On the Obligations and Rights of Priests

Address by Father Michael Hull During Theologians Videoconference

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NEW YORK, JUNE 2, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Here is the address delivered May 27 by Father Michael Hull of New York during the theologians videoconference on «Canon Law at the Service of Priests,» organized by the Congregation for Clergy.

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Obligations and Rights of Priests
Professor Michael F. Hull
New York

Book II of the 1983 Code of Canon Law is entitled «The People of God.» Within that book are included three titles: «The Obligations and Rights of Christ’s Faithful» (cc. 208-223), «The Obligations and Rights of the Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful» (cc. 224-231), and «Sacred Ministers or Clerics» (cc. 232-293).

It is in the third title that we find a chapter entitled «The Obligations and Rights of Clerics» (cc. 273-289). Book II’s structure indicates not only the complexity, but also the interrelatedness of God’s people and the importance of the priesthood therein.

Canon law is very much at the service of the priest in canons 273-289 insofar as it places great emphasis on the obligations of priests. Priests must revere and obey the pope, accept the offices given to them, cooperate with one another, support the laity, seek holiness, observe continence, and engage in lifelong study of sacred Tradition and holy Scripture.

They must avoid worldliness, undue absences from their posts, secular dress, civil office, and commercial trade. Additionally, they have the right to govern according to their respective offices, the right of association as is suitable for the clerical state, and the right to remuneration and vacation.

At first blush, the canons seem simple, but a closer reading reveals that the canons seek to set legislative parameters to help priests in exercising the triple «munera»: to sanctify («munus sanctificandi»), to teach («munus docendi»), and to govern («munus regendi») «in persona Christi capitis.»

These canons are rooted in the Church’s understanding of priesthood and ecclesiology, chiefly as described in the dogmatic constitution «Lumen Gentium» (No. 28) and the decrees «Christus Dominus» (No. 8) and «Optatam Totius» (No. 7).

Priests «are consecrated in order to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful as well as to celebrate divine worship as true priests of the New Testament» («Lumen Gentium,» No. 28). Their ordination and concomitant configuration to Christ bring extraordinary authority and therefore grave responsibility.

Throughout its history, the Church has been mindful to teach clearly and cogently the nature of the priesthood and the Church. For that reason, canonical legislation is enacted to serve priests in their living out of the divine law vis-à-vis their ordination.

In recent times, some confusion has arisen about the obligations and rights of clerics as distinct from those of the lay faithful. The Church has been vigilant to address this confusion with key documents such as the interdicasterial instruction «On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest» (Aug. 15, 1997) and the Congregation for the Clergy’s instruction «The Priest: Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community» (Aug. 4, 2002).

Canon law’s greatest service to the priest is not in speaking of his «rights,» as the term is used so loosely in contemporary parlance, but in speaking of his obligations. The priest’s obligations are certainly the heart of the matter.

Indeed, the canons indicate obligations attendant to the nature of the priesthood, obligations that seek to keep the significant aspects of the priest’s behavior in tune with his sacred ordination and station in life.

Holy Scripture teaches that «priests who rule well be esteemed and worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine» (1 Timothy 5:17).

So it is that priests need the constant support of the Church, particularly through her canonical legislation, to be guided along the paths of righteousness so that they might participate in the heavenly liturgy with Jesus Christ, the High Priest, in whose priesthood they share «according to the order of Melchizedek» (Psalm 110:4; cf. Genesis 14:18).

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