Parish Registration

Q: I tried to register at a parish, but the secretary told me that I can't since I live outside the boundaries of the parish. She told me what my real parish is supposed to be, based on where I live, but it's notorious for its guitar Masses and the priests' leftist social justice sermons, so I don't want to have anything to do with it! Am I really required to attend Mass at this horrible parish? — Maggie

A: We Catholics in the U.S. tend to take it for granted that it is necessary to register ourselves and our families at a parish. It is routinely understood as a requirement if we want our children to attend the parish school, receive their first Holy Communion, or marry in the parish. It may come as a surprise, therefore, that parish registration is nowhere mentioned in the Code of Canon Law, and may very well be simply an American invention.

Canon 518 states that a parish is territorial. (There are some very unusual instances when a parish may be erected differently, but they are extremely uncommon and do not concern us here.) As such it embraces all the Catholics of a given region on a map. When a bishop formally erects a parish, he establishes its specific boundaries, and all Catholics residing within those limits are ipso facto members of that parish, whether they know it or not. The law does not require anyone living within the parish boundaries to take the additional step of registering at the parish. The very fact that a Catholic lives in the territory of a particular parish is enough to make him a member.

This fact, which is so often lost on Catholic Americans, brings with it certain rights and certain obligations. We saw in the April 26, 2007 column, for example, that a Catholic has the right to a funeral Mass in his parish church, regardless of whether he has regularly been attending that church (c. 1177.1). An obligation can be found in canon 857.2, which states that as a rule, a person is supposed to be baptized in his own parish, unless a just reason suggests otherwise.

If a person is baptized elsewhere, it will not affect the validity of the baptism, but the same cannot be said for the celebration of a marriage. Catholics who wish to marry are required to marry in the parish church of one of the spouses-or in the Catholic spouse's parish, if it is a mixed marriage (c. 1108.1). If they do not, and do not obtain permission in advance to marry elsewhere, the marriage is actually invalid! These canons that refer to a person's parish always refer to the territorial parish of the Catholic person. Whether that person is registered at a completely different parish, or is not registered anywhere at all, is canonically irrelevant.

In general, pastors are well aware of this. In many cases they may permit people who live outside the parish's boundaries to register, but they know that territory determines one's parish in the canonical sense. To cite a very common example, the average pastor knows that if a Catholic parishioner wishes to marry in his parish, but actually lives in the territory of a different parish, permission must first be obtained from the pastor of the territorial parish for the wedding to take place elsewhere. Frequently this permission is sought and obtained by the pastor himself, without the spouses ever even being aware of it. But the very fact that this happens is due to the canonical reality that a person's parish is determined by his home address, and not by filling out a registration form!

Note that the the fact that parishes are by definition territorial does not mean that it is illegal or otherwise wrong to ask people to register in their parishes. It can be tremendously helpful for a pastor to know the demographics of his parish members, for a variety of reasons. Rather, one might say that the U.S. parish registration system has been superimposed on top of the canonical structure. The fact that a person has or has not registered in a particular parish can never be used in a way that would directly violate canon law. If the two systems were conceivably to contradict each other, canon law would unquestionably have precedence.

Does Maggie have to attend the parish in which she resides? On a regular basis, when it comes to weekly Mass attendance and routine reception of the sacraments, we are not obliged to attend any one church in particular. Canon 1247 asserts that on Sundays and holydays, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass, but does not specify that we must attend Mass in any specific place. Similarly, we may receive the sacrament of confession from any priest who is lawfuly able to administer it (c. 991), without regard to the location where this takes place.

Therefore, there is no legal reason why one cannot routinely attend Mass and receive the sacraments at a parish church other than the one to which we technically belong — although this is hardly an ideal situation. But on major occasions, such a child's first reception of the sacraments, we have seen here that it is the norm that these be celebrated in one's own parish church. And when it comes to marriage, as discussed above, the law is even more serious, for the validity of a marriage depends in part on whether it is celebrated in the parish of one of the spouses.

It should be noted that if a Catholic wishes to avoid his territorial parish because there is a truly serious issue there which might merit the pastor's or even the bishop's attention, it may be prudent to respectfully call his attention to it. But there is nothing inherently heterodox or illegal about guitar Masses, however distasteful and distracting one may find them. Similarly, "leftist social justice sermons" (obviously a subjective term) are not necessarily theologically unsound — although they may be! — and dissatisfaction with them can possibly be reflective of a problem with parishioners than with the preacher. It is important to distinguish between preaching that is actually contrary to church teaching, and that which simply does not accord with our own ideas. The first should be objectionable to every Catholic; the second should not.

On the flipside of this, there have been a few somewhat public instances in the last couple of decades, when pastors tried legally to eject certain persons from their parishes because they caused repeated disruptions. While a person can certainly be removed from parish property by the police for creating a disturbance, it is impossible, canonically speaking, for a parishioner to be permanently "kicked out" of his parish for such behavior.

Occasionally one hears of people moving to a new home which they have chosen based on the fact that it is located within a parish that is, for whatever reason, particularly attractive to them. It may sound like a radical solution, but canonically, this is a sound means of avoiding membership in a parish which one would rather not attend. The only way under canon law to leave one parish and join another is to move to a new home, in the territory of another parish.

We'll take a look at more of the practical fallout from the issue of parish registration in future columns.

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