Merging and Suppressing Parishes
The suppression and merging of parishes continues to be a much discussed and debated topic in the United States, with a particular focus on the temporal goods of parishes that are closed as part of diocesan reorganization plans. Recent rulings by the Congregation for the Clergy, overturning the decisions of bishops in this area in several American dioceses, have been seen by many as adding new fuel to the fire. Parishioners are bringing recourse in the courts of the Holy See with some regularity against the closing of their parishes and opposing the disposition of their assets.
In this article we will examine the norms in the Code of Canon Law regarding the temporal goods of parishes that are suppressed or merged, with particular attention to ways in which the Holy See has applied these norms to recourses made by parishioners in our dioceses. We will then look at some of the practical issues that arise when making decisions about the temporal goods of closed parishes.
Canonical Principles on the Parish
The canonical notion of a parish is established in canon 515 § 1: "A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor (pastor) under the authority of the diocesan bishop." After consulting with the presbyteral council, the diocesan bishop has the sole responsibility (unius est Episcopi dioecesani) "to erect, suppress, or alter [End Page 164] parishes" (c. 515 §2). Several foundational aspects of this canonical definition are important for our discussion: parishes are communities of the Christian faithful; they are juridic persons stably constituted in a diocese; and the pastoral care of the community has been entrusted to a pastor.1
The fact that the parish is viewed, first, as a community of people is a significant starting point for contemporary discussions about merging parishes. When plans are being discussed for reorganizing dioceses, it can seem at times that the primary focus is on parishes as administrative units of the larger whole, rather than as communities of the Christian faithful established with a stable existence (c. 515 §1). As the controversies over parish closings demonstrate, often with much emotion, Catholics think of their parish as a precious reality, a source of sacred identity and memory in the Church. This identity derives not only from their connections in the present, but also from their connections with past members of their parish family, the community of faith.
The ecclesiological and canonical foundations for defining the parish do not see this ecclesial entity first and foremost as an administrative unit, a sub-unit of the larger corporate enterprise called a diocese. Somewhat ironically, it can be observed that many who defend their parishes can seem to hold a complementary position that the diocese is a mere branch office of the corporation whose CEO sits in Peter's chair in Rome. In both instances, an authentic ecclesiology of communion is lacking. Parishes are established in the local church for the purpose of communion, as the local embodiment of the "Church as communion," a Church that is called to be a sign and instrument of " intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity."2 [End Page 165]
A second element in the canonical definition of a parish is the contained in the phrase "stably constituted in a particular church" (c. 515 §1). Parishes are stably established as public juridic persons by the law itself, aggregates of persons (universitates personarum) constituted "so that, within the purposes set for them, they fulfill in the name of the Church, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, the proper function entrusted to them in view of the public good" (c. 116). The statutes of the juridic person are to state this function clearly and to indicate how the ecclesiastical goods that belong to the parish are to be used and protected for the purposes of this function (cc. 116-117, 1257-1258). The proper function of parishes is properly called an ecclesial mission. Temporal goods are acquired...