Vatican’s new document on parishes has critics

The Vatican’s new document on “the pastoral conversion of the parish community at the service of the Church’s evangelizing mission” has not been well-received by all.

The new document, an instruction rather than law, deals with the theme of the pastoral care of parish communities. It’s focus is on what parish communities mean to the various clerical and lay ministries, according to the Congregation for the Clergy, which released it.

“This instruction does not contain ‘new legislation’,” Monsignor Andrea Ripa from the Congregation says.

Ripa explains an instruction’s aim is to “set out the provisions of a law and develop the manner in which it is to be put into effect,” he said, citing article 34 §1 in the code of canon law.

“The role of the parish priest as the ‘proper pastor’ of the community is emphasized.” the Congregation said when the document was published.

“The pastoral service connected with the presence in communities of deacons, consecrated and laypeople, called to participate actively in the Church’s unique evangelizing mission according to their vocation and ministry, is also emphasized and highlighted.”

However, critics point out that canon law says the parish priest, not the lay faithful or others, makes the final decision about the parish.

They cite canon 536 as an example. This says “a pastoral council is to be established in each parish”, but only if the diocesan bishop “judges it opportune.” And such a council “possesses a consultative vote only.”

This not only keeps the decision-making with the clergy, but also reserves it for men, critics note.

The new instruction does nothing to change this gender imbalance – which is something the Congregation says it does not have the authority to alter.

The critics say the problem with the new instruction on the “pastoral conversion of the parish” is that there is no way to enforce any implementation of its first eight pages.

All that can be demanded is what comes afterwards – as it was in the beginning (of the implementation of the 16th century Council of Trent).

Pope Francis has repeated many times that any reform of structures will be useless and ineffectual unless there is first a change of mentality.

He has had some success in this respect during the past seven years.

While there are clergy who appear to have been “converted” to his vision of a synodal Church where all the People of God – both those who are called clerics and those who are called the laity – would share responsibilities, even in making decisions for the life of the community, not everyone’s on board with the pope’s views.

Critics say these people will not change their mentality unless they are provoked to do so by the force of law, which includes new structures and models – which is where critics say Francis’s call for “pastoral conversion” comes up short.

More adequate structures and avenues must be created to favour, encourage and reflect the new mentality, they say.


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