Six years or life.

Did you know that priests are, under usual circumstances, supposed to be appointed as parochial vicars for life? It’s an interesting little bit of recent Church history. Fr. Tim Ferguson, writing on Fr. Z’s blog here, goes into it a bit more, but I’ll offer my two cents.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law is here. The law in question is Number 522, in Part II, Section II, Title III (Cann.460-572), Chapter VI: “Parishes, Pastors and Parochial Vicars.” Or, you can just go here. It goes like this:

Can. 522 A pastor must possess stability and therefore is to be appointed for an indefinite period of time. The diocesan bishop can appoint him only for a specific period if the conference of bishops has permitted this by a decree.

Notice the second sentence, which nullifies the first sentence: “The diocesan bishop can appoint him only for a specific period if the conference of bishops has permitted this by a decree.” Translated, Can. 522 says “this condition (pastoral stability) must obtain, unless, of course, y’all decide that it needn’t.”

It should surprise no one to find that O these many years ago (1984, to be precise), our bishops, in conference, exempted themselves from Canon 522, as noted on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) website, here:

Individual ordinaries may appoint pastors to a six year term of office. The possibility of renewing this term is left to the discretion of the diocesan bishop. The primary provision of canon 522 that pastors may be appointed for an indefinite period of time remains in force.

Except, of course, when it isn’t.

Why does any of this matter? Several things come to mind: why should a priest put a lot of effort into building a new church, building a school, building an altar server training program, building a decent and reverent liturgy, or even trying to get to know more than a handful of the most noisy of his parishioners when he knows he’s going to be moved in six years, and the new guy may just undo all the things he’s tried to do.

Conversely, why would bishops want to nullify the “Stability of Office of the Pastor”, since pastoral stability would seem intuitively to be a good thing? Well, I don’t know. Perhaps it had something to do with the scandal of homosexual predatory priests which was coming to a head in the 1970’s and 1980’s after Vatican II, and this was an honest attempt by the bishops to deal with an unraveling situation. Bishops, you’ll recall, started moving a lot of folks around back then. Or, perhaps it was simply plain ole’ Power. The power to move at will, for any reason or no reason at all, concentrates even more power in the hands of the bishop. Or, maybe I’m just all wet.

Anyway, I thought y’all might be interested.

Curate, ut valeatis!

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