As my wife and I are expecting in November, we’ve started to consider where we’re going to baptize the baby. Most churches that we’ve seen want you to be a parishioner before they baptize you. This has brought up the question of what parish we really belong to. We’ve found that that’s not an easy question.
Over the weekend, Tito had a post that inquired about the existence of good parishes in Las Vegas for his family. Some of the things he looks for are an orthodox priest faithful to the Magisterium, a beautiful Church, and a liturgy that aspires to beauty and lacks some of the folksy elements of post-Vatican II as well as the more scandalous aspects of the “spirit of Vatican II” like liturgical dancers.
None of those desires are unreasonable. In fact, those things are the rights of the faithful.
Lest one think I am infusing American political ideas with my faith, my source is Canon Law itself:
Can. 213 Christ’s faithful have the right to be assisted by their Pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments.
Can. 214 Christ’s faithful have the right to worship God according to the provisions of their own rite approved by the lawful Pastors of the Church; they also have the right to follow their own form of spiritual life, provided it is in accord with Church teaching.
While it would be absurd to interpret that to mean the laity have a right to full blown choirs and European cathedral-like churches, it does set out that the laity ought to expect to be spiritually nourished by their parish. This includes having a good liturgy, church architecture that adds to the liturgy, and above all else, orthodoxy.
On the other hand, parishes are not merely different locations where Mass is available. Parishes are designed to be small, local communities. True communities require geographical proximity as canon law sets out quite clearly:
Can. 518 As a general rule, a parish is to be territorial, that is, it is to embrace all Christ’s faithful of a given territory. Where it is useful however, personal parishes are to be established, determined by reason of the rite, language or nationality of the faithful of a certain territory, or on some other basis.
There’s not much mincing; a parish is supposed to embrace ALL of the faithful in a given territory.
The problem of course comes when one’s local parish offers a liturgy that fails to challenge (which I think is most often-Vatican II folk songs, feel-good sermons, etc.) or even worse when the parish has become largely heretical.
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this. It could depend on a lot of factors: how long has this been going on? how bad is it? have you done anything about it? how vulnerable are you in your spiritual life? It is important to note that the Church does set out a duty to inform Pastors even while setting out a duty to obey them:
Can. 212 ß1 Christ’s faithful, conscious of their own responsibility, are bound to show Christian obedience to what the sacred Pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith and prescribe as rulers of the Church.
ß2 Christ’s faithful are at liberty to make known their needs, especially their spiritual needs, and their wishes to the Pastors of the Church.
ß3 They have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ’s faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals.
In addition to questioning whether or not you have done all you could to improve the situation (after all, if orthodox people leave a parish, how is it going to become orthodox? A good priest coming into the situation would find no support).
There is also a spiritual temptation. C.S. Lewis discusses this temptation in the 16th Screwtape Letter. While the whole letter is well worth the read, I can’t copy it all. He discusses the danger of a church becoming a mere faction rather than a unity of a cross-section of people. The greater danger I think though is this: (Note if you’re not familiar with The Screwtape Letters that “The Enemy” is God and that a tempting devil is writing this).
In the second place, the search for a ‘suitable’ church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil. What He wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise-does not waste time thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going…This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition (most hostile to our own policy) in which platitudes can become really audible to a human soul. There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper. So pray bestir yourself and send this fool the round of the neighbouring churches as soon as possible.
The idea is simple. If you’re shopping for Churches, you become the judge. Instead of being open to receiving God’s word, you either say “well this is good” or “no this is not my taste” or “not how it should be done.” I think this is a particularly strong temptation for those of us like myself who desperately want a beautiful liturgy and don’t want to be singing praises to trees and so immediately discount everything the priest or deacon says.
So while I think it’s clearly preferable to stay in your local parish considering the temptations and loss of community entailed in “parish-shopping,” I don’t want to go far as to say you can never leave. I would rather see people leave their parish than leave their Church. But if one does this, it must be undertaken very carefully and with a lot of discernment.
Of course, all this does is underscore just how precious a good local parish is. Ultimately one hopes that Benedict’s efforts to restore the proper liturgy and orthodoxy to widespread use continue to be successful so that all Catholics might receive the rich treasures of a good local parish and we must pray unceasingly for that result.