notes that “The possibility of renewing this term is left to the discretion of the diocesan bishop.”  Thus a priest may be assigned for six years, and then reassigned for another six years (and another, and another) if the bishop wishes.

The Canadian Bishops Conference has issued a similar decree, found here in English on page 39, likewise permitting appointments of pastors for six years, renewable.  The Canadian decree adds that “before implementing the decree, the diocesan bishop must consult with the Presbyteral Council; the law does not call for the consent of the Council, but for its advice.”  (We took a look at this concept of a consultative vote in another context, in “Can the Pastor Buy and Sell Parish Property Without Our Consent?” and at various other functions of the diocesan presbyteral council in “Canon Law and Selling a Church” and “Canon Law and Parish Councils.”)

So what happens when a pastor who has been appointed for a set term of office has completed that term?  Let’s say that Father John was appointed the pastor of St. Jude’s parish on September 12, 2013, for a term of six years.  This means his term of office was to cease on September 12, 2019.  Now let’s imagine that September 12, 2019 rolls around … and Father John’s bishop hasn’t said a word: he hasn’t declared that Father John will be transferred to another parish, but he hasn’t said that Father John would be reappointed as pastor of St. Jude’s for another six years, either.  On September 13, 2019, is Father John still the pastor of St. Jude’s?  Yes, but this does not mean that his term has been renewed.  Father John continues in office, but now he has no stability, because at this point the bishop can announce at any moment that Father is being transferred.  Only when the bishop communicates in writing to Father John that he is no longer the pastor of St. Jude’s, does Father’s office cease (see c. 186).  This must be done in writing, because canon 54.2 tells us that in general, “a decree must be made known by a legitimate document.”  For this reason, if the bishop merely picks up the phone and tells Father John verbally that he is no longer the pastor of St. Jude’s, this has no legal effect.

But now let’s look at a different scenario.  What if our imaginary diocesan bishop wants to transfer our imaginary Father John to another parish before his six-year term is finished?  Perhaps the elderly pastor of Holy Redeemer parish has just died, and the bishop thinks that since Father John has been doing such a fine job at the small parish of St. Jude’s, he will be very effective at the much larger parish of Holy Redeemer.  If Father John is agreeable, then there’s no problem here: The bishop can simply issue a decree naming him the new pastor of Holy Redeemer, Father John packs his bags, and that’s it.  Note that once again, the bishop must put all this in writing (c. 190.3).

If, however, Father John objects to the transfer, insisting that he remain the pastor of St. Jude’s until his term is completed … that’s another story.  Canon 190.2 tells us that if a transfer is made but the office-holder is unwilling, the transfer can only take place if it’s being done for a grave cause.  In other words, the diocesan bishop must be able to articulate a really, really good reason why Father John has to become the new pastor of Holy Redeemer, rather than someone else.  If the bishop can truly demonstrate that a grave cause exists, then Father John should reasonably accept the transfer, whether he likes it or not, and even though his term as pastor of St. Jude’s has not yet finished.

There are plenty of possible “grave causes” which would justify such a decision by a diocesan bishop.  Let’s say that Holy Redeemer has a huge percentage of Portuguese-speaking parishioners, and Father John is now the only priest of the diocese who is fluent in that language.  Or maybe Holy Redeemer is in a disastrous financial situation, and Father John happens to have a background in accounting, which is so desperately needed there.  Or it could be that the bishop can honestly say, “Holy Redeemer is the largest parish in the diocese, and I don’t have anyone else who is sufficiently experienced and demonstrably competent, and in good health, who can handle all that responsibility!”  In circumstances like these, the bishop can legally insist that Father John be transferred to Holy Redeemer, despite his unwillingness to go.

The abovementioned canon 190.2 observes that in such a case, the bishop is required to follow the law regarding the procedure for transfer of a pastor, found in canons 1748-1752.  The bishop is to propose the transfer in writing, and explain why accepting this transfer will be for the good of souls (c. 1748).  If the pastor still objects, he is to explain his objections to being transferred in writing (c. 1749).  The bishop is expected to consider the reasons why the pastor objects—and maybe he will be convinced and cancel the proposed transfer.

But if the bishop still wants to proceed, canon 1750 requires the bishop to consider the priest’s objections, together with two other pastors of the diocese, selected in accord with canon 1742.1.  At this point, it’s again possible that the bishop will be convinced by the priest’s objections, based on input from the other two priests; and he may conclude that the transfer isn’t the best option after all.  If, however, the bishop still wants to proceed with the transfer, canon 1750 obliges him to once more exhort the pastor to agree to the transfer.  Incidentally, by now it should be clear that this process is supposed to proceed in a civil, professional manner, with the good of souls and the overall wellbeing of the diocese in mind.

At this stage, if the priest still protests, and the bishop still insists, the bishop can decree the transfer over the objections of the priest (c. 1751.1).  The priest is now required to comply.

It’s worth noting that the “grave cause” required by canon 190.2 really is expected to be just that!  Students of canon law routinely study a real-life case on this topic, which occurred some decades ago in Europe: There were four priests in a diocese there, who had each been pastor of a parish for many years (each having been appointed for an indeterminate time, as discussed above).  One day their diocesan bishop decided that they had all been in place for far too long, and needed to be shifted around.  He declared that the pastor of parish A would be transferred to parish B, the pastor of parish B would be transferred to parish C, and so forth.

The four pastors all objected that there was no grave reason justifying their transfer, and declined to accept it.  Things got heated, and their case ultimately ended up in Rome—which sided with the pastors against the bishop, on the grounds that the bishop had failed to demonstrate a “grave cause” for transferring them all to other parishes.  The four pastors thus retained their offices in their respective parishes, thereby proving that a diocesan bishop cannot choose to disregard a priest’s term of office simply because it suits his fancy.

Speaking of which, it has unfortunately far too common in far too many parts of the world for bishops to wrongly think that a priest holding the office of pastor of X parish depends entirely on the bishop’s whim.  In turn, too many diocesan clergy out there have inadvertently strengthened their bishops in this erroneous notion, by not objecting when they are illegally transferred to another office.  The fact is, the legal process outlined in canons 1748-1752 must be followed if a parish priest is to be transferred from one office to another, and among other things the process ensures that the rights of the parish priest are respected (even if he doesn’t get what he wants).

In recent years, an American bishop provided a textbook-case in how not to go about moving parish priests.  In 2017, Martin Holley was appointed the Bishop of Memphis, Tennessee by Pope Francis.  Shortly thereafter, he asked for resignation letters from all the pastors of the diocese—without specifying a reason.  Some acquiesced, while others understandably appealed to Rome.  And as if his actions weren’t already illegal enough, Bishop Holley then reappointed the former pastors as parochial administrators, sometimes of the same parish where they had just held the office of pastor, and other times in new parishes.  We took a look at the frequent abuse of the role of a parochial (or parish) administrator in “What’s the Difference Between a Pastor, and a Parish Administrator?

Memphis now has a new bishop.  That’s because after an Apostolic Visitation by bishops appointed by Rome to investigate various questionable goings-on in this diocese, the Pope removed Bishop Holley from office in October 2018, presumably for a number of different reasons.  In the meantime, while individual legal cases are private, it appears that those pastors who appealed against the bishop’s unjustified demands for resignation/transfers were rightly vindicated by Rome (here’s an example).

If we return now to Stuart’s original question, it should be clear at this point that it’s impossible to determine whether any laws were violated—because we don’t have enough information on the situation he describes.  If his previous pastor had served his full term and was then transferred to another parish, there is no illegality involved.  Likewise, no laws were violated if the previous pastor hadn’t served his full term, but the bishop was able to show that grave cause existed to transfer him to another parish.

As for the new pastor being “in over his head,” this is a separate issue, which has no bearing on the (il)legality of the transfer of his predecessor.  It’s only reasonable to give the new, inexperienced pastor some time to get acclimated to his new office; but if he nevertheless fails to administer the parish satisfactorily, it is entirely possible for the bishop to remove him (as was discussed at length in “When Can a Pastor be Removed From Office?”).

By now it should be evident that yes, the pastor of a parish can be transferred to another office … but at the same time, specific legal procedures are in place to simultaneously safeguard the spiritual wellbeing of the parish(es) and parishioners involved, the rights of the pastor, and the bishop’s authority within the diocese.  Let’s pray that when it comes to transferring pastors, all our diocesan clergy can always keep foremost in their minds that, as the abovementioned canon 1752 says, “the salvation of souls is the Church’s supreme law.”

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