Vatican intervenes in U.S. parish closings

On the face of it, canon law doesn’t leave a whole lot of doubt about who has the say on opening, closing, and merging parishes. 

Canon 515, Paragraph 2 says, “The diocesan bishop alone is competent to erect, suppress or alter parishes; he is not to erect, suppress or notably alter them without hearing the presbyteral council.” 

Except for that requirement to consult the priest’s council — but not necessarily take its advice — the only real canonical limitation on a bishop’s authority in this matter seems to be Canon 1222. It provides that, after hearing from the priests, the bishop can turn over an empty church “to profane but not sordid use” with “the consent of those who legitimately claim rights regarding the church and as long as the good of souls is not impaired.” 

Unhappy parishioners 

Given a choice, of course, any bishop worth his salt would sooner keep churches open than close them down. But population shifts and lack of human and material resources can — and sometimes do — sharply reduce and even eliminate a bishop’s other options. 

Faced with shrinking congregations, rising costs and fewer priests, bishops in places like Chicago and Pittsburgh have moved in recent years to close or merge parishes. 

In some cases, unhappy parishioners have responded by occupying churches to keep them open. In at least seven U.S. sees — Boston; Springfield, Mass.; Worcester, Mass.; Allentown, Pa.; Scranton, Pa.; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Buffalo, N.Y. — parishioners are currently appealing to the Vatican. Up to now, the result of such appeals has usually been vindication for the bishop. 

That happened recently in Boston, where the archdiocese was notified that the Apostolic Signatura — the Vatican supreme court — had denied appeals of people in 10 parishes closed in 2004. Now Cardinal Sean O’Malley is said to be looking into selling seven of the churches as provided in Canon 1222. 

But lately, to just about everyone’s surprise, the protesting laity in some places have started to win in Rome — at least, up to a point. 

Recent decisions by the Congregation for the Clergy have held that, although the bishops in the dioceses of Springfield, Allentown and Buffalo do indeed have authority to suppress certain parishes, the church buildings must remain open for religious uses because the bishops didn’t show it was necessary to close them. 

Some commentators have seen this as a breakthrough for the recognition of laypeople’s rights under Church law, but the rulings have left others scratching their heads and wondering what’s going on. In Allentown, the diocese said March 10 that “in a search for clarity” it would appeal the clergy congregation’s ruling in six cases to the Apostolic Signatura. 

If the current situation and its implications are uncertain, however, history has plenty to say about conflicts over parish control. The question of who has the final say — the people or the bishop — has vexed American Catholicism since the early 19th century. 

‘Trusteeism’ controversy 

The issue then was the system of lay ownership of parishes called trusteeism. Factors contributing to the rise of the trustee system included the requirements of American civil law, power struggles between Catholic ethnic groups, a misguided attempt to apply democratic principles directly to the structures of church governance, the influence of Protestant congregationalism, the rebelliousness of some priests, and the quarrelsome attitude of some of the laity. 

The trustees claimed the right to veto bishops’ pastoral assignments, hire and fire pastors on their own authority, and otherwise control parish life according to a separation-of-powers model that resembled the American model of civil government. 

By the 1820s trusteeism had spread and become a serious problem in places like New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Charleston, S.C. Church historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis says trusteeism was “perhaps the most harassing problem with which the bishops had to deal in the United States” up to that time.

Creating schism 

Confronted with this challenge, the bishops moved to eradicate the trustee system by civil and ecclesiastical measures. The struggle continued for much of the century, and, according to Msgr. Ellis, “admirably served the purposes of” anti-Catholic groups like the Know-Nothings by giving the Church a public black eye. Along the way, it also placed a lasting stamp on lay-clergy relations in American Catholicism that has generally worked against the recognition of rights for the laity. 

In time, too, the spirit of opposition to Church authority was taken up by some newly arrived Catholic immigrant groups who demanded separate parishes and priests of their own nationality and resisted bishops’ efforts to integrate them into the larger Catholic community. 

Like many conflicts, there was fault on both sides of this one. There’s no question, though, that some newcomers pressed their demands to unreasonable lengths, occasionally even resorting to violence. 

One result was the formation at the turn of the last century of the Polish National Catholic Church — “the first permanent schism to affect the American Catholic community,” according to a historian of the Catholic immigrant experience. With headquarters in Scranton, it now claims more than 25,000 members, down from a quarter of a million 50 years ago. 

No one suggests today’s conflicts over parish closings have reached that point. 

But there are lessons here just the same.  

The message to parishioners is “Be reasonable,” to bishops “Listen to what people say,” and to the Vatican “Don’t make life harder for bishops who are just doing their jobs.” 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Allentown Appeals (sidebar)

The Diocese of Allentown, Pa., has appealed the Vatican Congregation for Clergy’s ruling that upheld the diocese’s decision to close 14 parishes, but said that in nine of the parishes “the church buildings retain sacred status where some form of Divine Worship is to be held.” The diocese said: 

“Questions remain ... about the church buildings that the congregation ruled retain sacred status while the parishes are suppressed. What that means going forward is unclear to the diocese. ... 

“In a search for clarity regarding what appears to be a new application of Church law in this matter, the Diocese of Allentown will appeal the Congregation’s rulings, in six of the nine cases, to the Apostolic Signatura, in essence the Vatican Supreme Court. The appeals are not directed toward those who originally appealed, but rather toward the decision of the Congregation for Clergy. ... 

“In its appeals, the diocese has asked the Signatura to advise it as to whether or not the churches should be reopened for sacred worship, while the appeals are being heard, or should they remain closed.”