Last week our dean came round with a copy of the new Directory on the Canonical Status of the Clergy. An event in itself as the last statutes on clergy life I can find in this diocese were published in 1962. This is a national publication and serves as a guide for dioceses to produce their own diocesan statutes for clergy life. Most of it consists of canons from the code but other sections in italics are meant to serve as models for diocesan legislation.
I remember reading an article in 2000 in the Catholic Herald by a priest who said he was not going to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the restoration of the hierarchy until the restoration of the canonical status of parish priests had also occurred! It is true that priests promise obedience to their bishops but sometimes this is misunderstood as an absolute obedience of the kind one finds in a monastery whereas the obedience of the secular clergy is as set out in the code of canon law. Thus while a priest will want to be as obedient as he can to his bishop he does nonetheless have rights as well as obligations and these are not to be ignored.
One of the most difficult events in a parish priest`s life can be when he is asked to move parish. The new directory gives a useful reminder of how this is meant to happen. Although I am a canon lawyer, I must admit I had never given sufficient attention to the canon that deals with this. Nor in my experience have bishops, even those with a doctorate in canon law!
The canon (1748) reads:
If the good of souls or the need or advantage of the Church requires that a pastor be transferred from his parish which he is governing usefully to another parish or to another office, the bishop is to propose the transfer to him in writing and persuade him to consent to it for the love of God and of souls.
The next canon reads:
If the pastor does not intend to yield to the counsel and persuasion of the bishop he is to explain his reasons in writing.
From there it goes on to explain what the bishop still wants to move the priest: the bishop is to send two priests round to try to persuade him to accept the move. If the priest still refuses, the bishop is to issue a decree declaring the parish vacant. The priest however is then at liberty to appeal to Rome and the bishop in his decree is to inform him of how this is done. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds as a number of years ago a few priests in Scotland did this and their appeal against transfer was upheld by the Vatican.
All of this is because if a priest is appointed parish priest he has canonical possession of the parish and can only be moved if there is a serious problem or if he consents to a move. Our bishop reminded us recently in the Northern Cross that all the priests he had moved had consented to move. However I look forward to the implementation of the canon regarding the need for a written request to be made to the priest regarding the move with the reasons for it outlined. There have to be real reasons for the move. Also having it on paper gives the priest time to think things through clearly rather than in an interview where the proposal is sprung on him when he knows nothing about the parish which is being offered to him. Of course this all means a slower process but it also means respecting the rights of the priest according to canon law.
The Directory deals with other matters of clergy life as well. Its publication is good thing and I hope will serve to ensure that the secular clergy know their rights and obligations under canon law.