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Catholic Canon Law Can Save Parishes from Closure or Merger

Catholic dioceses around the nation, as well as in Detroit and Saginaw in Michigan, are moving to close parishes and merge others in order to streamline operations and save money in the face of a significant decrease in attendance. However, while traditional courts of law are unlikely to intervene, aggrieved parishioners are not without options if they act promptly.

Canon Law governs the process that is involved when an archdiocese decides to close a parish, or merge multiple parishes into one. This can be an arcane and difficult body of law for a novice to comprehend, but there are some basics that can be found in the canons.

First, a parish can only be closed or merged with others, a process known as suppression, for certain reasons. The Vatican’s primary appellate court has made known through prior decisions that churches cannot be closed due to a priest shortage. Second, a parish in good financial standing cannot be stripped of its financial resources, particularly those resources that the parish has accrued over the decades from the donations and work of parish members.

Third, upon the announcement of a decree that calls for the suppression of a parish, that parish has the right to appeal the decision of the bishop in a timely manner. Fourth, if the bishop rejects that appeal, the parish has the right to an additional appeal to the Congregation for the Clergy, which handles such appeal at the Vatican.

While such appeals did not have much success over the years, parishes have had a number of more recent successes due to appeals that are more detailed in their objections and promptly filed. A number of parishes were able to reverse the decree that called for their suppression in 2012. A similar result occurred in Philadelphia in 2012, although it only required an appeal to the bishop of his prior decision to close a number of schools and churches.

In Michigan, the Diocese of Saginaw plans to implement a comprehensive reorganization plan next month that multiple parishes have already appealed. Additionally, the Archdiocese of Detroit is implementing a number of closures and mergers less than a decade after a number of schools were closed throughout the Metro Detroit area.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have experience representing the interests of individual parishes that are face suppression by way of either closure or merger. We will be monitoring this fast-changing area of law. If you believe your organization has been improperly deprived of its rights with respect to its parish, please contact us.

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