Bishops and their presbyters

Priests don’t work for the diocesan bishop; they work for the diocese. 

That, at least, was the principal takeaway from the lecture delivered by Rev. Michael Joyce, CM, JCD, at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. The president of the CLSA was making his customary annual visit to “the other” of North America’s two schools of canon law, and students and faculty filled the back rows of the otherwise-empty amphitheater for the talk. The topic was an interesting one: the employer-employee relationship of the diocesan bishop and his priests seems at first glance to be obvious, and civil law certainly would like to use that understanding, for purposes of both taxation and — more critically — liability and prosecutorial matters. 

Building off canon 384, Fr. Joyce rightly spoke of the relationship between bishop and presbyterate as a communio, a communion of mutual service to the particular church — the diocese — with all that is entailed in such ministry. But the nature of priestly ministry is not equatable with any secular job, nor with any civil corporate management structure, despite outside viewers’ incompletely-informed impressions to the contrary.

Ultimately, then, the bishop has a duty to ensure that the priests of his diocese have what they need to live and carry out their ordained service to the People of God in that place (remuneration), as well as a sort of authoritative yet fraternal exhortative guidance. But this canonical relationship cannot be extended to considering the bishop responsible in civil jurisdictions for the criminal acts of a priest. The priest alone is responsible for his own moral and criminal actions, both before God and before systems of human justice.

While I am relatively comfortable accepting this conclusion on its face, it raises two questions in my mind that I wish I had been impertinent enough to raise with Fr. Joyce. On the one hand, such a position seems to lead to bishops quickly ‘washing their hands’ of problematic clerics, cutting them loose to fend for themselves; this is difficult to reconcile with the  ‘peculiar solicitude’ required of bishops toward their clerics. And in the other direction, in far too many cases, bishops (and their curial officials) have involved themselves in trying to ‘manage’ the problems caused by criminal priests, and thus have inextricably involved themselves in the criminal culpability as well.


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