The Rights of Gods People

The church is not a democracy, we often hear, and the statement is true in several senses. But does this mean that the faithful have no rights before church authorities? Is the church’s teaching on the importance of basic human rights consistent with its own internal governance? The present Code of Canon Law will celebrate 25 years of service to the church in January 2008. Along with its sister document, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (1990), it has provided a structure and setting for the contemporary church’s pastoral ministry. The code has also attempted to give form and shape to the consultative bodies created at the Second Vatican Council. It has updated the tribunal procedures for processing petitions for a declaration of nullity (that is, marriage annulments). It has revised penal procedures, retaining penal trials and sanctions, which came under intense scrutiny as a result of the sexual abuse crisis, particularly in the United States. But many see the code’s emphasis on rights (as well as corresponding obligations) as one of the most important and, at times, overlooked contributions of recent universal codal legislation for the church.



This article reviews and highlights some of the rights of the people of God articulated in the 1983 code, which is one way of assessing the impact the code has had upon the church since its promulgation.

The Catholic Church, by means of its particular theological perspective, has provided a shape and context for the whole concept of human rights. In a general sense, human rights have been understood as a particular type of warrant for and protection accorded to certain types of actions on the basis of common humanity. One of the contributions of the church’s code was to “canonize” some of these human rights, that is, to give them official standing in church legislation. After all, a specifically Christian understanding grounds these rights in the dignity of the human person, created in God’s image and raised to new status by virtue of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many papal encyclicals have focused on these rights, particularly in the last three centuries, with such contributions as Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII), Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI) and Pacem in Terris (John XXIII). One of the hallmarks of the pontificate of John Paul II was his constant challenge that human rights be the criterion by which all institutions assess their internal structures, measuring in what manner and degree each individual’s dignity is honored and respected.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law went much further than its predecessor (1917) in recognizing basic rights. Not all of the rights are of the same origin, nor are they of the same consequence. Some are fundamental and basic human rights (for example, the right to a good reputation). Others are purely ecclesiastical, that is, granted by the church in virtue of baptism (for example, letting pastors know of one’s needs).

The council fathers had a vision of a church in which rights would be esteemed and acknowledged. Promulgating them in the code, along with procedures to make sure that the rights could be vindicated, would give them teeth.

The Right to Make Known Needs

The Christian faithful enjoy the freedom to make known their needs to those in the church who they believe can respond appropriately (Canon 212, 2). Since this applies to rights accrued through baptism, the needs to be addressed include spiritual needs. As dioceses and parishes face the continuing challenge to provide sacramental care despite a decline in the number of ordained ministers, many parishioners and pastors are framing the future planning processes in their dioceses within the context of the availability (or nonavailability) of the sacraments. The right to make spiritual needs known encourages all the Christian faithful to raise questions and seek solutions to such critical and practical issues. Pastoral planning attends to many variables, including changing demographics and population trends. But the sacramental life of the community and how well it will be sustained is an essential part of the equation of a eucharistic church. When all the people of God are free to express their needs to their pastors and to participate in creative reflection and constructive dialogue, such shared collaboration often brings forth the best solution.

The Right to Make Known Opinions

Although there are a variety of roles and offices in the church today, each member of the church participates according to his or her state in life. But each member of the Christian faithful has the right to express his or her opinions to pastors (Canon 212, 3). Certain factors sometimes influence the impact of their opinions. As the code itself stresses, pastors are to give key consideration to opinions that are based on the knowledge and competence of those offering them. But pastors are called to listen carefully and with openness to opinions that are sincerely and legitimately expressed. To express an opinion at times might even be seen as an obligation: The Christian faithful “have the right and even at times the duty to manifest their opinion on matters that pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion on such matters known to the rest of the Christian faithful” (Canon 212, 3). This right should always be exercised with prudence and with charity. A well-functioning and vital parish pastoral council is often an effective vehicle for the exercise of this right.

The Right to Reputation and Privacy

No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation of another, nor may anyone violate the right of any person to protect his or her privacy (Canon 220). The right to a good reputation is a human right that derives from the dignity of the person. The instant notoriety of clergy who come under investigation when accused of sexual misconduct has been a recent test case for the exercise of this right in the church. When it becomes known that such an investigation is under way, public knowledge of this is itself enough to end a ministerial career. It is important for the sake of both the accused and the accusers in these sad cases that investigations proceed prudently and carefully, and that no one’s good name be damaged irresponsibly by premature publicity. There have also been efforts made in the penal procedures associated with such cases to protect the right of privacy, especially psychological privacy, with norms that protect one from unauthorized self-disclosure—for example, by insisting that psychological evaluations ordered by bishops for the accused be agreed to by the accused.

The Right to Vindicate and Defend Rights

It is not enough to proclaim that the people of God possess rights in the church. The church must also provide mechanisms, procedures and forums where these rights may be vindicated when challenged or ignored. This follows from a very basic human right: the right of self-defense.

One of the challenges now facing the church is the need for effective procedures for dealing with disputes. For the most part, the only tribunals available are marriage courts, which are usually overwhelmed by a large number of nullity cases. Some dioceses are experimenting with a type of administrative tribunal that would combine due process and the court procedures outlined in the Code of Canon Law.

An individual (or a parent or guardian, in the case of a minor), for example, who believes that he or she has been sexually abused by a cleric of the church not only has a right to make known the complaint to the church but also to “receive assistance from the pastors” (Canon 213). They have the legitimate expectation that the procedures and processes designated for such cases will be carefully observed. Those who make such complaints can pursue further recourse if they believe their rights have not been observed (Canon 221).

The code also makes it clear that a member of the church may not be punished “except in accordance with the norm of law” (Canon 221, 1). When one is accused of a crime in the church, it must be one established by the law itself (for example, sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric). The elements of due process must be provided, including the right to defense, canonical counsel and the ability to review the charges that have been made and the right to appeal. It is also a canonical principle that penalties are imposed only as a last resort.

Employment Rights

The explosion in the number of lay people now employed full time and part time in church ministry has forcibly brought to the forefront the church’s social teaching about employment rights, also codified in the Code of Canon Law. Laypersons who devote themselves permanently or even temporarily to some special service in the church must be able to acquire appropriate formation so that they can fulfill their functions properly (Canon 231, 1). They also have the right to decent remuneration, so that they, like all members of the Christian faithful, can provide decently for their own needs and those of their family (Canon 231, 2). Canon 1286 requires that those who administer goods in the name of the church “are to observe meticulously the civil laws pertaining to labor and social policy according to church principle in the employment of workers.” It is further specified that the administrators “are to pay a just and decent wage to employees so that they are able to provide fittingly for their own needs and those of their dependents.”

The church has often taught that the justice of a socio-economic system can be evaluated by examining whether or not the worker’s labor is properly remunerated (see, for example, John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, No. 19). The church, before teaching ethics related to labor, must first be sure to practice what it preaches. Those who labor for the church have the right to social security, retirement and health benefits. This is to be done with due regard for the prescriptions of civil law (Canon 231, 2).

Corresponding Obligations

Rights are granted with corresponding obligations. The hierarchy has the obligation, in view of the common good, to direct the exercise of the rights of the people of God (Canon 223, 2). The Christian faithful are likewise obligated to take into account the common good of the church and the rights of others in exercising their rights. In addition, by virtue of their baptism they are to work to build up the body of Christ and to maintain communion with the church. They are to spread the Gospel by living a lifestyle that demonstrates a commitment to the values of Jesus Christ. The code also reminds the Christian faithful of their call to follow what their pastors have declared as teachers of the faith, while their pastors respect the opinions and needs of the Christian faithful.

The Christian faithful are reminded of their perennial obligation to support the church materially in its mission by their financial resources; but for the first time in such a legislative document, the Christian faithful are also reminded of their responsibility to work for social justice, applying the teachings of Jesus Christ incorporated in the papal encyclicals and other church teachings.

As a guide to pastoral ministry, church law functions best when it helps provide order in the church so that the mission of discipleship among all the members can be better facilitated. Since its promulgation in 1983, the code has been perceived by some as a multiplication of regulations, precepts and statutes that can obscure the movement of the Spirit in the church. But by clearly articulating the rights and obligations of its members, the code has helped the people of God develop useful solutions to pastoral problems and concerns arising from the rights of its various members.

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13 years 5 months ago
Dear Editor:

This is a very good article, one that could even make lay people hopeful. The problem comes when Catholics attempt to exercise the rights that they supposedly have. For me, this is just “Happy Talk,” another example of how our Church leadership talks the talk but seldom walks the walk. All this looks good on paper but is seldom, if ever, a reality that any of us experience when dealing with the Church officials and representatives above the level of associate pastor.


Robert Stewart

13 years 5 months ago

Kevin McKenna’s “The Rights of God’s People” (Feb. 19) is an excellent first step toward his goal: that the Church encourage freedom of expression, creative reflection and constructive dialogue. As he says, “such shared collaboration often brings forth the best solution.”

He talks about the right to appeal and encourages us to raise questions. Here are some of mine: To whom do we appeal against the denial of our spiritual needs (e.g., Sunday Mass), against the low wages offered lay employees, against the denial of our right to publicly express our opinions (ordination of women), against Rome’s liturgical nitpicking, and especially its approval of the excommunication of members of Call to Action (in Lincoln, Neb., and who knows where next?)

What is the justification for mandatory celibacy? If the first priests were married, why must current planning be done within the context of the non-availability of the Sacraments? Was Jesus wrong?

Fr. McKenna points out that parish pastoral councils often help the faithful exercise the right and even at times the duty to publicly manifest their opinion on matters that pertain to the good of the Church. It is a practice that should reach beyond the parish level, including free discussion in the letters columns of the diocesan press.

Voice of the Faithful has a related proposal with two balanced parts: a nationwide conversation about the priesthood and a study by the Vatican, where the respected practice of celibacy will be honored and the effects of mandatory celibacy, for better or worse, can be thoroughly explored.

Jerome Miller
11 years 8 months ago
I find Father McKenna's article to be very well written. Recently, I was removed from my position as Pastoral Associate at a parish where my family and I had served for twenty-five year. In addition to a list of half truths etc,I was personally insulted by both the pastor and the two lay trustrees.The pastor would not announce my dismissal since parishioners would have been upset. I was required to under psychological testing and had to sign my right to privacy over to the pastor. Since then I have heard multilple stories of why I was not longer at the parish, including the fact that I was dangerousd and it would be in the best interest of the parish for me to leave. I have been helping out at a smaller parish since then, but have resorted to Canon Law to press my case in the Diocese. I finally received a response and will go into a reconciliation process after the holidays. The sad part is that many other church employees face the same situation regularly. Few if any priests have any knowledge of human resources or employee rights. They do understand, "employment at will." There needs to be a graduated process to help an employee improve his skills if that is the real problem.Perhaps the diocesan HR person should be required to review any termination. I my secular career, I have been an administrator and manager for many years. If I had treated an employee the way that I was treated, I would have been in court. Termination should be the absolute last step in the employee's situation. It is expensive to hire new help and the best of the help will not rise to the top when salaries are significantly lower than what religious receive and market says is just. For a church that stands on social justice, there needs to be a signifcant review of a doctrine of fair employment for church employees. Most sincerely Deacon Jerome A. Miller


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