Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Canon Law and Parish Closings

So, I've been pouring over Canon Law and studying up on the issues that my parishioners are struggling with, and I feel like I've learned a lot that might be helpful for parishes/priests in the same situation, specifically when it is announced that a parish is slated to be "closed"

Please know here that the Archdiocese has very competent administrators, and competent canon lawyers, and competent civil lawyers, so I don't have to execute any of the closing process, I am simply educating myself because parishioners are asking me questions, specifically the question: "Father, if we appeal, do we have a shot; do you think we'll win?"

First of all, as I said in my last post, I've learned a very important distinction.  Whereas the media often refers to it as a parish "closing" there are in fact two different actions that are considered separate actions by Canon Law

1) A parish, if "closed", must in fact be what is known as "suppressed".  This is defined by a Canon lawyer I found as "making a parish go out of existence." 

2) When a parish is suppressed, the Church and property then go to the parish that is the receiving parish.  The diocese can take the further step in a "closing" by not just suppressing a parish but also "reducing the Church to profane use" - otherwise known as "saying it is okay to sell the Church building."

Important to note here that these are two SEPARATE actions.  More on that in a minute.

So, when you hear that a Church is slated for "closing" it likely means that the diocese will both suppress the parish and also reduce the Church to profane use so it can be sold.

First of all, every canon lawyer that I've come across, even those who advocate for parishes fighting to remain open, has noted that suppressions don't get reversed.  Peter Borre, a person who worked with "closed" parishes in Boston, even notes that "In reviewing rulings by the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s Supreme Court, his lawyers found only one U.S. case where a parish suppression had been reversed, though only on procedural grounds." (click here for the article).

Another article from the National Catholic Reporter (never to be confused as a paper supporting the bishops) even noted in an article in 2010, that a Vatican ruling shows that Canon 515 gives bishops complete freedom to suppress any parish the bishop feels need to be suppressed.  The only requirement is that he hear the Council of Priests on the suppression first, but even if the Council of Priests is opposed, the bishop can still choose to suppress.  (click here for the article on Canon 515).

The second action, the relegating of the Church to profane use so that it can be sold, is one that has been in the news recently.  Several parishes, most notably 13 parishes in Cleveland, had "their churches reopened" by the Vatican.  Here it is important to decipher what this means.

All that the Vatican said, is that there were serious procedural errors made by the diocese in choosing to "relegate the Church to profane use."  In reading through the actual decree from Rome, it sounds like the Bishop of Cleveland really botched the procedure.  It seems like the equivalent of a Law and Order episode where a lawyer made serious errors in filing paperwork that cost the lawyer the case.

The biggest error it seems the Cleveland diocese made was assuming that the "decision to suppress the parish" de facto also relegated the Church to profane use, when in fact it is quite clear from even my simple research that Canon Law mandates that those be two separate acts.

What follows from this is that because a procedural error occurred, the Church building was not suppressed and so it was opened back up by the Vatican.  However, when the literal doors of the Church are ruled to be opened back up, the parishes are still suppressed, and, if the bishop so chooses, he can simply fix the procedural error and submit new paperwork to "relegate the Church to profane use."

An example: let's say the Archdiocese suppresses my home parish Nativity, and makes my parish a part of Holy Name Parish.  Let's say, however, that the Archdiocese botches the procedure to actually "relegate the church to profane use" so it can be sold. 

The Vatican overturns the Archdiocese's decision to "relegate the Church to profane use" so the Church is unlocked again.  Let's look, though, at all the things that don't happen when the Church is "reopened" - Nativity's Church building is still Holy Name's because Nativity isn't a parish anymore.  Nativity doesn't technically have to have any Masses there all year, but Holy Name's priest might decide to have Mass out there on the parish's feast day or something quite infrequent, and Holy Name likely would not be too pleased to inherit a bunch of Church buildings from Nativity that Holy Name is now charged with maintaining, and also that Holy Name can't sell because the Nativity parishioners asked to have the "relegation to profane use" blocked - the point being even though "Nativity Church is reopened"
1) there wouldn't be Masses there hardly at all
2) there still wouldn't be a Nativity parish anymore
3) the Archdiocese could simply start the paperwork over again and in a matter of months get the church building "relegated to profane use" properly

So here is my honest assessment to the question "does a parish have a shot in overturning a "closing"" - I would ask "what do you (as the asker of the question) think is the best case scenario here?"  Yes, there have been some recent cases where a diocese botched the procedure for closing the actual doors to the Church building, but a parish suppression just simply doesn't get overturned.

My honest answer after researching everything I've been able to get my hands on is that if a parish is slated by a diocese for "closing" the suppression of that parish is a done deal, and as long as the diocese crosses their t's and dots their i's, the church building being "closed" will also be a foregone conclusion, and even if the diocese drops the ball, they can just go back, dot the i's and cross the t's properly, and file the paperwork again.

In addition to the articles above (and many others I've read), a Canon Lawyer, Fr. Jason Gray, has written a VERY helpful doctoral thesis titled "Some Canonical Aspects of the Closing and Sale of a Parish Church" which you can find on the internet.  If you are interested in leafing through this very concise and helpful document, click here.  I found it to be a very fair and unbiased and scholarly paper, which was also very easy to navigate.


  1. What ARE the "good reasons" for suppressing a parish that is healthy and maintaining itself?

    1. some possibilities
      1) to ensure a proper celebration of the Mass by making sure that there are enough who are engaged in the arts, specifically music, to make sure that the dignity that ought to surround Sunday Mass is present

      2) to encourage people to encounter a wider community of Catholics. How many parishes in the US are homogenous in terms of socio-economic status, race, or nationality. I would say an overwhelming majority of the parishes I've seen are homogenous in those areas

      3) to allow for more effective evangelization and more ministry opportunities. A parish with a hundred families is not likely to be able to sustain a Bible study, pro-life group, charismatic prayer group, a soup kitchen, a food pantry, quality religious education instructors, and other opportunities that can help supply vibrancy and at the same time draw people new into the community.

      Those are two that come to mind off the top of my head. I'm sure there are others.

      I'd say that as Canon Law notes the bishop has to have the good of the faithful in mind...and that is ALL the faithful, not just those who are at a particular parish. And sometimes the bishop has to do what is good for the faithful within a parish, even if they don't recognize it to be good for themselves at the time.