A Proposal: Look to Civil, Law to Reform Parishes

By Gallagher, Tom | National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Proposal: Look to Civil, Law to Reform Parishes


Gallagher, Tom, National Catholic Reporter


The parish is the primary institution where the church lives out its life. "The parish is a beacon that radiates the light of faith," Pope Benedict XVI said in December. "Thus it meets the most profound and authentic desires of the human heart, giving meaning and hope to the lives of individuals and families."

The pope speaks of an ideal. The reality in the United States' 19,000 parishes is, unfortunately, quite different. Far too often, the local institution designed to radiate the light of faith is dulled by structures that impede the church's mission.

The evidence is abundant: In the past 50 years weekly Mass attendance has plummeted to the low 30 percent range, vocations to the priesthood and religious life have been decimated, a priest culture has emerged that has enabled illicit and criminal behavior to exist, and the moral authority of bishops is near record lows. The sexual abuse scandal alone has cost the church over $1 billion. Four dioceses have raced to civil courts seeking bankruptcy protection. The actual opportunity costs--the money that could have, should have, been spent to further the mission of the church--are beyond calculation.

There are, of course, many reasons for parish decline. One thing, however, is clear: Lay executives responsible for this kind of performance would be fired and a massive reorganization would take place, but not so in the Catholic church.

The parish governance model is broken and in need of an overhaul.

Parishes are the creation of two distinct legal systems--state civil law and canon law. Under canon law, the laity act simply as advisers to the pastor, who controls all parish authority. As a result, the civil character of parishes is woefully underdeveloped. The application of state civil law is depressed, superseded and replaced by church law.

From a civil law perspective, the Catholic parish governance model contradicts almost every reasonable and prudent course of action found in the secular world. No one would ever vest all civil law authority, directly or indirectly, in the hands of a single person. It also violates the theological concept of stewardship. Since church law will not change in the foreseeable future, we should look to state civil law to solve some of the noncanonical problems parishes face.

In my state, Connecticut, parishes are created under a state civil law known as the "Religious Corporation Act." The Catholic church subsection of the act is incredibly thin in terms of what the state requires from the parish corporation. There is token representation of two lay trustees appointed on an annual basis. The ex officio, or permanent, members of the parish corporation are the bishop, the vicar general (almost always a priest) and the parish pastor (always a priest).

According to the sacrament of holy orders, the candidate for the priesthood swears an oath of obedience to the bishop. The bishop appoints pastors, removes pastors, reassigns pastors and takes the lead in defrocking priests. Given that the bishop controls the two ex officio members of the parish corporation, the vicar general and the pastor, and that the two lay trustees are removable annually, the bishop de facto controls the parish corporation.

In operation, it is simply impossible for the bishop and vicar general to attend bimonthly or monthly meetings of each parish corporation (a frequency that is reasonable). The bishop, therefore, effectively controls the parish in absentia.

Meanwhile, conflicts abound. The bishop, for example, needs the cooperation and support of pastors to raise money through the bishop's annual appeal. The diocesan funding source, the "cathedraticum" or tax on ordinary parish revenue, funds the daily operations of the diocese. But pastors can reduce their contribution by accounting for large "ordinary" gifts as extraordinary revenue, not subject to the diocesan tax. In addition, the bishop lacks the practical ability to "fire" pastors for managerial lapses. …

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