Parish Closings

Q: There are a lot of parishes being closed around the country these days. We hear all the time about people protesting and taking their legal case to the Vatican, to have the bishop’s decision overturned. But we never hear that the Vatican supports these people! It always seems to back the bishop. Why doesn’t the Vatican ever side with the people whose parishes are being destroyed?  –Sherry

A: This is indeed a scenario which, unfortunately, is becoming rather common here in the United States: a bishop declares that a number of parishes in the diocese will be closed or merged, and parishioners protest, but to no avail. Sometimes the bishop asserts that a parish has financial difficulties or that the church building itself is structurally unsound, and that it’s impossible from a monetary standpoint to continue to maintain it. On other occasions, the acute shortage of clergy needed to staff so many diocesan parishes is cited as the need to reduce the number of parish church locations.

Often people who have spent their entire lives attending a particular parish are told that they must now attend another church, and sometimes they even watch as their beloved parish building is physically demolished. It is certainly heartrending to think that the beautiful parish church in which you were married, had your children baptized, and/or spent countless prayerful hours, is being closed forever. It is difficult to imagine how a bishop can do such a thing, and even harder to understand why Rome appears to acquiesce. What, canonically speaking, is going on here?

Before we try to analyze the law pertaining to parish closings, let’s look first at what a parish actually is, and who has authority over it. Canon 374.1 asserts simply that a parish is a subdivision of a diocese; canon 515.1 defines a parish in more detail, as a portion of the Christian faithful, established on a stable basis as a portion of a diocese, entrusted to a pastor, and under the care of the diocesan bishop.

This last is an important point: all of the parishes in a given diocese are under the authority of the diocesan bishop. He is the head of the diocese, and is responsible for the Catholics residing in it, all of whom are committed to his care (cc. 369, 383.1). At the same time, it is the duty of a diocesan bishop to foster the liturgical life of the diocese entrusted to him (c. 835.1). Among other things, this of course means that he has a responsibility to ensure that the members of his diocese have access to Mass and the sacraments.

And this fact is key to understanding the legality of parish closings. The bishop must make certain, as far as is in his power, that the people of his diocese are spiritually cared for. Depending on the circumstances, of course, this may be quite difficult-imagine, for example, the situation faced by the diocesan bishop in Baghdad these days! But insofar as it is possible, the faithful of the diocese cannot be denied access to Mass and the sacraments (c. 843), and the bishop is obliged to find ways to provide them.

Thus if the bishop determines that a parish is to be closed, one of the most important issues he must first resolve is whether its parishioners will continue to be able to attend Mass and receive the sacraments elsewhere.  If parish lines are to be re-drawn in such a way that parishioners who used to drive, say, two miles to church now have to drive four or five miles instead, it seems safe to say that they will be able to get to their new parish church without major difficulties. In general, they may be unhappy about it, but their sacramental life will not be significantly impeded.

But if, on the other hand, a bishop wanted to close the only parish church for fifty miles, this would create a very serious practical problem, and would instantly raise potential canonical issues! In such a situation, people could probably make a strong case that closure of their parish would prevent them from practicing their faith.

Yet even in extreme circumstances, bishops nowadays can frequently justify parish closures by citing the dire shortage of clergy. They can argue that while they want to enable the faithful of the diocese to attend Mass and receive the sacraments regularly in their current parishes, this simply cannot be done without enough priests.

And in fact here in the U.S., the lack of vocations is a very strong argument in favor of closing or merging parishes. Let’s say, for example, that there are 200 parishes in a diocese which now has only 150 priests, and that at least some of the parish church buildings are located relatively close to each other. Even if each parish is financially on solid footing, merging two or more parishes into one may nevertheless be the most prudent thing the bishop can do. Keep in mind that he has to watch out for the wellbeing of his priests, already in many cases doing double- or even triple-duty. He cannot work them beyond their strength! In too many U.S. dioceses, there are already priests who drive hundreds of miles each week, ministering to the people of two, three, or even more parishes — hardly an ideal situation.

As canon 515.2 emphasizes, only a diocesan bishop may erect a new parish, or close or otherwise modify an existing parish. He alone has the authority to decide, for example, that due to population growth, an existing parish which is now bursting at the seams should be divided into two parishes — and he alone may decide what the new boundaries will be. Similarly, only the bishop can decide that because of a shift in demographics or a shortage of priests, two existing parishes are to be merged into one, and only he can determine which church building will be used and which one has to go.

It is impossible to examine the grounds for every single appeal which has been made by Rome by parishioners who want their bishop’s decision to close their parish overturned. But in general, it is safe to say that officials in Rome are going to look first at whether the sacramental life of the faithful of the diocese will be seriously impeded by the closure of one or more of their parishes. If they can still practice their faith at another parish, it is highly unlikely that Vatican officials will overrule the bishop’s decision. There is no doubt that the emotions of many parishioners caught in sort of this situation run high; but keep in mind that while the Christian faithful have the right to attend Mass and receive the sacraments, they do not necessarily have a canonical right to receive them in a particular parish church! This is, in a nutshell, why the Vatican has been respecting and upholding the decisions of those bishops who have announced parish closings.

The ability to make such a decision may be a tremendous amount of power to be concentrated in the hands of one man, as many unhappy parishioners at soon-to-be closed parishes have argued — but keep in mind that the episcopal power found in canon law has theological roots. Bishops are the successors to the Apostles, and are to shepherd the people entrusted to their care. Their judgments are not to be overruled by higher authority so easily as protesting parishioners might wish.

At the same time, however, it’s important to keep in mind that this is also a tremendous amount of responsibility to be placed on one man’s shoulders. It is the diocesan bishop who one day will have to give Our Lord an account of his stewardship of the diocese entrusted to his care. Since only the bishop himself has the authority to make these weighty decisions, he likewise is the only one who will ultimately be held accountable. Power and responsibility go hand in hand! 

Let’s pray for our bishops, all of whom bear this weight every day. And while we’re at it, let’s also pray for vocations to the priesthood. In many cases, closed parishes might have remained open if there were enough diocesan priests to administer them. It may be too late to save a particular parish from closure, but in the long run, it seems safe to say that an increase in priestly vocations will mean fewer closures in the future.

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