Congregation for the Clergy, Suppression of a parish and closure of a church building, 3 March 2012, Private.
A diocesan bishop, continuing a study of the diocese initiated by his predecessor and considering the study’s broad trends, closed and merged parishes within the diocese. In many of these parish closings and mergers, the parish church was also closed and the buildings locked. Parishioners made hierarchical recourse to the Congregation for the Clergy regarding the suppression of the parish (c. 515 §2) and the closure of the church (c. 1222 §2). Below is the Congregation’s response.
CONGREGATIO PRO CLERICISProt. No. ______
DECREE1. Whereas the Bishop Emeritus of ______, United States of America, the Most Reverend ______, initiated a pastoral planning process entitled ______, to study the vibrancy of parish communities, and possible sharing of resources among those parishes;
2. Whereas the Most Reverend ______, after his appointment as Bishop of ______ in 2006, continued this study, in conformity with Canon 50 of the Code of Canon law; this same pastoral planning process had considered broad diocesan trends concerning the situation of the declining number of the clergy and the ratio of priests to Catholic faithful, the general location of parish communities and churches, weekly attendance at Sunday Mass, finances, with a special emphasis on the vibrancy of the parish communities, judged by the above and other predetermined factors;
3. Whereas in many of the parish “closings” and mergers within the Diocese, the parish Church was also closed and it was declared that Holy Mass and devotional visits were never again to take place within those edifices, those edifices in all instances being locked and in some instances being fenced off;
4. Whereas the Bishop of ______ was advised on several occasions that procedures leading to the possible merger of a parish (c. 515 §2) would not ipso iure enable him perpetually to close a Church to divine worship and the devotion of the faithful, His Excellency being invited to revisit his procedure to remedy any possible invalidating defects, but declining to do so;
5. Whereas the process included an examination of the possible “closing” of the Parish of ______, a territorial parish in the ______ section of ______;
6. Whereas on 3 February 2009, with a stated view of fulfilling the requirements of c. 515 §2, the Diocesan Bishop heard the opinions of the members of the Presbyteral Council regarding the proposal with relation to ______ Parish and other parishes in the cluster, with no definite solution proposed;
7. Whereas on 12 March 2009, by letter to the pastor and subsequent announcement in the Church, the Diocesan Bishop communicated his decision to “close” and merge ______ Parish, stating that he would decide afterward whether ______ Church would be chosen as the “worship site” of the new parish;
8. Whereas on 20 March 2009, Ms. ______ made written requests to the Diocesan Bishop to amend his decree, asking in her letter that ______ be allowed to remain open as a “stand alone” parish, rather than be merged;
9. Whereas on 21 April 2009, the Bishop of ______ replied in the negative to the request that he change his disposition in the matter;
10. Whereas on 26 April 2009, Ms. ______ made hierarchical recourse to the Congregation for the Clergy, within the canonical time limits;
11. Whereas on 27 May 2009, the Bishop wrote to Fr. ______, Pastor of ______ Parish, notifying him that he had decided that, in the merger of the parish, an alternate edifice would remain the “worship site,” indicating also that the Catholic School located on the parish grounds would continue, as well as the cemetery adjacent to the Church, but ______ Church itself would be unable to be used for any function of Worship, thereby executing the provisions of c. 1222 §2 without implementing its procedures;
12. Whereas on 1 June 2009 the Pastor replied to the Bishop of ______, asking for a reconsideration of this disposition, and on 9 June 2009, a group of parishioners, headed by Ms. ______, also wrote to the Bishop to request that he modify his dispositions;
13. Whereas on 2 July 2009, at a meeting with Bishop ______, he indicated to recurrents that he refused to modify his dispositions, replying to them by letter on 7 July 2009;
14. Whereas on 2 July 2009, this group of recurrents, headed by Ms. ______, which is now making recourse in concert with Ms. ______ and represented by Avv. ______, made hierarchical recourse to the Congregation for the Clergy, the Dicastery by reason of connection issuing one decree to respond to all;
15. Whereas the Bishop of ______, in his letter to this Dicastery of 6 July 2009 (Prot. N. ______) stated that the appeal against his disposition was invalid, because the recurrents chose to appeal after his 27 May letter, rather than after his 12 March letter, and so lost their right to appeal in March;
16. Whereas the Congregation replied to the Bishop, by letter of 8 September 2009 (Prot. N. ______), stating that the presentation of the hierarchical recourse was considered valid and the study was ongoing;
17. Whereas, although the Bishop of ______ submitted the acts of the case, and the parish celebrated the last parish Sunday Mass in June of 2010, no decree was submitted, the Congregation, then, takes as an indication of His Excellency’s dispositions the 12 March 2009 and the 27 May 2009 letters to the pastor of St. ______, both of which were co-signed by Sister ______, Chancellor.
18. An Hierarchical Recourse is by its nature a documentary process which proceeds on the basis of examination of authentic documents provided by interested parties at the request of the Dicastery: thus, having provided ample opportunity for all interested parties to respond, the Dicastery judges as complete the documentation in its possession and proceeds therefore to its decision per cartas;
19. The law requires for validity that the Diocesan Bishop consult the Presbyteral Council in order to seek the advice of its members before coming to his decision regarding the suppression of a parish (cf. c. 127 §2 and c. 515 §2). Finally, a legitimate decree should be issued, stating at least in a summary fashion the lawful motivations supporting the decision (cf. c. 51), formalizing the Bishop’s decision and making them manifest to those who have interests in the matter.
20. In this matter, the Bishop of ______ was given sufficient time to present to this Dicastery information which would solidify the decisions he made, and to forward all of the acts pertinent in the matter to the Congregation. The absence of any decree indicating and formalizing the dispositions of the Bishop made in the letter of 12 March 2009 and 27 May 2009 is troubling. Even should this document be taken as a manifestation of the Bishop’s dispositions in the matter, which is the essence of a decree, it can be clearly seen that it lacks the requisite elements indicated by the canons. Hence, the Bishop of ______ is held to have acted in violation of the law on procedural grounds with regard to c. 515 §2.
21. Regarding relegation of ______ Church to secular but not unbecoming use, it is noted that the Bishop’s letter of 27 May 2009 omits any specific reference to the relegation of the church to secular but not unbecoming use, or to the canonical process required by c. 1222 §2. It is apparent from the acts, however, that the Diocesan Bishop did in fact arrive at a decision to implement the effects of the process envisioned by c. 1222 §2 without fulfilling its procedures. The Bishop’s letter to the pastor of 27 May 2009 is quite specific, indicating that the Church would not be used after the merger of the parish. In doing so, an essential element for the validity of the relegation of a church to secular but not unbecoming use was omitted, i.e., the required consultation of the Presbyteral Council regarding the matter (cf. c. 127 §2 and c. 1222 §2). The Bishop of ______, even after being advised as to these shortfalls by the Congregation’s letter of 8 September 2009 (Prot. No. ______) declined to clarify the matter either by allowing the Church to remain open for divine worship and the devotion of the faithful, or by following the procedure for relegation. By the law itself, such an omission renders invalid the Bishop’s decision to implement the effects of c. 1222 §2, i.e., the permanent closure of ______ Church and its concomitant relegation to secular but not unbecoming use.
22. Jurisprudence does not recognize such relegation to be implicit in the decree suppressing or amalgamating a parish (cf. Decree of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura of 1 July 2010, par. 7: “Iurisprudentia Signaturae Apostolicae negat reductionem ecclesiae implicite statui posse in decreto suppressionis paroeciae.” Prot. no. ______). It is evident, therefore, that the requirements of the law for the licit and valid relegation of a church to secular but not unbecoming use have not been met, and that ______ Church has not been lawfully and validly relegated to secular but not unbecoming use. Therefore:
The Congregation hereby decrees that this petition for recourse as presented, with regard to the suppression of ______ Parish (c. 515 §2) does have canonical basis in law and in fact, and so is upheld both de procedendo and de decernendo.
The Congregation further decrees that this petition for recourse as presented, with regard to the closure of ______ Church (c. 1222 §2) does have canonical basis in law and in fact, and so is upheld both de procedendo and de decernendo.
The Bishop of ______ is instructed to enact the implications of this Decree.
Recourse against this Decree may be made before the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura within the peremptory time limits established in the Apostolic Letter motu proprio Antiqua Ordinatione, Art. 34 §1.
Mauro Cardinal Piacenza
+Celso Morga Iruzubieta
Titular Archbishop of Alba marittima
Given at the Seat of the Congregation for the Clergy
1 March 2012
Congregation for the Clergy, Suppression of a parish and closure of a church building, 3 March 2012, Private, CLSA, Roman Replies and Advisory Opinions, 2012, 5-9.