By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, JCD
To carry out the pastoral care for her faithful, the Church, out of necessity, must make decisions around the clock. Matters and concerns to be decided upon in church governance are innumerable, extremely diverse and wide-ranging. This is so because the Church is truly a complex reality, as Lumen gentium, n. 8 reminds us.
It is not an understatement to say that such a complex reality has always been overwhelming in terms of church governance. Take for example, a simple parish priest of a town. Among the different aspects of his own activity, he could be multi-tasking, managing a fundraiser, coordinating repairs and maintenance of parish facilities, organizing his parish staff, etc. These are concerns that continuously require decision-making.
Some pastoral matters can be expected on a regular basis. Some issues can be unusual and unexpected, like a request to administer a first Communion by tube for a child with cerebral palsy. Some are very challenging as a resolution is sought for complaints of various kinds. Again, all of these instances require a decision-making process that can be simple or complex, long or short, formal or informal.
Similar to civil government, there are two ways to make decisions in church governance: through judicial process, and through extra-judicial or administrative procedure.
The judicial decision-making process is done within the confines of the ecclesiastical courts. In principle, judicial decisions are done by the diocesan bishop. He would normally delegate such competence to the Judicial Vicar and other ecclesiastical judges who have formal training in canonical jurisprudence. Usually, a judicial decision is sought for matters like marriage annulments and imposition of penal sanctions. As these types of cases have something to do with subjective rights of the faithful, the Church always takes extra care to handle them. The judicial process is very well defined in the Code of Canon Law to ensure justice and fairness. In fact, the Code devotes almost all of Book VII to legislation on the judicial decision-making process.
In a given diocese, we can say that many judicial decisions are made, but definitely not as many as extrajudicial decisions, or those outside the limits of the judicial process. By the way, the trend in our times is to avoid the term extrajudicial, precisely because of its negative definition, meaning “not judicial.” There is a preference, instead, to use the term “administrative or executive,” which simply means that the decisions are made by a competent authority that performs the administrative function in the governance of the church.
The chief competent authority to make an administrative decision in the diocese is the diocesan bishop. He usually delegates this administrative authority to the Vicar General. At the parochial level, the bishop delegates this authority to the pastors or parish priests. In religious institutions, superiors represent the competent authority.
The matters for administrative decision-making are almost any concern that there is in pastoral ministry, except the ones specifically mentioned above to be done under the judicial process. Hence, most of the decision-making is predominantly administrative. These procedures can be as simple as giving verbal permits for the use of some church facilities; dispensations; appointments, etc. They can be as complex as the division or merging of parishes, canonical erection or suppression of associations, imposition of penal sanctions, etc.
All decisions in church governance are human and, therefore, fallible. There are absolutely no judicial or administrative decisions that are made by a spiritual being, such as an angel. In such a case, responsibility and accountability can never be imposed since angelic beings are beyond our legal system. And this is true in the ecclesiastical hierarchy from top to bottom. The higher the position may be, this does not guarantee omniscience and impeccability. Therefore, even papal decisions, taken outside the solemnities of his infallibility, are not infallible. Acknowledging this reality should lead to humility and diligence in the observance of proper procedures.
Wrapping up, care must be taken that decisions are done in accordance with the law and not arbitrarily. There has to be due process observed; otherwise, misjudgments may easily happen, leading to wrong, inopportune or even harmful decisions.
Msgr. Achacoso is the author of “Due Process in Church Administration” (2018), recipient of Arcangelo Ranaudo Award (Vatican), and pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Woodside