Where the "pastor" is a woman

Technically, she’s a “Minister of Parish Life.”  But last month, Dorothy Carlson was named to lead a parish in the Diocese of San Jose, California.  While this move is hardly unprecedented, it is unusual.

The Diocese of San Jose website has the details:

“Minister of Parish Life”…new phrase, new idea, new job description? Yes, and no. Priests have been doing it for years, so, it’s not a new concept. We call them “pastors.”

The fact is, however, that there are some dioceses in the United States where some Ministers of Parish Life are lay people, Religious women and men, or permanent deacons.

At their May 1995 meeting, the Council of Priests of the Diocese of San Jose endorsed a proposal from its ministries committee urging Bishop Pierre DuMaine (retired, 1999) to adopt a strategy of assigning a lay person, Religious or permanent deacon to be the central leader in some parishes in the future.

This person would be responsible for the pastoral care of the parish. Assisting priests would be available for the sacramental needs of the parish. This creative approach to providing adequate pastoral ministry was based on several concerns:

  • The number of priests is dwindling.
  • Some priests may choose not to become “pastors.”
  • There are increasing numbers of highly educated, experienced and motivated lay Catholics who view ministry as a profession.
  • Closing or merging some parishes was a negative option.
  • “Circuit-rider” priests who would be the central parish leader in two or more parishes was not considered to be a healthy option for priests or parishes.

The Minister of Parish Life would be a seasoned pastoral leader and would be responsible for the overall life of the parish, not just for “temporalities” as would, say, an administrator…

…In November 2005, Bishop McGrath named Elizabeth Lilly the first Minister of Parish Life, serving Sacred Heart Parish, Saratoga through June 30, 2006.  Lilly, an experienced pastoral minister, now retired, had served several parishes in a variety of roles over 25 years and at the time was serving at Sacred Heart Parish as Pastoral Associate and twice served as Administrator pro tem there.

Lilly said then that she viewed her role as a work in collaboration with those who are ordained. “This is another example of the variety of gifts,” she said. “We have to work together to use all the gifts available among all people in the parish community.”

This year Dorothy Carlson has been named Minister of Parish Life at St. Justin Parish in Santa Clara where she has been serving as Pastoral Associate, Business Manager and Director of Liturgy.  She was officially installed in her new position last July 24, by Bishop McGrath at a Mass at St. Justin Church.

There’s more about this at the diocesan website.

UPDATE: This post indicates that there are three priests on staff at the parish.  For whatever reason, it was decided not to name any of them pastor.

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37 responses to “Where the "pastor" is a woman”

  1. I have no problem with a woman administrator or “Minister of Parish Life”. As long she is orthodox, believes and respects the Tradition, Dogma and Teachings of the Church.

    But isn’t a “Pastor” a term used only for priests?

    Regards, hope I don’t get clobbered to oblivion!

    [Well, the first lines in the diocesan website seems to indicate she is a pastor in all other respects, except in title. I imagine it’s like calling an “usher” a “minister of hospitality.” Dcn. G.]

  2. Some of the dioceses in USCCB Region Six (Ohio and Michigan) have had religious women serving as “Pastoral Leaders” for over twenty years.

    Interestingly enough, while all of those parishes have Roman Catholic Priests assigned as “Sacramental Chaplains,” I do not know of any who have deacons assigned as “Sacramental Chaplains.”

    In fact, one bishop in this region has made it clear that his first preference would be to appoint a deacon to those “priest-less parishes.” While the specific bishop has a good number of deacons (around 150, I think), none of them are in those Pastoral Leadership positions. Why? (1) Canon Law requires that a Pastoral Leader have a graduate degree in an appropriate field (M.Div. would be wonderful but a MA in Religious Studies would work as well). (2) It also requires that a Pastoral Leader — like a priest pastor — live within the boundaries of the territory of the parish they lead. A lot of women religious have those graduate degrees and relocating is not usually a problem for them. While several deacons in this bishop’s diocese do have the proper degrees, none of them (all of who are married) are willing to relocate.

  3. How is this new? CIC 517 (2). So long as the Pastoral Administrator has the right backgroud and a halfway decent formation in lay mimistry (which varies wildly from place to place!!), and a priest/sacramental moderator can be easily assigned, why not?

    [We don’t have them around my diocese, and I can’t recall ever visiting a parish elsewhere that had them. But I can see the day fast approaching when that will change. Just make sure they don’t try to serve as altar girls 😉 Dcn. G.]

  4. 225 years ago when my ancestors moved from Maryland to Kentucky, they went together in the hope that the Church would send them priests. A few came, but they rode a grueling circuit and in many places showed up only a few times per year. The obligation to attend mass was operative for Catholics who were within 5 miles of mass, if on foot, or 10 miles if on horseback. Typically Catholics would gather in their parishes on Sunday even when there was no priest, and read the readings and prayers of the day, led by their catechists. Then, like now, most catechists were women.

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

  5. The USA has 17,000 married deacons. A So African bishop has suggested that teams of two-three be fully ordained and with their families serve where needed instead having priest-less villages. Instead of importing African priests why are we in the US and Latin America waiting forever for the inevitable ordination of born married Catholics. There never will enough of the convert/married kind anyway.
    To not call a meeting/synod/conclave/council on this question is negligence in IMHO

  6. It seems to me that the issue of providing sacraments has been added to the discussion, alongside the question of who will administer priestless parishes. I think the priority for administering parishes should go to able (i.e. qualified and competent) and willing deacons. If able and willing deacons are not available, then qualified laity should be appointed.

    But the real issue is the lack of priests. I know that the diaconal vocation is not the same as the priestly one, but for the good of the Church, bishops should be willing to ordain deacons to celebrate Mass (there is a technical term for a limited ministry of this sort), and deacons should be willing to accept priestly ordination as part of their service if the Church needs them. THey don’t have to run parishes, just celebrate Mass for people who otherwise would not have it.

  7. To all…

    Regarding lack of priests: I’ve updated the post with a link that indicates that there are three priests currently on staff at the parish.

    Dcn. G.

  8. Re: cathyf #4

    So you are a “English-Hillbilly-Catholic” like I am !

    My family was absolutely in Washington County KY (near Bardstown) by the late 1700’s when a group of them went farther south — into the Casey Valley — in 1802.

    Anyone from “down-home” is alright by me, even if we tend to disagree on some things.

  9. Hey, cuz… 🙂

    Blanford, Mattingly, Burch, Clarke, O’Nan, Bowlen, Carrico, Simms, Hayden, Hagen, Gardiner, Thompson, Spalding, Craycroft, Mudd, Boarman, Matthews, Edelen, Cole, Brent — all my direct ancestors. St. Raphael’s and St. Alphonsus on Panther Creek in Daviess Co.

  10. The Pastoral Coordinator/Priest Minister works GREAT at my parish…and elsewhere in our Diocese. Our coordinator worries about the day-to-day operation of the parish…from landscape to light bulbs, and Father is allowed to focus ONLY on ministerial activity. Would not have it any other way!

  11. The two priests listed as parochial vicars are Franciscans (OFM). Years ago when I worked with Franciscans the title parochial vicar was given to older Franciscan priests who had retired from any administrative duties and simply served in parishs as sacramental ministers. The third priest was listed as “in residence”. Perhaps this is why none of them were appointed as pastor.

  12. There are titles and then there are titles. Most of us have to bilingual when it comes to describing ministry positions. At the jail, I’m “Chaplain Shannon.” In the diocesan directory, I’m “Pastoral Care Minister Shannon.” I’d waste valuable time if I had to explain that second title all the time.

    We’ve had titles like “Pastoral Life Coordinator” and “Pastoral Life Director” in this diocese for over 20 years. Plenty of parishes are served by pastoral teams that may include several priests who provide the sacramental ministry of Mass, Confession, and Anointing of the Sick.

    And let’s face it, the oils of ordination do not make someone a skilled pastor, much as we might wish it did.

  13. Shortage of priests will end when the Church gets over some of the post vatican II abuse. dioceces with strong solid orthodox Bishop and staff are gaining many more seminarians and new priests than the more liberal ones. As the Church grows these new orthodox priests and they then become bishops, we will see the numbers expand. Our Pope while he was a Cardinal discussed the shrinking of the Church before it would grow and expand based on this strong belief in the youth being draw to JPII and of course now Benedict XVI.

    Messing with things in this way simple adds to the confusion of those who somehow still hold out hope for women priests. It can never happen in the Catholic Church based on the strong Definitive statement of JPII on the issue that the Church has no authority now or in the future to make that change. However, the strong orthodox religious are expanding and so there is a great place to direct vocations by women along with marriage.

  14. I don’t know the numbers but a good number of parishes in our Diocese are run by “Pastoral Coordinators.” In fact, my family’s parish was founded by a Religious sister who was our first Pastoral Coordinator, and another religious sister followed her in the position. That second Pastoral Coordinator, was transferred to a new assignment where she was in charge of consolidating three parishes into one – no small task! She is a wonderful woman.

    We did have one priest assigned to our parish when we had these Coordinators, but they were not ready to be Pastors yet. I would much rather see the Bishop wait until a priest is ready to be a pastor than assign a pastor who doesn’t have the skill set to handle the job!

    Some of the Pastoral Coordinators in our diocese are lay men and women as well. The shortage of priests is definitely an issue in our Diocese. Just two weeks ago, we had to have a communion service at our 10:30 “mass” because our pastor was out of town and the office staff could not find a priest to fill that slot. We live in a very metropolitan area, too.

  15. Sorry for the Double Post – I live in the San Bernardino Diocese and our Bishop has spoken at conferences about the success of the Pastoral Coordinator program in our Diocese.

  16. Coming from a diocese where there are many Parish Life Directors, or PLDs as they are called, I was interested to read this.

    PLDs here are a real mix- deacons, women religious, lay men and women. There are often compelling reasons to have someone running the parish, even if that person is not a priest.It has kept many parishes open and alive when they might have otherwise closed. I remember hearing from someone who lived here and moved to another diocese… Apparently in that diocese no one but priests (not even deacons) can run parishes, even if it means closing them, so they just close them. That makes me sad, just sayin…

    I have the good fortune to both work in and worship at parishes where there are strong priest leaders in place as pastors, but so often, the “business” of running a parish is beyond the skills of a priest. I think that it is a cheap and easy out to blame this on Vatican II (can we please drop that canard and not attach the word abuse to it? Seriously – let’s not dilute what real abuse is, thank you.)

  17. Re; cathyf #9

    Casey County has two Catholic Parishes: St. Bernard Clementsville and Sacred Heart Liberty.

    St. Bernard was founded in 1802 by ancestors of mine; Sacred Heart is relatively new (say 1980 or so). My grandparents moved north to southern Ohio right after World War I. I get back “down home” maybe once every other year or so and always go up on the cemetery hill just behind the parish complex in Clementsville and visit gravesites of family and friends.

    Here is a really fascinating news story about their current pastor


  18. cathyf, Deacon Norb,

    225 years ago when my ancestors moved from Maryland to Kentucky, they went together in the hope that the Church would send them priests.

    I guess that means y’all are kin! I have Sr. Dolorita Robinson, OSU’s geneaology of the Kentucky Holy Land families, and can claim Martin John Spalding (on the Spalding side) and Chuck Thompson (on the Thomas side) as well. This religion thing, it’s in the blood, you see. 🙂

  19. I do not claim to be able to judge the appropriateness of this action. I am not in the habit of questioning the prudential judgment of bishops. As I age, I am increasingly aware of my own ignorance and lack of training in Church matters.

    But this does not sit well with me.

    Does the following apply?

    http://www.adoremus.org/Instruction-lay-ministry.html, “Ecclesiae de mysterio
    On certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the Sacred ministry of the priest
    by eight dicasteries of the Holy See”

    Article 4

    “The Parish Priest and the Parish
    The non-ordained faithful, as happens in many worthy cases, may collaborate effectively in the pastoral ministry of clerics in parishes, health care centers, charitable and educational institutions, prisons, Military Ordinariates etc. Provisions regulating such extraordinary form of collaboration are provided by Canon 517, 2.
    …b) this is participatio in exercitio curae pastoralis and not directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the Parish; these competencies, according to the canon, are he competencies of a priest alone.

    Because these are exceptional cases, before employing them, other possibilities should be availed of, such as using of the services of retired priests still capable of such service, or entrusting several parishes to one priest or to a coetus sacerdotum .(75)

    The same canon, however, reaffirms that these forms of participation in the pastoral care of parishes cannot, in any way, replace the office of Parish Priest. The same canon decrees that “Episcopus dioecesanus (…) sacerdotem constituat aliquem qui potestatibus et facultatibus parochi instructus, curam pastoralem moderetur” [The diocesan bishop … is to appoint some priest endowed with the powers and faculties of a pastor to supervise the pastoral care”]. Indeed, the office of Parish Priest can be assigned validly only to a priest (cf. Canon 521, 1) even in cases where there is a shortage of clergy.(76)”

    Also from that document:

    “It is unlawful for the non-ordained faithful to assume titles such as “pastor”, “chaplain”, “coordinator”, ” moderator” or other such similar titles which can confuse their role and that of the Pastor, who is always a Bishop or Priest.(58)”

  20. Canon Law No. 517 ¶2 says, “If, because of a shortage of priests, the diocesan Bishop has judged that a deacon, or some other person who is not a priest, or a community of persons, should be entrusted with a share in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish, he is to appoint some priest who, with the powers and faculties of a parish priest, will direct the pastoral care. ”

    Doesn’t this mean that a priest must ultimately be in charge of a parish, even if deacons and/or lay people have significant pastoral roles?

  21. I think Mike Shea’s question is important. Priests can’t just relinquish responsibility, particularly pastors, for the administration and government of their diocese. Priests are delegated by the Bishop for the care of souls given their very unique sacramental unction to Holy Orders and by the virtue of the bishop’s episcopal succession to the Apostles. While lay people can be authorized to assist in the administration of a parish, ordained ministers can’t just renounce their responsibility because they are not willing to take it up or because of the busyness of their profession. Priest-less parishes can have a lay administrator but the responsibility and the duty of ordained pastors can not be just set aside. To have a lay person as the “Pastor” and the priests as “assistants for liturgical purposes” is in my opinion scandalous.

  22. Rudy, that’s not the only scandal possible, of course. In cases where a particular priest should not be made a pastor, it’s probably not possible to discuss why without grave scandal. And then there would be the grave scandal of a bishop putting his head in the sand and to some unsuspecting parish appointing as pastor a priest who is alcoholic, or in the early stages of alzheimers, or who was convicted and served time for embezzling funds from a previous parish, etc.

    Bishops in general are trying to do the best that they can for their dioceses in trying circumstances. Potshots from the peanut gallery — who for excellent reasons are generally going to be ignorant of the specifics of some of those challenges — are not helpful.

  23. Are all priests alcoholics, pederasts, incompetent, demented, sick or unable to do their duty? Are even most priests in this categories? No, most priests are very capable of performing their duties, including their OBLIGATION, to be pastors of souls according to Catholic Teaching, Doctrine and Tradition. If we can’t fine men that can step up to the plate of priestly duties, then might as well become Episcopalians. Lay people can be administrators (as I have said repeatedly), but they can never substitute the priest as the anointed pastor of souls, sacrament received from the bishop hands and in direct line from Jesus Christ. I don’t see what the pot shot peanut gallery you talk about but, you have your own right to express your opinions.

  24. Although we are not members of that particular parish, we happened to attend a Sunday Mass there when the announcement was made regarding the new “minister of parish life”. It was made crystal clear in the announcement that this would not involve her “being seen in robes on the altar”, but that the sacraments and preaching would continue to be performed by ordained male clergy. No back door incremental approach here to a female clergy that I can see.

    As to the priests assigned to that parish, I know that one is elderly and one is newly ordained with insufficient experience to be a pastor. I do not know the third priest. Mrs. Carlson has a much deeper base of experience than the short blurb about her appointment lets on, some of which you can see here:


  25. It has been just a bit over 24 hours since I posted Comment #2 above. A full-day is a long-time in blog-land and not only has there been about one comment an hour but a surprising number of folks — none of whom have identified themselves as canon-lawyers or bishops — have commented on what section #517 really means.

    Bottom line, while maybe rare in either coast, this ministry is alive and well here in the Midwest. It is alive and well because Canon Law allows it, diocesan Bishops have approved it and the local parishioners support it. Of the six or so parishes that I know about who have a “Pastoral Leader,” (all of whom are religious sisters) three are in “vacation” country. One of these parishes has only 25 families as permanent year-round residents but have over 600 attend mass every weekend during the summer months. Of those six religious women who are pastoral leaders, I count two as my personal friends and both are “saints from on high” in every meaning of that phrase.

  26. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P1U.HTM

    Can. 517 §1. When circumstances require it, the pastoral care of a parish or of different parishes together can be entrusted to several priests in solidum, with the requirement, however, that in exercising pastoral care one of them must be the moderator, namely, the one who is to direct the joint action and to answer for it to the bishop.

    §2. If, because of a lack of priests, the diocesan bishop has decided that participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish is to be entrusted to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons, he is to appoint some priest who, provided with the powers and faculties of a pastor, is to direct the pastoral care.

    It seems pretty clear in §2, sentence one, that 517 refers to is “participation in the exercise of the pastoral care…”

    The title of “Minister of Parish Life” and her being “installed” seems a bit overboard concerning her participation. It seems to signify an induction into an ecclesial office reserved for clergy.

    Can. 521 §1. To become a pastor validly, one must be in the sacred order of the presbyterate.

  27. Can. 274 §1. Only clerics can obtain offices for whose exercise the power of orders or the power of ecclesiastical governance is required.
     §2. Unless a legitimate impediment excuses them, clerics are bound to undertake and fulfill faithfully a function which their ordinary has entrusted to them.

    This in conjunction of the canons enumerated above.

    Code of Canon Law 1983

  28. Are all priests alcoholics, pederasts, incompetent, demented, sick or unable to do their duty? Are even most priests in this categories?

    all? most? What are you talking about? Parishes led by deacons and laypeople are a vanishingly small fraction. Your position seems to be that as long as there are a large number of competent pastors in the Church, if a bishop decides that any particular priest should not be appointed a pastor, then you personally will insist on being scandalized unless and until you are fully briefed as to the individual impediments that the one individual priest might have in the mind of his bishop.

    I advise you to be prepared to be permanently scandalized. There isn’t a bishop in the Church who is required to answer to you for his personnel decisions.

  29. Re: Jared #27 and Rudy #28

    My friend Fiergenholt makes a solid point here. If you are a Bishop — or maybe a degreed canon lawyer — you certainly have the right to interpret Canon Law Section 517. If not, back off because you don’t know what you are talking about.

  30. Deacon Norb,

    Where did I exactly interpret Canon Law? Are you refering to this sentence:

    It seems pretty clear in §2, sentence one, that 517 refers to “participation in the exercise of the pastoral care…”

    If that is so then I should not have said refers or seems. It doesn’t refer to it, it actually states it.

    Thanks for the correction.

  31. Re; cathyf #9

    You mentioned St. Alphonsus in Davies County KY. Over Christmas Break 2009, I did my annual retreat at the Convent of the Ursuline Sisters just across the street from there. Walked through the parish’s graveyard at least twice.

  32. Deacon Norb,

    I do not claim to be qualified to interpret Canon Law.

    However, Pope John Paul II is certainly qualified to do so. So when he and EIGHT dicasteries of the Vatican Curia promulgated Ecclesiae de mysterio, quoted above, I figure they’re qualified to interpret Canon Law. So their interpretation holds some weight.

    I quoted it above.

    Blessed Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by now-His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, all say that lay people are not permitted to be in positions of “…directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the Parish; these competencies, according to the canon, are he competencies of a priest alone.

    Perhaps my reading and understanding is mistaken. I know that the subtlteties of the use of these documents is frequently lost on me. But I think the document is pretty clear.

  33. “…directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the Parish; these competencies, according to the canon, are he competencies of a priest alone.”

    Yeah, but that limitation only applies to an institution which is CALLED a parish. Closing the “parish” while opening something with some other name in the same space with the same people doing the same things — that barely even qualifies as cynical on the Church’s scale of such things. Not to mention appointing a priest “pastor” of 30 or 40 parishes, some of which he does not set foot in once a decade…

  34. To: Jeff Stevens #20 and #33; Mike Shea #21; jared #27 and #31; and Rudy #28.

    First off: understand that the U. S. judicial system is based upon English Common Law; Roman Catholic Canon Law is based upon Roman Common Law. There are some very significant differences. My colleague, Deacon Norb, makes a solid point — unless you are a Bishop or a degreed Canon Lawyer you probably do NOT understand the differences.

    Perhaps this excerpt from a publication of the American Catholic Bishops during the United States Bicentennial might just help:

    “The Story of Catholics in America”

    Re: The Reform of Canon Law, p. 95

    “We tend to think that all law is pretty much the same. It specifies a few things that we must not do, but for the most part leaves us free to do as we please. Americans, who are raised in this tradition, tend to obey their laws to the letter, without exceptions, knowing that they still have large areas of freedom. Roman law, however, operates under a slightly different principle that the common law system of America. Roman law attempts to set down general guidelines for all aspects of human behavior. Although it deals with a wider range of activities, Roman law is more loose and makes room for a variety of exceptions.

    Some Americans had been urging the Vatican to restructure Church law in the British and American common law pattern. But the Romans would have none of it; they used their own system. When the new canon law was put into practice, American Catholics felt bound to obey it to the letter – since that is the way they obeyed their own law. They bowed to every rule and regulation, and soon became famous in the Church for their excessive legalism. They became more Romanized than the Romans.”

    I do have a copy of this book in my personal library. You might even find it on Amazon or an occasional flea market/ antique mall.

  35. To: Fiegrenholt

    Be that as it may, we have above the interpretation of Canon Law by Pope John Paul II and his curia. It is not my interpretation, it is the Pope’s interpretation. Are the interpretations likewise to be viewed as making room for a variety of exceptions? The authoritative interpretation of Canon Law appears to allow for no exceptions.

  36. Fiegrenholt, thanks for engaging. In all fairness I think it is wise to be cautious with dealing with matter of canon law. Still, this issue of a woman pastor boils down to finding a truth in the matter of Catholic faith veiled by the appearance of an unprecedented legal loophole.

    With that being said…let’s get back to the point of this article, which isn’t directly about canon law, but rather about a lay woman being the pastor of a parish. If it weren’t an oddity in the Catholic news world then we wouldn’t find it on Dcn. Kandra’s blog.

    How ’bout we mosey over to the 2005 publication by the USCCB named “Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” where the US bishops, applying canon law, set the guidelines for the lay ecclesial ministry in the US (since San Jose is a US diocese). Can you or anyone tell me where the correct application of the section titled “The Role of the Pastor in the Authorization Process” occurred with the lay ministry appointment of Dorothy Carlson from the San Jose diocese? Is it so hard to see that this section of the 2005 document was disregarded? I don’t remember the disclaimer in the document stating…”oh, and remember bishops and faithful, deviate as you see fit since putting this guidance out was just a work of literary joy that carries no binding authority whatsoever.” I’m sure that I just overlooked that disclaimer though…somewhere…

    No doubt that the USCCB as a body through this 2005 document opened wide the lay ecclesial ministry in the US, but not without setting limits and rules guided by canon law. I said in my previous comment that some elements of this situation were overboard simply because they are over the visible boundaries of any church teachings or guidelines. If a woman pastor is possible, the worst thing that the diocese of San Jose did was to discredit themselves was to publish the list of poor excuses instead of references to Church teachings.

    Was this merely a lost teaching opportunity by the San Jose diocese? I doubt it.

    Fail: ~Minister of Parish Life”…new phrase, new idea, new job description? Yes, and no. Priests have been doing it for years, so, it’s not a new concept. We (who?) call them “pastors.” ~

    Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord website:

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