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Bishop Paprocki thinks ‘canon law is your friend.’ Here’s why

Bishop Paprocki thinks ‘canon law is your friend.’ Here’s why

When the U.S. bishops meet in Baltimore next month for the fall meeting of the USCCB, they’ll elect a new president and vice president, and the heads of six standing conference committees — committees at which a lot of the day-to-day work of the bishops’ conference actually gets done.

The bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance is among those up for a new chairman. And while the name suggests the meetings might be a bit dry - or even put you to sleep - Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois says the committee actually does a lot of interesting stuff.

Paprocki, both a canon and civil lawyer with an MBA from Notre Dame, has been a member of the bishops’ canon law committee since 2003. The bishop is up for election to become the committee’s next chairman — a position he held once before, from 2008 to 2011.

The bishop talked with The Pillar about the challenge of administrative governance in the Church’s life — and the reason he believes that, dry as it might seem, “canon law is your friend.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bishop, what are some of the pressing canonical issues that U.S. diocesan bishops will face in the next few years?

I have been on the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance since I became a bishop in 2003.

I was asked to be on the committee at that time by the chairman at the time, the late Bishop Thomas Doran, who was actually the director of my doctoral dissertation in Rome at the Gregorian University; he was a judge on the Roman Rota.

So I've been on this committee for a long time, and I would say that a lot of what we do is really behind the scenes work that people are not familiar with, or that doesn't come to people's attention.

So for example, at our last meeting, we reviewed the translation of the praenotanda for the new “Order for the Anointing of the Sick and their Pastoral Care,” we looked at revised statutes for the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, ICEL - and, actually, we review from a canonical perspective a lot of the documents that come out of the USCCB, even if they’re not strictly speaking canonical documents.

That’s actually a big part of what we do.

I would hope that we could be looking as a committee at doing more on the governance side of things. It's the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance. And the canonical side, I think, is where we typically give more attention, and the expertise on the committee is more on the canonical side of things.

But I think that I'd like to pay more attention to the governance —  in terms of helping bishops with the management and administrative skills needed for running a diocese.

My own background is that as a priest I went to law school, got a civil law degree and then got my doctorate in canon law in Rome. And then I was chancellor of the [Chicago] archdiocese — so a lot of work on the canonical side of things. I became in 2003 an auxiliary bishop in Chicago. And then when I was appointed to Springfield, I actually went to business school, and I got an MBA at the University of Notre Dame.  I was fortunate to be able to do that.

I have been teaching as an adjunct professor now for over 20 years, at Loyola University Law School and the University of Notre Dame Law School. But now, just this semester, I started teaching in the MBA program at Quincy University here in my diocese, and I'm doing a course on leadership.

There are things learned when I went to school and got my MBA at Notre Dame which I would like to see our committee offering for bishops, particularly new bishops, or recently appointed bishops, like in their first five years or so.

Bishops are appointed typically from among the clergy who have served as pastors, or seminary professors, or seminary rectors. And so a seminary professor, for example, has been primarily in an academic situation and then becomes suddenly in charge of a diocese, which is partially being like the CEO of a corporation. And so what training can we offer?

There is a new bishops’ school offered at the Vatican which bishops are required to attend. And the USCCB has put some things together as well, but I think it would be helpful if we could offer some kind of a program — not a full MBA, but some things about how to read a financial report, for example.

If you’re the bishop of a diocese, you've got a diocesan finance council, and you have a finance officer. But the final decisions are made by the bishop, so at a minimum you want to be able to read a financial report and an approval budget.

So to help bishops, I would like to put a little more emphasis on the governance side of our committee’s work.

I have known bishops for whom aspects of financial or personnel management can become a real source of anxiety, if the bishop feels untrained or incapable of handling those things.

But can a USCCB’s committee really help bishops to be at ease about those aspects of the job?

I think that is a source of anxiety, anytime you get a new job or a new assignment and there's something that you've never really dealt with before. I mean, it's part of a learning curve.

I previously served as chairman of the Committee on Canonical Affairs, from 2008 to 2011. During that tenure, we offered in 2010 a seminar for bishops on the rite of exorcism.

Suppose you’ve been a parish priest or a seminary professor or the rector, and now suddenly you're the bishop, and a request comes to your desk for the approval of the rite of exorcism. Well, you've never looked at that before. What are you supposed to do with this?

So we tried to offer some basic instruction about what does that [request] involve? And what kind of screening procedures should you go through before you would actually approve doing something like this?

That’s an example. But there are a lot of things in canon law, or in the administration of a diocese, that a new bishop has perhaps never dealt with before.

Consider the assignment of personnel: suddenly you're in charge of the diocese, and you've got to be appointing pastors, but maybe you've never worked with HR issues, human resources or personnel issues, and now you're the one making these assignments.

So there are various things - finance, leadership, decision-making, communications- where I think bishops would really appreciate getting a little more instruction.


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Bishop, there is sometimes floated in Catholic conversations the idea that a bishop or a parish pastor ought to focus on sacramental and pastoral ministry and leave administrative and governance tasks to qualified lay people. Other people would say that’s not in accord with the theology of the episcopate.

What do you think? Is there a theology of governance and administration?

Yes, there is.

You know, a bishop is a vicar of Christ in his diocese, and so he is to be priest, prophet, and king -  to exercise each of those functions in his diocese.

But sometimes you’ll hear a bishop, or even a parish pastor, say, “Well, I'll just deal with the spiritual and the sacramental. And I'll let somebody else take care of the rest.”

Well, that's focusing only on the priestly function — the sacramental and the spiritual. But if that's the only thing you do, then basically you're a chaplain, you're not the one who's governing.

So: priest, prophet, king.

“Prophet” means the preaching of the Word. And sometimes that requires speaking out boldly on certain matters. And a bishop is also the leader of his flock on those terms.

Most bishops write a column in their diocesan newspaper every week or every other week. And they're often called on to make public statements. And of course, you can’t just say “Well, I've got a communications director, I'll let her make all the statements,” or “I’ll let him do all the talking.”

No, people want to hear from the leader. So you've got to do that too.

And the “kingly” role, or the governance role, is also part of being a pastor.

“Pastor” is the Latin word for shepherd, and the shepherd guides his flock. He doesn't just sit back and say, “Well, you folks do whatever you want in terms of shepherding… or “I'll provide you with spiritual food, but for the rest, you're on your own.”

No, the bishop has to govern.

And as I was mentioning earlier, the personnel dimension of that, assigning pastors — it’s a big part of the bishop's job to make decisions about where priests are going to be assigned, to look at parishes in need of a pastor, and, to ask who is the right fit to put there.

So I think it'd be wrong to say that the bishop should just kind of delegate those areas.

You know, you have to have other people helping you. Every diocese has a finance officer and a finance council. Every diocese has - or certainly should have - a personnel office or human resources office, and a personnel board to help with assignment of priests.

But in the end, the bishop is the final decision-maker. And so he has to be well-versed in how to handle those areas.

Is there a dimension of spiritual fatherhood in the diocesan bishop’s administrative governance?

Well, yes.

On spiritual fatherhood: The bishop is the shepherd of the flock. So he's the spiritual guide of the entire diocese, and in particular, he is in relationship with his priests.

Just as the priest is a father — we call the priest "father," and he's the spiritual father to his parishioners. The relationship between the bishop and his priests is along that line.

The person who pastors the priests is the bishop; the bishop is a spiritual father to his priests, and should be seen in that role. That's an important way that he should perceive himself, and how the priests should perceive their relationship with the bishop.

And, you know, the spiritual relationship between bishop and priests, as described in the documents of the Church, is one of a very close collaboration.

Priests are not Lone Rangers. Even if a priest is assigned to a rural parish far away from any other priest, he is part of a presbyterate. And that presbyterate, as a whole, is in collaboration with the bishop. We have to be mindful of working together, and not [working] as independent contractors.

There has been criticism in some corners of the Church about episcopal governance during the coronavirus pandemic. Some critics say that parish closures were premature, or lasted too long, or that some sacramental restrictions were too stringent.

What can be learned from the experience of the pandemic?

It is easy, of course, to be a Monday-morning quarterback, to look back and say, “Well, this is what we should have done.”

I think a lot of people, not just in the Church, but across society, look back [critically] at what was being done two-and-a-half years ago when this all first started.

But, you know, nobody knew a lot at first. And the way this was being described, I think people thought at first it was like another Black Plague, and if you got COVID, it was always a death sentence. And so I think there were some overreactions, but I think bishops and pastors were trying to be cautious, and making sure that we were following the directives of our health officials.

Still, I was one of the first to question the shutdowns. I wrote an article that was published in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly saying that social shutdowns are an “extraordinary means,” in ethical terms, of saving life.

So there’s a principle that we use in bioethics that nobody is held to use extraordinary means to preserve life, as Pope Piux XII taught. So ordinary means - a routine procedure, or surgery or something like that - yes, you do have a moral obligation to use ordinary means, but you don't have to use extraordinary means. So if there's an experimental procedure that might save your life, but you don't know for sure, and it's very exorbitant in cost, you don't have a moral obligation to do that. That's “extraordinary,” in ethical terms.

Well, I think that also applies on the larger scale of what we're doing socially: that this whole shutdown of our economy was an extraordinary step, and I think a lot of people are looking back at that now, and saying that was more than we should have done.

I wrote about that to provide a moral analysis to say that we don't have to shut everything down, that it’s an extraordinary step. So in the future, if we have a pandemic like this, or similar in its scope, I would hope that we would not go to such an extreme shutdown — certainly not shutting down of our Masses and of offering the sacraments, as happened for a while at the beginning of COVID.


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Bishop, a number of U.S. dioceses are facing the challenge of priests retiring more quickly than they’re being ordained — even in places which have robust vocations numbers, retirements outpace ordinations, and so many presbyterates are shrinking.

Many dioceses are addressing that, along with population shifts, by merging, clustering, or suppressing parishes — and doing that isn’t easy for bishops.

Can the USCCB’s church governance committee can give guidance or assistance on those issues?

Well, there are provisions already for how the leadership of a parish can be provided in the absence of a resident pastor. And I think we've seen dioceses implementing steps like clustering parishes together under one priest - a priest having pastorate of more than one parish - and dioceses approaching other ways of clustering or merging parishes, as well.

But I think we also have to remember that in the history of this country, we didn't always have a priest available for people.

In some ways we got spoiled in the middle of the 20th century with an abundance of religious vocations and priestly vocations. In my home parish, for example, when I was growing up on the south side of Chicago, we had four priests in my parish. I think people kind of got used to the idea that we've always got priests around.

In my diocese here in Springfield, some of our small rural parishes at one point had a resident priest. Well, they don't have that anymore, and in some ways, I don't think they could afford that. So they share a pastor with other parishes.

I celebrated a few years ago an anniversary for one of our first churches in this diocese —175 years! It was founded before there was even a diocese, and before they had priests assigned. So the faithful built a church - a little chapel - on a stagecoach line. And they were just hoping that when the stagecoach was coming through, maybe there would be a priest aboard, and maybe he would stop for a day or so, to say Mass, and baptize their children, and hear their confessions.

People learned how to maintain the practice of their faith, even if they didn't have a resident priest.

I think that's part of what we can be doing as well.

Now we work with other committees, for example, the USCCB committee on consecrated life and vocations — they would have the primary responsibility for helping dioceses promote vocations.

But our committee on canonical affairs and Church governance, I think we can help as well. In those areas where, for the time being there is a shortage of priestly vocations, how can a parish still be governed?

I don't think the lack of resident pastor necessarily means the closing of the parish, but it means questions to be addressed: How do the parishioners continue to maintain their parish and arrange for the provision of the sacraments when a priest does become available?

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Thank you. Let’s talk about penal law.

When Pope Francis promulgated a new code of penal law for the Church last year, he said that there have been times in the Church’s recent history in which penal law has been insufficiently applied, and that has compounded problems in the Church.

Does the canonical affairs committee help bishops understand how to approach penal law as a part of their ministry, and how to apply it to their diocese?

Yes. The Committee on Canonical Affair did provide a workshop for bishops on the new Book VI [dealing with penal law] — at least an overview of some of the changes that are in there.

And I think that individual members of the committee also serve as resources for other bishops around the country.

I get calls and emails from bishops who have questions, sometimes very specific, on canon law. And I'm happy to help them with that.

Many times our committee is asked to provide a representative to serve  in the USCCB on what might be called a working group, or task force, where issues are approached with an interdisciplinary approach.

So for example, the revision of the Program on Priestly Formation — we just came out with the sixth edition of that, and I was the representative of our committee representing the canonical side of that, but it was an interdisciplinary working group with representatives of various USCCB committees.

So I think we do try to make resources available like that.

The Canon Law Society of America is currently working on a brand new canonical commentary, actually. There was a commentary that came out when the new Code was published in 1983, and then there was the “New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law” that came out in 2000. But it's been 20 years, and there's certainly been some changes in canon law — most notably, with Book VI.

So there's a new commentary that a number of us are working on, and I'll be a contributor to that, and we're hoping that sometime next year that it will be published.

Now, that's not specifically something that the USCCB Committee on Canonical Affairs is responsible for, but I think some of our members are our resources for that.

And we do try to keep a good line of communication open with the Canon Law Society of America as well, so that we can work together jointly on some of these issues.

Bishop, your Diocese of Springfield published in May a new particular diocesan policy, pertaining to social media use and sexual misconduct — an effort toward accountability with technology.

What have you done on the front of technology accountability?

Yes, we did issue a new policy on the use of social media, and that was prompted, in part, because of the new technologies that are coming out.

In a very basic sense, someone might say that we shouldn't need policies like that if we have the moral teachings of the Church — the sixth commandment, and the teachings on chastity, and purity are pretty clear.

But I think what's not known, and not so well understood by a lot of people, are some of the changes in technology — the apps that are available, and websites that are sources of new sources of temptation for people. And sources of temptation in a way that also makes them more dangerous.

In the past, if someone was going to use pornography, for example, you would have to go to an adult bookstore, and there would be shame involved in doing that. That would be a deterrent in itself: You would say, “I'm not going to go into an adult bookstore and buy pornography.” So that would be the deterrent.

Well, now, with the internet, I think there's a mistaken notion that you can do things anonymously. And that's not quite true. Technology has a way of tracking who is using the technology, and who is downloading different apps.

And I think so just in terms of sort of a warning to people — you should know that things you do are not as anonymous as you think, and they can be discovered, and there are then very serious consequences for doing that.

So this policy is a reminder of the call to purity and chastity, and also lets people know that you have to be on guard against falling into the traps of some of the new technology.

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Thank you, Bishop.

One final question. Pope St. John Paul wrote in 1983 that canon law “renders easier the organic development of faith, grace, and the charisms, in the life of the ecclesial society and the individual persons who belong to it.”

I’ve always been struck by that idea, and I wonder how you’ve seen that come to fruition in your experience as a bishop and a canon lawyer.

Have you seen that good governance impacts the Church’s spiritual mission, in the way John Paul II described?

Yes, I have.

I really do love the way St. John Paul II wrote about the pastoral dimension of the law.

And here’s the way I put it in very simple words: I say that canon law can be your friend.

And that's from my perspective having worked with canon law for a number of years. What I mean by that is that canon law gives us guidance, you know.

If you go back to the very first book in the Bible, the Book of Genesis — the story of creation is about how God brings order out of chaos.

Now nobody likes chaos! And without law, we would be in a very chaotic world.

And so, on questions about governing a diocese, or about how a pastor governs and provides pastoral care for his parish — If there were no canons, and if there were no policies or guidelines, then it would be a free-for-all. And that would be, I think, very overwhelming for everybody.

I was talking to a bishop being appointed to a diocese suddenly, and feeling like he’ll go in there and have to figure it out from scratch.

Well, no, you don't have to figure it out from scratch. We have canons that are very clear and very specific. There is a lot of discretion allowed there ,and judgment calls that a bishop has to make, but at the same time, there are clear guides to help us in our decision-making.

I find that helpful, and even consoling.

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Editor’s note: The Pillar requested an interview with Bishop Alfred Schlert of Allentown, who is also nominated to chair the USCCB’s Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance. The bishop declined the request.