Mapping the Diocese of Today: Parochial Structures (The Parish in Canon Law, part 2)

Since a diocese is required to be “divided into distinct parts or parishes” (c. 374, §1), it seems to follow that, as one distinguished canonist put it to me in conversation, “Every square inch of a diocese has to be part of a parish.” Given the peculiar history of the Catholic Church in the United States, however, this is often not true. Partly this is due to the relative novelty of parishes as such in this country. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and indeed right up until the 1917 Code of Canon Law took effect, the bishops of the United States established very few true canonical parishes in their territories. As John Beal reports it:

Although there were churches with stable communities of the faithful who built and supported them within dioceses, these communities were not canonically erected as parishes. In fact, throughout the nineteenth century, American bishops fiercely resisted pressures from clergy and laity on the one hand and from the Holy See on the other to erect these stable communities of the faithful canonically as parishes. The bishops found canonical justification for their resistance in the fact that the law of the Church at that time identified a parish as “benefice,” i.e., a juridic entity consisting of an ecclesiastical office and the right of the office holder to receive as compensation for his service the revenues of the dowry or endowment attached to the office. Since almost no stable communities of the faithful in the United States had such endowments and since they all compensated their priests from free will offerings, bishops argued that these communities did not meet the canonical definition of a “parish” and, therefore, should not be formally erected as such.[1]

Once the universal law of the 1917 Code was put into practice in the U.S., this provisional situation should have been systematically rectified: however, it very likely was not in many places. So instead of a careful patchwork of parishes across the whole of a diocesan map, parishes dot the map like outposts in a wilderness. While this may well be meet and fitting in a frontier missionary context, it is considerably less so in an established diocese.

To provide a bit of context, much of the resistance on the part of the American bishops of old was predicated on the equation of parish with benefice in the canon law of the time. In other words, the parish was defined by the office of the parish priest, and more specifically the endowment or other financial arrangements established for his support. Almost all American ‘parishes’ were built and maintained by the free will offerings of the community, and so lacked the substantial monetary foundation which was expected in the Old World for the steady remuneration of parish priests. But this understanding has been swept away by the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent 1983 Code. “The current legislation considers the parish as a community of the faithful stably constituted within a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor under the authority of the diocesan bishop.”[2] But how are such communities defined, and how are they best served?

Traditional model of the Parish

Most conversations concerning the future of parishes in Catholic dioceses begin from the unquestioned assumption that the norm — and the ideal — is a parish in every civilly-defined community, and a priest in every one of those parishes.[3] This is certainly not fundamentally mistaken: a long-standing tenet of ecclesiastical law is the principle of ‘one parish, one parish priest.’[4] From ancient times the monogamous analogy of a bishop being united to his diocese was applied as well to the exclusive commitment of the priest to the parish entrusted to his care. Yet throughout the history of the Church exceptions have perennially existed to this principle.[5] After centuries of canonical reflection, the unicity of the parish is no longer considered essential (in the ontological sense) to the notion of the office of parish priest, but it continues to be regarded as an important principle “for the effective accomplishment of pastoral care.”[6]

But when there are insufficient active priests to fill all the parochial assignments in a diocese, something needs to be done. The obvious answer, of course, is more priests, and as a Church we continue to hope and pray for exactly that. But it seems that for too long too many dioceses have chosen to treat the shortfall as temporary, and have adopted measures that were similarly temporary to ‘tide them over’ until a welcome resurgence in vocations would return things to the status quo. While we wait in prayerful hope for such an increase, the circumstances of the present must be met with decisions and actions in the present. And so, given a situation of fewer priests than parishes, the obvious, most direct action would seem to be for the diocesan bishop to reapportion the diocesan territory into a number of parishes that corresponds to the number of men available to serve them.

In our next installment, we will wend our way through the various possibilities for structuring parishes — and the pastoral care thereof — that differ from the ‘one parish, one priest’ principle, and attempt to assess the merits and drawbacks of each.


[1] John Beal, “It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again: Lay Trusteeism Rides Again,” in The Jurist 68 (2008), pp. 505-506.

[2] John Renken, in CLSAComm2, p. 674, emphasis added.

[3] Latent, too, in this assumption is the popular but erroneous equation of parish with parish church, a problem which I shall touch on more than once in this series.

[4] See Sánchez-Gil, in ExComm, Vol. II/2, p. 1310.

[5] See ibid., p. 1311.

[6] Ibid.


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