Pastoral discretion

In Paul Turner's Blog by Paul Turner

Q: I enjoy your catechesis and comments and continue to learn so much.  Thank you! I sent the below two years ago, and although the practice continues, I have at least gotten my pastor to hear me, but obviously he’s not listening yet.  I am trying to wear him down, but I’ve still not been successful.

In our last conversation, I bluntly asked how he can go against canon law by not completing initiation of these children.  I commented that I wasn’t aware that he had the choice to choose which canons he can follow or not follow.

He paused for a moment and then said he has pastoral discretion and he’s using it.  He said the priests have pastoral discretion over the canons.  I also pointed out that we’re keeping the children from receiving the graces of the sacraments, and they should not be made to suffer for the sins of their parents.  And I believe he heard me, but it didn’t change anything. 

Can you please comment on this?  I am more of a black and white person, and don’t see as much in grey.  Through my 30+ years of experience in church ministry, 10 years in hospital chaplaincy, and some excellent role modeling, I believe I can be pastoral in my practice, however, I am not an ordained priest/bishop so I need some help here.

I have asked for the Archbishop to make it clear that the priests are to complete initiation, and the response is “they know it, he doesn’t have to tell them.”  Obviously they don’t because this practice of holding back sacraments occurs throughout the archdiocese.  There is a fear that the parents only want the sacraments for the children and they won’t have any further formation.  Therefore the DREs/parishes want to extend sacraments over 6 years—2 years for each sacrament of initiation—to force the children to remain in faith formation.  In essence, the sacraments are being held hostage.  I have seen children impact the family through their conversion, and there are statistics that support this when they are in RCIA.  But between the DRE and the pastor here, I’m hitting the brick wall.  I pointed out to the DRE that the pastor is going against canon law, and she said that’s his problem.  She needs to keep these children in Faith Formation as long as she can.

Sorry, I’m a bit long-winded, but bottom line, are canons 883 §2 and 885 §2 subject to pastoral discretion?  And if so, how and when.  What are the consequences of not following canon law? Thank you for any help you can provide.  I had thought if my pastor read the below it would have helped, coming from another priest and not a lay person, but it’s not changed the practice yet.  I’ve also included canon 842 §2 and 852 §1, but they aren’t as compelling as 883 §2 and 885 §2—and I’m still not getting anywhere.I need any help I can get and greatly appreciate it.

May the blessings of the Lord be upon you, and may you be showered with the graces and gifts you need to continue this work of the Lord.


A: Congratulations on  continuing to pursue this request with your priest. I’m not a canon lawyer, but it seems to me that there is no pastoral discretion in those two canons. Yet they are broadly ignored in the United States and around the world. I don’t know of any tribunal that would issue punishments for not following those canons, so we’ll leave that in God’s hands.

I’m baffled that so many people do not see the pastoral advantage of what the code requires. All we can do is keep the flame of faith alive.