The Congregation for Clergy issued an Instruction on July 20, addressing “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church”.
It is a remarkable document, not least for the quarter of the Vatican from which it came.
Despite its name, the Congregation for Clergy is not so much a pastoral support outfit as it is a clearinghouse for clerical paperwork and – perhaps most importantly – a recourse for secular clerics who have trouble with their Ordinaries.
It sounds very bureaucratic and humdrum – it is, mostly – but it is also very, very important work indeed. Bishops and their priests do not always see eye-to-eye, and sometimes bishops overstep the bounds of their authority.
Basically, the Congregation for Clergy is there to protect the rights of clerics of the lower ranks – priests and deacons – within the complex weave of written law and cultural practice that makes up clerical life in the Church. In the main, it is a very good thing the Congregation is there, and it does hard, boring, mostly thankless work.
One can use that as a key to understanding the principal concerns of the Congregation for Clergy in issuing the Instruction in the first place. If one does that, one point in particular stands out: the solicitude Clergy shows for the rights of pastors, and especially for priests to whom a bishop gives all the responsibilities of a parish pastor, without giving them the rights that flow from those responsibilities.
In some parts of the world, bishops like to appoint their priests as “parish administrator” rather than “pastor” or “parish priest”. The parish administrator has all of the duties of a pastor (or parish priest), but serves without many of the rights of a pastor – especially stability – so it is a fairly straightforward matter for the bishop to remove or transfer him.
The Instruction from Clergy says that this practice is a big no-no: “[I]t is illegitimate for the diocesan bishop to appoint a parish administrator and to leave him in that position for an extended period of time … or even permanently, in order to avoid the appointment of a parish priest.”
In part, the Congregation can afford to be so blunt because it has the Church’s universal law on its side. The document even makes explicit the reason for some bishops’ use of the parish administrator option: “[T]his solution is often adopted in order to circumvent the requirements of the law regarding the principle of stability for the parish priest.”
The Congregation points out: “Because of the uncertainty about the presence of a pastor, the parish is not able to programme far-reaching evangelisation plans and must limit its pastoral care to mere preservation.”
Curialese often makes this Vatican watcher smile, but this time the Congregation for Clergy have shown what it can be when it is at its best. Whether they can make their Instruction stick is another question.
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