Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


The Diocese of Rochester’s Erroneous Interpretation of Canon 517.2

February 6th, 2010, Promulgated by Dr. K

The topic of this installment of our book review of Forward in Hope pertains to Bishop Clark and the Diocese of Rochester’s interpretation of Canon 517.2. I will preface this article with the acknowledgment that I am not an expert in Canon Law. My academic and professional field of study is neither religion nor law. However, I feel strongly that the documents of the Church are clear concerning the appropriate interpretation of Canon 517.2. This includes both the text of the Canon itself, and the clarification of the Canon provided by the Vatican in Ecclesiae de Mysterio. In this article, I will make the case as to why I believe that the Diocese of Rochester interpretation of Canon 517.2, which is that lay people may lead parishes as Pastoral Administrators, is incorrect.

Bishop Clark makes at least three references to Canon 517.2 in Forward in Hope. One will notice that in each of these references, he claims that this Canon allows for a lay person to lead a parish. For example, on page 84 he says, “The lay minister who is the leader of the parish according to the provision of Canon 517§2″ (84). One will need to pay very close attention to the wording of every passage which will be quoted in this installment, for one wrong word will completely alter the meaning. Here, Bishop Clark explicitly says “leader” of the parish. He does not say collaborator, co-worker, team member, or some other wording which would indicate collaboration in the pastoral care of a parish.

The bishop again refers to lay people leading parishes as a result of Canon 517§2 when he says, “Some lay ecclesial ministers, especially those called according to Canon 517 §2 to lead parishes as pastoral administrators – the title we gives them in our diocese – feel a little like the characters in the hit movie of some years back The Replacements (41). This one sentence contains a variety of issues. The first one which stands out is that he uses the word “called” to refer to those who serve as Pastoral Administrators. By saying “called”, one is giving the impression that there is some sort of divine inspiration which is leading to a person serving as a Pastoral Administrator (otherwise he should have used the word “appointed”). That does not seem reasonable, since lay participation in the priestly ministry is only meant to be employed in emergency situations, after other options have been availed of. He appears to be pushing for the permanence of the Pastoral Administrator position by suggesting that it is a calling. This is also evident in his reference to “The Replacements.” The fact of the matter, as addressed in previous installments, is that most lay ministries are indeed just temporary replacements during a time of need. Canon 517.1 begins with the very words “When circumstances require it”; Canon 517.2 begins with “If, because of a lack of priests” In both of these situations, it is made quite clear that the role envisioned by Canon 517 is indeed a temporary one to be employed only in extreme situations.

You’ll also notice that I emphasized the word “pastoral administrators” in Bishop Clark’s statement above. The reason for this is that I believe the title of Pastoral Administrator is something not permitted by the Church. The proof is in Ecclesiae de Mysterio, which says, “It is unlawful for the non-ordained faithful to assume titles such as “pastor“, “chaplain“, “coordinator“, “moderator” or other such similar titles which can confuse their role and that of the Pastor, who is always a Bishop or Priest.(58)” Now one can claim, “I do not see Pastoral Administrator on that list, so therefore it seems OK.” True, Pastoral Administrator is not explicitly listed; however, one could not list each and every possibility which could be created. This is evident in the variety of titles that exist out there for this position; “Parish life director”, “Parish life coordinator”, “Pastoral coordinator”, etc. It is important to note that “other such similar titles” are not permitted. Is Pastoral Administrator a similar title? The #58 footnote in Ecclesiae de Mysterio, which corresponds to this passage, reads: “(58) Such examples should include all those linguistic expressions: which in languages of the various countries, are similar or equal and indicate adirective role of leadership or such vicarious activity. This says quite clearly that any title which indicates a directive role of leadership is inappropriate for a layperson. So, the title “Pastoral Administrator” Administrator, by its very definition, is one who leads/manages/supervises something. This title is calling the lay person the leader of the pastoral duties of a parish. Such a title appears to be unlawful in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Let?s now take a careful look at what Canon 517§2 has to say, and whether a lay person may assume the leadership of a parish. Bishop Clark quotes Canon 517§2 in the book; however when he does, he fails to quote the entire Canon. Here is what Bishop Clark says on page 85, “Yet as bishops have appointed increasing numbers of lay ecclesial ministers to lead parishes, the liturgical role for such individuals is not yet defined. We know that the Code of Canon Law foresees the appointment of non-ordained ministers by providing for the very possibility of a bishop to entrust “the pastoral care of a parish to a deacon or to some other person who is not a priest or to a community of persons” (Canon 517 §2)?” (85) It’s really interesting that he would decide to begin his citation of the Canon at “the pastoral care of a parish,” for there are several words listed in front of these in the Canon text which appear to give a different meaning than what he just stated here.

Let us look at the text of Canon 517, including sections 1 and 2 (from the Vatican Web site):

“Can. 517 §1. When circumstances require it, the pastoral care of a parish or of different parishes together can be entrusted to several priests in solidum, with the requirement, however, that in exercising pastoral care one of them must be the moderator, namely, the one who is to direct the joint action and to answer for it to the bishop.

§2. If, because of a lack of priests, the diocesan bishop has decided that participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish is to be entrusted to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons, he is to appoint some priest who, provided with the powers and faculties of a pastor, is to direct the pastoral care.”

He left a lot of words out, didn’t he? Canon 517§2 begins: “If, because of a lack of priests, the diocesan bishop has decided that participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish is to be entrusted to.” The Canon explicitly says “participation in the exercise.” Participation suggests that more than one person is engaging in the pastoral care of a parish in the situation envisioned by Canon 517§2. Compare this to what the bishop describes here: “bishop to entrust “the pastoral care of a parish”. His quoting of the passage eliminates this part of “participation in the exercise.” When one reads Bishop Clark’s quoting of the Canon, it sounds like a lay person can literally lead the parish by themselves. The official Canon, however, suggests that a lay person can participate in the care, but not be in full possession of the leadership. The fact that only participation is permitted is made evident by the part of the Canon which says, “he is to appoint some priest, who provided with the powers and faculties of a pastor, is to direct the pastoral care.” A priest must always direct the pastoral care of a parish; there is no circumstance where a lay person may direct. What does the word ‘direct’ mean? It means to lead, does it not? A priest must always lead the parish, but a layperson, as this Canon permits, may participate alongside the priest in the exercise of the pastoral care.

This sounds different from what we see in the Diocese of Rochester. As many of us know from first-hand experience, it is the lay person, when there exists a Pastoral Administrator, who is truly in charge of the parish and its pastoral care. The priest is a mere “Sacramental Minister”, who takes orders from the Pastoral Administrator. These lay administrators openly boast that they are the one in charge! Truly amazing, since this Canon says a priest must always direct the pastoral care of a parish. Take, for example, this passage from Anne-Marie Brogan’s (St. Mary’s P.A.) Pastoral Administrator FAQ: “It is this office of pastoral leader that the pastoral administrator assumes and in that sense a priest as a member of the parish staff reports to the pastoral administrator and the pastoral administrator is accountable to the bishop for both the pastoral and administrative life of the parish.”The priest in the DoR answers to the Pastoral Administrator, who has become in charge of the priest. This is not at all what is permitted by Canon 517§2, for a priest is the one who is to direct the care and answer to the bishop, not a layperson. It is very possible that the Canonical rights of the parish priest are being violated in the Diocese of Rochester. It would be interesting to get a Vatican decision on this.

The Vatican has already clearly addressed the issue of Canon 517§2, because there are many out there, like our leaders in Rochester, who have given their own rather unique interpretations of the Canon. Here is what the Vatican states in Ecclesiae de Mysterio concerning Canon 517§2 (it’s a little long):

“The non-ordained faithful, as happens in many worthy cases, may collaborate effectively in the pastoral ministry of clerics in parishes [Note “collaborate”], health care centres, charitable and educational institutions, prisons, Military Ordinariates etc. Provisions regulating such extraordinary form of collaboration [Extraordinary meaning not common; rare] are provided by Canon 517§2.

§ 1. The right understanding and application of this canon, according to which “si ob sacerdotum penuriam Episcopus dioecesanus aestimaverit participationem in exercitio curae pastoralis paroeciae concredendam esse diacono aliive personae sacerdotali charactere non insignate aut personarum communitati, sacerdotem constitat aliquem qui, potestatibus facultatibus parochi instructus curam pastoralem moderetur”, requires that this exceptional provision [Again, this is not something permanent, and should not become as common as it has in the Diocese of Rochester] be used only with strict adherence to conditions contained in it. These are:

a) ob sacerdotum penuriam and not for reasons of convenience or ambiguous “advancement of the laity“, etc. [NOT for advancement of the laity. This is not the time or the place to try and pressure the Church to bestow more roles upon laypersons. It is not the time or the place to take this action into your own hands either]

b) this is participatio in exercitio curae pastoralis and not directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the Parish; these competencies, according to the canon, are the competencies of a priest alone. [I’ll get to this in a minute]

Because these are exceptional cases [Yet again, the extraordinary nature of this is being emphasized. Why do we have some 17 of these lay Pastoral administrators in Rochester if this is such a rare possibility?], before employing them, other possibilities should be availed of, such as using of the services of retired priests still capable of such service, or entrusting several parishes to one priest or to a coetus sacerdotum.(75) [Did we do this? St. Anne/OLoL has 3 priests on staff, but they are not leading the parish as a group. No, a Pastoral Administrator is in charge. The Diocese has not bothered to entrust the care of this parish, and several other parishes, to a few retired priests. Instead they have skipped over these preferred options to go right to empowering the laity.]

In any event, the preference which this canon gives to deacons cannot be overlooked.? [Deacons should be used before laypeople. It’s right there in black and white. We have a LOT of deacons in Rochester, well north of 100, yet only a few of them are Pastoral Administrators. To contrast, we have around 17 lay Pastoral Administrators leading parishes. Can the Diocese of Rochester tell us with a straight face that they have turned to deacons before turning to lay people, or is this whole thing an “advancement of the laity” to give priestly roles to women and married men?]

I hope the commentary inserted above is helpful. The Vatican has made it painfully clear that lay people may not lead a parish. It says right there “not directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the parish; these competencies… are the competencies of the priest alone.” The Church could not make it any clearer, folks! Only priests can lead parishes. The proper interpretation of Canon 517§2 is that lay people may collaborate with priests in his pastoral duties, but they may in no way lead the parish. This is in direct contradiction to what Bishop Clark says in Forward in Hope. Remember again what he wrote on page 41: “Some lay ecclesial ministers, especially those called according to Canon 517 ?2 to lead parishes as pastoral administrators.” He says “lead” parishes. This is not permitted, if one correctly interprets Canon 517§2, which the Vatican has taken the time to do for us in Ecclesiae de Mysterio.

It seems that there should be no doubt now that lay people may collaborate in the pastoral care of a parish during a shortage of priests, but not lead it. How can the diocese continue to try to convince us that anything other than this arrangement is acceptable? I will leave you with one more passage from Ecclesiae de Mysterio which is relevant to our situation in Rochester:

“This doctrine needs to be reaffirmed especially in the light of certain practices which seek to compensate for numerical shortages of ordained ministers arising in some communities [Pastoral Administrators]. In some instances, such have given rise to an idea of the common priesthood of the faithful which mistakes its nature and specific meaning. Amongst other things, it can encourage a reduction in vocations to the (ministerial) priesthood [We will have no priestly ordination until at least 2013] and obscure the specific purpose of seminaries as places of formation for the ordained ministry [Take a look at St. Bernard, and what it has become today]. These are closely related phenomena. Their interdependence calls for careful reflection so as to arrive at well considered conclusions in their regard.”

Next installment (#6 of 8): The Comments of Charlotte Bruney and Anne-Marie Brogan


Previous installments:
4. The Role of the Lay Pastoral Administrator in the Mass
3. Creation of a Parallel Hierarchy
2. Bishop Clark On Obedience
1. Backward In Obedience: A Book Review of Forward in Hope

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13 Responses to “The Diocese of Rochester’s Erroneous Interpretation of Canon 517.2”

  1. avatar Anonymous says:

    Since the "right" or legal role of the parish priest, according to Canon Law, is being violated, how come no one has sued? I'm sure some laity have written to Rome about these abuses? Do you know of any responses?

    I wonder if Bishop Clark's book has been sent to Rome for review? It seems to me that a highlighted version of his book accompanied by highlighted violations of Canon Law and documented examples of what has happened to parishes because of the his directions and approval would be avery interesting read for the Pope.

  2. avatar Bernie says:

    Your analysis and exposition on this topic in the Bishop's book is excellent! This diocese has mastered the art of cutting, omitting, rearranging, and pasting to create justifications for doing the exact opposite of what Rome has instructed. However, regarding what can be done about it:

    I used to say in anger "Rome has been informed but Rome chooses not to act!"

    Clark is a bishop. He is the "pope" in his own diocese. Contrary to the opinion of us orthodox types the Vatican cannot interfere with the activities of a "pope" in his own diocese. The Vatican might call a bishop over to Rome for a "heart to heart" to express its displeasure but I don't think they would/could go much farther than that unless there was a problem with doctrinal heresy. The example of Corpus Christi could be cited, of course, but I think that is an example of the local bishop agreeing to conform to the desires of Rome rather than Rome saying "You do this or we will do that!" (A bishop could probably even ignore a summons to Rome without consequence.) Clark is nearing retirement and so the Vatican is probably even less likely now to even call him over for a heart to heart. Why bother, it will have the better hand soon when it appoints a new bishop. And Clark would probably be less likely to give in anyway. His book pretty much puts it all out there: the last hurrah!

    Rome knows it can't preempt the Holy Spirit. The pope's powers are limited precisely because the Holy Spirit might be working even in what looks like a terrible situation. It's a terribly messy and frustrating process (always has been)and we might wonder why it has to be that way but it's a tug-of-war and we each have to pull on the end we think should "win."

    I've written to Rome as well as probably all of you have. Rome apparently "knows." (I suppose the liberals, too, have written with their point of view.) It certainly doesn't hurt to send over even more letters but I don't think anything will happen until there is a retirement.

  3. avatar Dr. K says:

    "This diocese has mastered the art of cutting, omitting, rearranging, and pasting to create justifications for doing the exact opposite of what Rome has instructed."

    Exactly right. To the untrained eye, when one sees the bishop justify Pastoral Administrators with the following: "the very possibility of a bishop to entrust ?the pastoral care of a parish" they will tend to believe him, because after all, he is quoting Church law. What most people are unaware of, however, it that Clark is citing but a piece of the Canon, and not the parts which specifically state that what he is doing is wrong and beyond what the Vatican has authorized.

    I just realized I left out a passage in the article. The following from Ecclesiae de Mysterio states that a priest must preside over parochial councils, not a layperson: "?? 3. It is for the Parish Priest to preside at parochial councils. They are to be considered invalid, and hence null and void, any deliberations entered into, (or decisions taken), by a parochial council which has not been presided over by the Parish Priest or which has assembled contrary to his wishes.(86)?"

    ~Dr. K

  4. avatar Mike says:

    In 2001 Pope John Paul II addressed the Plenary Session of the Congregation for the Clergy. Pertinent excerpts from that address follow (my emphasis).

    "It is … of fundamental importance for the parish to have a priest as its pastor and the title of pastor is specifically reserved to the priest. … Certainly, other faithful can actively collaborate with him, even full-time, but because they have not received the ministerial priesthood, they cannot replace him as pastor." (Section 2)

    "It would be a fatal mistake to be resigned to present difficulties, and act as if we should prepare ourselves for a Church of tomorrow that some imagine as being almost without priests. In this way, the measures adopted to remedy the present scarcity, in spite of all good will, would be seriously harmful for the Ecclesial Community." (Section 3)

    "[Lay persons] cannot in any way substitute the task of the pastor proper to the parish priest. The extreme cases of shortage of priests, that advise a more intense and extended collaboration of the faithful not honoured with priestly ministry, in the pastoral care of a parish, do not constitute an exception to this essential criterion for the care of souls, as is indisputably established by canonical norm. …

    "… it will be necessary to guard oneself from any form that tends de facto to weaken the leadership of the parish priest, because the very structure of the parish community would be distorted." (Section 5)

  5. avatar Don Strelick says:

    My co-workers told me about this excellent Rochester Catholic blog that they have been reading, and I just had to check it out. I have now been reading Cleansing Fire for roughly a week and a half, and I am quite impressed with what I find here. Your blogspot has both quantity and quality, and you cover the local Church like no other out there. Before all we Rochesterians had as a source for our Catholic information was the Courier, but that paper is biased towards a certain theology that I simply do not believe in. Keep up the excellent work, Cleansing Fire. Continue to expose abuses and provide wonderful analysis on the local Church.

  6. avatar Gen says:

    Thank you for your kind words. It's good to hear that the word is getting out there, and is being received by welcoming ears!

  7. avatar Louis E. says:

    Another key quote from Brogan's FAQ:
    "The position at St. Mary's is open only to a pastoral administrator.Applications from priests for appointment as pastor will not be accepted."

    A ruling on this from the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts might be interesting.Perhaps a canonist coadjutor could be appointed?

  8. avatar Dr. K says:

    Thanks, Don! Be sure to spread the word around as well.

    We made a post on this quote last July. Here is a link:

    It really seems like the preferred model of leadership in the DoR is the Pastoral Administrator and Sacramental Minister combination. There are several more than capable priests out there (Fr. Brown and Fr. Marcoux come to mind) who are currently serving as Sacramental Ministers for parishes. This model, however, is not at all what the Church has in mind.

    ~Dr. K

  9. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    once again – nice work, Dr. K. As far as what might happen by continuing our petition to Rome. One possible option is to get a coadjutor bishop perhaps next year who would immediately replace Bishop Clark on his day of retirement. The coadjutor could start taking the reigns from before even before Clark's retirement. At least that was the rumors floating around about LA, right? I think that's enough incentive to not back down from our petitions to Rome.

  10. avatar Louis E. says:

    A coadjutor can be appointed at any time but normally the ordinary makes a request for one if there is to be one.Once appointed,he must be made a Vicar General and given some role in the administration of the diocese,but he does not become ordinary until Rome accepts the ordinary's retirement.

    Hardly ever is a coadjutor imposed on an unwilling ordinary,though Bishop Clark is old enough that should he request an auxiliary Rome would insist on naming a coadjutor instead.

  11. avatar Anonymous says:

    Is that how it worked in Seatle with Hunthausen. I can't imagine someone like him would ask for a coadjutor.

  12. avatar Louis E. says:

    Hunthausen's coadjutor came after a long tussle.Wuerl had previously been involuntarily given an auxiliary with special faculties and agreed to accept a coadjutor instead and then stepped down five years early.

    I don't know how seriously Rome takes this book.If they see him as totally off the reservation they can kick him out,as Gaillot was in France.But don't expect it.

  13. avatar Louis E. says:

    Er,Wuerl was given (to Hunthausen) AS an auxiliary.

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