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Posted February 1, 2005

The Ethical Rights of Priests

Rev. James F. Keenan, SJ

Taken from Touchstone -- for the entire article please write:

National Federation of Priests Councils
1337 West Ohio Street
Chicago, IL 60622

Or, to watch Fr. Keenan's presentation of the subject at Boston College click on this link for video (if you have a high speed connection) or audio only (for lower speed modem connections).

Fr. Keenan’s article is a “must-read” for anyone who has experienced a fellow priest removed immediately, and endured the trauma this causes. It puts a human, just face on our priesthood.

An Excerpt

The Ethical Rights of Priests

Book II of the Code of Canon Law outlines the rights and obligations of clergy [273-289] and stipulates three canonical rights: to associate, to a vacation, and to fitting and decent remuneration. While these are important and necessary, I propose four “ethical” rights: the right to share respectfully in the Episcopal ministry of the local ordinary; the right of association; the right to exercise their ministry; and the right to fair treatment.

1. The Right to Share Respectfully in the Episcopal Ministry of the Local Ordinary. [Please read Richard Burton Commentary on the study: A Survey of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years by clicking on the report title.]

This right is implicitly being invoked and exercised by priests in their recent letters and statements to bishops and their conferences. It also echoes one that has been discussed in the revision of the code of canon law, “the right of cooperating with the bishop in the exercise of his ministry.”

John Lynch, a canon lawyer who has written on the rights of priests, frequently asserts taht the “cleric shares in the Episcopal ministry.” Interestingly, he roots his claim precisely in the first canon in the section on rights and obligations, canon 273: “Clerics are bound by a special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and their own ordinary.”

Lynch’s claim is derived from three Vatican II documents, Presbyterorum Ordinis, 7 [Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests] states: “Priestly obedience . . .is based on the sharing of the Episcopal ministry . . . conferred by the Sacrament of Orders and the canonical mission.” Christus Dominus, 28 [The Bishops’ Pastoral Office], “All priests, whether diocesan or religious, share and exercise with the bishop the one priesthood of Christ.” Lumen Gentium, 28: “The Bishop is to regard his priests, who are his co-workers, as sons and friends . . .”

The foundation for this ethical right is found not only in the Code, its commentary, and Vatican documents, but also in the Rite of Ordination. The first question the bishop asks the ordinand is whether he is resolved to be “a conscientious fellow worker with the bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock?” When, in the prayer of consecration we hear the bishop call him a “fellow worker” and “a co-worker with the order of bishops.”

In sum, a variety of foundational texts recognize the priest as having a share in the exercise of Episcopal authority. When we hear repeated attempts by clergy to meet with their ordinary, we become aware of the fact that this right is not adequately recognized. In fact, when we consider the phenomena of public letters by clerics, we see this not so much as an indication of that right being exercised, but rather, as expressing frustration that the presumed right has been ignored. Recognizing and routinely exercising this right, however, could foster community; enhance thelife of the diocese, and the credibility of Episcopal leadership.

2. The Right of Association

The right of sharing in the ministry of the bishop leads to fostering right relations among the clergy. Therefore, Canon 275 `1 states, “since clerics all work for the same purpose, namely, the building up of the Body of Christ, they are to be united among themselves by a bond of brotherhood and prayer . . .” But these bonds are not to separate the priests from the laity. The Code adds immediately, “Clerics are to acknowledge and promote the mission which the laity, each for his or her part, exercises in the Church and in the world.” Thus, the associations among the clergy are intimately tied to promoting the laity’s involvement as well.

Though an earlier canon [215], defined the right of all the Christian faithful to form associations, canon 278 establishes it as the first canonical right for priests: “Secular clerics have the right to associate with others to pursue purposes in keeping with the clerical state.” Noteworthy, is that in developing the revised code, the commission rejected a proposal that placed associations of priests under the local ordinary. To do so, would be to infringe on the exercise of the very right that was being promulgated.

The Code derives its inspiration from the natural law and from earlier encyclicals. For instance, in Pacem in Terris [24], Pope John XXIII upheld the natural right to assemble and to form in their own way their own associations. Moreover, the pope argued against a “one-type-of-association” fits all. Rather, he wrote “It is most necessary that a wide variety of societies or intermediate bodies be established . . . .”

From the natural law, our own experience, papal encyclicals, and the Code itself we recognize the ethical right of priests to form associations. In the recent years, we have seen free standing priests’ associations emerge. This ethical right validates these groups. Moreover, these organizations do not replace presbyteral councils but represent a few of what Pope John XXIII referred to as the “wide varieties” of gatherings necessary for human flourishment

. . .

4. The Right to Fair Treatment

To appreciate this right we need to see the zero tolerance policy as it appears in the Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States [56-60] by The National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People. There the ten lay authors endorse the policy because some bishops and religious superiors “badly underestimated” the situation. “To prevent any recurrence of such situations, the Charter and Essential Norms remove any further discretion on the part of bishops and religious superiors in this regard.”

Besides restraining the bishops’ authority, the decision affects priests. The Report notes: “Accordingly, the zero-tolerance policy applies without regard to any assessment of the degree of culpability of an offending priest based upon such factors as [1] the nature of the sexual act [e.g., the improper touching of a fully clothed teenager versus the sodomization of a child], [1] the frequency of abuse [e.g., an isolated event versus a protracted history], or [3] efforts to address the problem [e.g., successful treatment of a problem that had led to an act of abuse years ago versus untreated problems that manifested themselves more recently.] The policy also applies with equal force to a priest who reports himself as having engaged in an act of abuse in an effort to obtain help with his problem.”

Zero tolerance recognizes no relevant circumstance of any kind, nor any due proportionality, the very factors that make treatment “fair.” If zero tolerance is not fair, then how can it be just?

The Review Board acknowledges that “the zero-tolerance policy may seem to be too blunt an instrument for universal application,” nonetheless, they believe “that for the immediate future the zero-tolerance policy is essential to the restoration ofthe trust of the laity in the leadership of the Church, provided that it is appropriately applied.” They offer no manner of determining when after the “immediate future” fairness may be restored.

Moreover, while the Report acknowledges “that there is no equivalent policy of zero tolerance for bishops or provincials” who assigned these priests, they argue that bishops “must show that they are willing to accept responsibility and consequences for poor leadership.” But here again, they offer no concrete expressions of how that responsibility ought to be expressed. Fairness cuts two ways. If a zero tolerance policy is applied to priests where is an analogous policy for the bishops? In sum, zero tolerance is, in a word, unfair.


I propose these four rights — participatory leadership, to freely associate, to exercise one’s ministerial judgment, to be treated fairly — with the hope that they may further encourage the voice of the clergy. I suggest that if priests begin to recognize the rights due them — especially at a time when many find themselves, as the Report states, demoralized — they might in turn be more vocal in recognizing the rights of others and in fostering the communio that the Church so desperately needs. Healing grace always accompanies restorative justice.