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A quality of certain ecclesiastical offices and dignities

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Irremovability (Lat. in, not, and removere, to remove), a quality of certain ecclesiastical offices and dignities. It implies that the incumbent’s appointment is, under certain conditions, a perpetual one, or for the term of his natural life. This quality of irremovability, or perpetuity, is attached to the principal ecclesiastical offices, such as those of pope, cardinal, bishop, parish priest, etc. A pope can resign his dignity; cardinals, bishops, and parish priests can either resign or be removed only for cause. It is of the removability of the latter especially that this article treats. According to the principal canonists the constitution of the canonical parish includes among its requisite conditions that its rector be irremovable. However, this does not mean that no exception is permitted, for occasionally the rectors of such canonical parishes may have only a vicarious charge for another who is the true parish priest. In some countries the bishop seems to be the parish priest of all or most of the parishes in his diocese, and the actual incumbents are simply his vicars. Thus in France after the Revolution the custom obtained that some thirty thousand succursal parish priests (desservants) were created without canonical institution and without the right of perpetuity, so that they could be removed and transferred by the bishops. The attitude of the Holy See towards this state of things has been one of passivity and toleration, not of approbation. In many missionary countries, as in the United States and England, a similar condition of affairs has obtained. According to the general law of the Church, however, a canonical parish priest is appointed for life and he can be removed from his benefice or office only for grave crimes expressed in law and after a canonical trial, either formal and solemn or, at least, summary, in those countries to which the decree on that subject (1880) of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars has been extended.

Irremovable Rectors in the United States.—Up to a comparatively recent date all the rectors having cure of souls in this country were removable at the will of the bishop (ad nutum episcopi). As we have said above, however, this was not in accord with the general law of the Church. Pope Innocent III, in the Fourth General Council of the Lateran (cap. “Extirpand”,”, xxx, § “Vero de pra?b.”, iii, 5), and Pope Boniface VIII (cap. “Unit. de capell. mon.” in VI0, iii, 18) insist that rectors having cure of souls should be irremovable. This is also inculcated by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIV, cap. xiii, “De ref.”). According to the secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Council (1846), the latter tribunal, which is the legitimate interpreter of the Council of Trent, has always declared its wish that rectors having cure of souls be irremovable, and this notwithstanding any custom to the contrary. Indeed, in the early ages of the Church, as soon as priests were appointed to definite curacies (tituli), their appointment seems to have been in perpetuity. The reason for this irremovability of one having cure of souls is found in the fact that he is required to be the pastor and shepherd of his flock, to whom his sheep are known. It is, moreover, to the benefit of a parish that its administrator realize that he is secure in his office, as it will inspire him with greater zeal for the spiritual and temporal improvement of his charge. In order to extend these benefits to the United States, it was proposed by the Congregation of the Propaganda in 1883 that rectors having cure of souls in that country should be made canonical parish priests and as such irremovable. The American bishops, however, did not think the time ripe as yet for such development, and finally it was determined that irremovable rectors, who would not, however, have all the rights of canonical parish priests, should be constituted instead. The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, held in 1884, decreed that in three years from the promulgation of the council each bishop was to select, with the advice of the diocesan consulters, a certain number of the curacies in his diocese and erect them into quasi-parishes, whose rectors would be irremovable. These quasi-parishes were to constitute at least one in ten of all the curacies or missions in the diocese. The first irremovable rectors might be appointed by the ordinary, with the advice of his consulters, without the formality of an examination, or concursus, but after that only when the prescribed examination had been undergone. An exception to the latter rule is made for certain priests whose learning and ability have been already abundantly proved. To obtain the right of making the concursus for an irremovable rectorship, the candidate must have already exercised the sacred ministry in a worthy manner for ten years in the diocese, and demonstrated his capacity for spiritual and temporal administration as a removable rector or in some equivalent office. The examiners having approved all the candidates whom they find worthy of the position, it devolves upon the bishop to designate one from among them who is to be made irremovable rector. Such rectors have quasi-parochial rights and join with the diocesan consulters in recommending candidates for the bishopric when it becomes vacant. In large dioceses, where distance or other causes would make a special concursus for every irremovable rectorship very inconvenient, it is allowed to hold a general examination once a year, and those approved for their learning at that time are qualified for appointment to any irremovable rectorship which falls vacant within the next six years, though the other requisite qualifications for such office are to be passed on each time there is question of an appointment.

Irremovable rectors in the United States may be dismissed from their parishes only for very grave crimes, as dismissal is a very grave punishment. The nature of these crimes must also be expressly designated by ecclesiastical law. Dismissal is inflicted either ipso facto, in which case, however, a declaratory sentence is as a rule necessary, or after a condemnatory sentence following on a trial. The common law of the Church distinguishes those crimes which entail ipso facto dismissal from office from those which require a condemnatory sentence after canonical trial. The former are: heresy, falsification of papal documents, assassination, bodily attack on cardinal or bishop, procuring abortion, unnatural vice, simony, dueling, usurpation of church property, alienation of the possessions of the parish, irregular ordination or neglecting to receive Sacred orders within a year after appointment to a parish. The latter are: neglect of the prescribed clerical costume, non-residence in the parish, usury, inebriety, murder, gambling, perjury, theft and the like, remaining obdurately under censure for a year, incurring certain irregularities, concubinage. To these crimes the Third Council of Baltimore (1884) added other causes for the dismissal of irremovable rectors in the United States: disobedience to the ordinary in matters of grave moment, open neglect of the bishop’s mandates concerning parochial schools, repeated incurring of debts without permission of the ordinary and manifest disobedience in payment of debts, collusion with lay trustees in issuing false notes in the name of the parish for the benefit of the rector, fraudulent deception of the ordinary in making the annual parochial statement concerning matters of grave import, public and persistent charges against the morals of the incumbent involving great harm to the parish. The council adds that if an irremovable rector be found incapable of administering his parish, he is to be asked to resign his charge. If he refuse, and it be not possible to appoint a vicar with sufficient revenue for support, the bishop can dismiss the irremovable rector, but in that case he must provide a proper pension for him. As to removable rectors in the United States, they are not left absolutely to the arbitrary will of the ordinary. but are to be dismissed only for cause, which, however, need not be one expressed in law nor necessarily as grave as such. The form of trial to be used in all cases in the United States is prescribed in the instruction “Cum Magnopere” (1884).

Missionary Rectors in England.—These incumbents correspond to irremovable rectors in the United States. They have been appointed since 1852 in virtue of a decree of the Propaganda. Their office is perpetual and they have quasi-parochial rights, and they may not be removed except for canonical cause and after judicial investigation. The First Council of Westminster declares (decree xxv, 12) that an assistant priest acquires no right to a permanent appointment to the cure of souls owing to his service, but that such appointment to a missionary rectorship is a right reserved.


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