Did Pope Francis Just Endorse ‘Parish Shopping’?

COMMENTARY: The canonical anomaly, suggested by the Holy Father in an interview with CBS News, was once an anomaly but has become the norm among Catholics.

Pope Francis waves the crowds in Saint Peter's Square on April 25, 2024.
Pope Francis waves the crowds in Saint Peter's Square on April 25, 2024. (photo: Filippo Monteforte / Getty)

In an interview released on Wednesday, Pope Francis endorsed a practice that used to be frowned upon but now is a robust phenomenon among practicing Catholics: choosing their own parish.

Pope Francis granted an interview to Norah O’Donnell of CBS News — his first such television interview with an American network. While the full interview will be aired on 60 Minutes next month, excerpts were released on Wednesday dealing with the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as climate change. The Holy Father’s responses were in line with his recent and frequent comments on those issues.

This comment though will not be considered as newsworthy, but remains noteworthy:

“I would say that there is always a place, always,” Pope Francis said, addressing those who do not see a place for themselves in the Catholic Church. “If in this parish the priest doesn’t seem welcoming, I understand, but go and look elsewhere, there is always a place. Do not run away from the Church. The Church is very big. … You shouldn’t run away from her.”

Pope Francis is suggesting what once was derisively known as “parish shopping.”

In canon law, a Catholic belongs to the parish in the territory of which he resides. There are exceptions to that, notably “personal parishes,” in which the parish includes those in certain “personal” categories, such as language, ethnicity, associations, campus, professions or liturgical traditions. Those are exceptions, though. The norm is that your parish is where you live.

At certain times in recent history, that link was so strong that Catholics identified themselves by their parish. “I am from Holy Cross,” rather than the civic name of the neighborhood.

In recent decades, as ease of transportation and social mobility has increased, the numbers of Catholics who chose their parish not by residential territory but by some other criterion has increased. Surveys usually indicate that the Mass schedule tends to predominate among those reasons, but the quality and style of architecture, preaching, music and liturgy are factors. Sometimes programs for children, youth, families or the elderly are decisive. 

This canonical anomaly comes to light at baptisms or weddings, where the pastor of the parish must grant approval. The couple in question may be utterly unknown in their territorial parish, as they choose to attend another territorial parish. It can be sorted out, of course, but it does require sorting out. 

This applies to practicing Catholics. For those couples — often the majority — requesting marriage or baptism who never darken the door of a church, it matters little where they do not go. They are as spiritually distant from their home parish as they are from any other.

For practicing Catholics under 40 who are committed to the faithful observance of the Sunday obligation, anecdotal impressions suggest that most of them choose their parish not by territory but by preference. In larger cities, the practice has emerged of younger Catholics congregating in just a few parishes where they create vibrant young adult communities. 

That is not a canonical violation. The Sunday Mass obligation can be fulfilled anywhere. Yet canon law does not really envision living in one parish and never worshipping there. It is, though, the new reality.

In 2020, the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy issued new guidelines for parishes. To the world of “parish shopping,” the Congregation said this: 

“The current Parish model no longer adequately corresponds to the many expectations of the faithful, especially when one considers the multiplicity of community types in existence today. … The Parish territory is no longer a geographical space only, but also the context in which people express their lives in terms of relationships, reciprocal service and ancient traditions. It is in this ‘existential territory’ where the challenges facing the Church in the midst of the community are played out. As a result, any pastoral action that is limited to the territory of the Parish is outdated, … It is worth noting, however, that from a canonical perspective, the territorial principle remains in force, when required by law.”

Thus the tension between the territorial principle and reality of “existential territories” that no longer correspond to parish boundaries. 

Pope Francis first addressed that matter exactly 10 years ago, when he made his famous call to the lady from Argentina who was civilly married to a divorced man. Living in an extra-marital conjugal union, she was not able to receive Holy Communion, as she had been advised by her pastor. According to her account, the Holy Father told her simply go to confession and Holy Communion in another parish.

The Holy See confirmed the call, but did not comment on what Pope Francis had actually said. It curiously noted that “consequences relating to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred from these occurrences,” allowing for the possibility that the Holy Father had suggested a bit of parish shopping to get around her canonical pastor.

The papal comments to CBS News Wednesday are in the same general line, with the Holy Father having in mind an “unwelcoming” pastor. In that case, go to a different parish. 

That conception too might also be out of date.

Pope Francis is thinking about priests who are too strict, too demanding – “rigid” and “backwardist” in the preferred papal vocabulary. However, many of the “existential territories” that have emerged expect more, not less, and attract people because of their greater demands. 

At many parishes that attract young adults from beyond their canonical boundaries, their local culture encourages single people guilty of sins against chastity not to receive Holy Communion until going to confession, rather than to encourage those in unchaste unions to receive Holy Communion regardless.

Pope Francis has in mind the backwardist pastor who makes life difficult for his flock, and so advises people to go elsewhere. But his advice is equally applicable to those who find their local parish anemic and spiritually unchallenging, and so go elsewhere for more, not less.

Is such “parish shopping” adopting a consumer approach to the faith? That’s what “shopping” is about, after all. As the woman in Argentina said the Pope told her, if she couldn’t receive Holy Communion in her parish, she should “consume” it elsewhere. 

Or is it possible that, as the 2020 document suggested, such choices are being driven by “the multiplicity of community types in existence today”? That is, is the desire to choose one’s parish not best understood as a consumer motivation — though those certainly exist — but a desire for an authentic Catholic community? The attraction is not that I can consume what I want, but that I find community that supports me to choose what I should? 

The parish landscape has already changed and is changing still. It is still canonically grounded in the land itself. Pope Francis is pointing approvingly toward a new understanding. The woman in Argentina was not being fed the Eucharist by her own pastor. Thus, go be fed elsewhere.

Go where you will be fed. That is the principle that many younger Catholics operate upon, as well.

Pope Francis (R) embraces new Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich after he appointed him during an Ordinary Public Consistory for the creation of new cardinals on October 5, 2019 at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Pope Francis vs. Cardinal Hollerich

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