QUAERITUR: Can the pastor tell the assistant what to preach?

From a reader:

I am newly ordained.  An issue has arisen between myself and my Pastor, and you could say, a small number of vocal parishioners. [Imagine my surprise.] It appears as though I am too orthodox for them and one of them [It’s almost always one.] has written a letter of complaint to my Pastor who might require that I give him advance copies of my homilies for his approval.  He has not required this YET.  My question is, does he, as the Pastor, have the right to dictate what I preach about or to approve ahead of time what I preach about?

This was not discussed in the seminary, and I always understood that my faculty to preach came from my Bishop and that he could do this, but nobody else.  Would you kindly offer your advice on this matter?

First, you cannot be too orthodox.   You can be too orthodox for someone else, perhaps.  But you cannot be too orthodox.

Ad rem: I think the pastor does have a certain measure of control over what you preach.  He is the pastor, even if he is an heterodox jackass.  The pastor, parish priest, parochus, is responsible for preaching in the parish.

For example, the pastor can determine that you are going to preach about topic X on Sunday Y.  As a young priest I went back to my home parish in the USA for the summer.  Sometimes the pastor had a project for preaching.  For example, he divided up the Cathechism of the Catholic Church and every Sunday all the priests had to integrate the designated paragraphs.  There are times when the bishop will designate a topic for preaching.

Also, turn the question around and look at it from the other point of view. 

Consider your question in the light of a solid orthodox pastor who has an assistant who is a heretic or an idiot.  After hearing a few bizarre and doctrinally questionable sermons, the pastor reasonably would have to exercise oversight.  I know a case where a priest in residence was absolutely going to the zoo when in the pulpit, not because he was heterodox, but because he wasn’t especially bright.  The pastor wanted to check his sermons for content before he preached so as to save everyone some problems.

That said, no one can require you to say anything that is demonstrably contrary to defined teachings of our Faith.  Use the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a reference.

You might want to contact the bishop or the personnel board for a transfer if the pastor wants you to say something that is contrary to the Catholic Faith.  Document everything.

These are personality issues as much as anything else.  I take the view no pastor should impose too much on the preaching of the assistants or guest, unless there as, as mentioned above, some ongoing project or, as mentioned above, the sermons are unacceptable.  The pastor should try to express concerns while leaving the priest’s freedom to preach intact, if possible. 

Approve a text in advance?  If it would come to that, I would say that he should only check for errors of doctrine, much in the way that a censor librorum would.  A censor librorum checks for errors against doctrine.  They do not pass judgments on style or quality of arguments, etc.

Don’t worry about this too much until it actually happens. 

I am guessing that you have a couple priest friends who are themselves pastors.  You might discreetly sound them out for advice.

If you are in a diocese where the local dean is strong (deans are not strong in all dioceses), and he is sound, you might ask his advice on this point of the pastor approving the actual text.

Lastly, remember that you are not the pastor.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. JaneC says:

    Our parochial vicar is not exactly newly ordained, having just celebrated his third anniversary; were this not the case, I would suspect that this letter originated from our parish rectory. This problem will become more and more common, I think, if my friends who are seminarians or recently ordained are representative of seminarians and new priests in general.

  2. Cantuale says:

    I agree completely with Fr. Z’s answer. Well balanced and rightly interpreting the canons and full of pastoral charity. fr. Alex

  3. RichardT says:

    I suspect the problem will not be the parish priest telling him to say something that is contrary to the Church’s doctrine, but telling him NOT to say something that IS in the Catechism. Probably because it “isn’t pastoral” to say it at the moment.

    That will be much more difficult for the curate to fight against; I suspect he will end up with lots of paragraphs from his homilies which he will have been forced to remove at the command of the parish priest.

    All I can suggest is that he saves them for when he finally gets a parish of his own.

  4. Father S. says:

    At the same time, the parochial vicar in question needs to be absolutely certain about whether or not this is just about the content of his preaching or about its style and prudence, too. For example, I recall a priest once taking a moment to intricately describe the procedure and manner of procured abortion on Christmas day, thinking that this would be the time he would have the most hearers. Or, I know of a good and orthodox priest who preaches often about Confession, but does so in a way which is sarcastic and scolding (and there is a great difference between admonishing and scolding!).

    Very often, if the truth is preached in a way that the priest does not wield it like a club, (even if there are times when he really wants to) the natural attractiveness of the truth is incredibly effective. I am not saying that he should “finesse” or “nuance” the truth–and by these I mean watering in down–but that he should be very certain that his rhetorical tools are being well used. Is he praying before he preaches? Is he preparing his sermon over the entire week? Is he preaching with minimal or no notes? Is he preaching in a way that is relevant and to the point? Does he use a vocabulary above his parishioners’ heads without explaining his terms? Does he in any way ridicule his parishioners?

    I know what it is like to be the “orthodox man out,” so to speak. I am in no way wanting to pick on this young assistant. I simply would like to be certain that the issue is strictly doctrinal.

  5. Alice says:

    I have to agree with Father S that the parochial vicar in question should figure out whether he is preaching prudently. I grew up in a reasonably large parish for my diocese and we tended to get orthodox young parochial vicars, more than one of whom took great relish in “stirring things up” to the point that the newspaper would be reporting on it. They weren’t bad priests, just young and inexperienced, which is exactly why they were parochial vicars and not pastors. I know that one pastor did insist on checking the sermons ahead of time. I think sometimes inexperienced priests forget that while the truth is the truth,certain topics can be discussed more freely at a campus chapel than a family Mass. I had the privilege of working for an experienced priest who took great care in preparing homilies that would educate his flock. On the subject of certain sins, he told us to go home and read the Catechism. I was impressed because the subjects were not ignored but this approach allowed the children (and there were many in the congregation) to remain innocent.

  6. Father G says:

    Since the topic is whether or not pastors have authority to tell their assistants what to do, I would like to ask the following:

    Does a pastor have authority to prohibit his associate pastors from using certain liturgical options?

    Can he prohibit his associates from celebrating Mass ad orientem or wearing black for funeral Masses?

  7. TJerome says:

    Sometimes, orthodox young priests can be a bit “overenthusiastic” in making their otherwise, valid points. I suspect, in this case, however, we have some old strident, liberals in the pew that are unhappy to be reminded of what the Church actually teaches. If such is the case, the priest and the pastor need to discuss the matter, and if they cannot reach agreement, get the dean or bishop involved. At the end of the day, maybe the dean or bishop needs to be calling in the complaining parishioners for correction.

  8. Fr_Sotelo says:

    Fr Z: *He is the pastor, even if he is an heterodox jackass.* ROFLOL. Yet, the reality as you pointed out is that the bishop has given the pastor the responsibility of this parish, and the assistant is there to assist. The pastor has a right to tell the assistant if he is more of a problem than a help. Rather than make an issue of this one homily, just chalk it up to being a learning experience.

    The vicar can just say, “Hmmm. I know I have to preach on this topic. However, the way I preached about it here caused ruffled feathers. For the meantime, I will avoid that topic in this parish, and when I am transferred to a different parish, I will still preach about this particular topic, but see if I can improve on my delivery.” There are, in the meantime, many other orthodox topics on which to preach. Dogma is not limited to a handful of subjects.

    Fr. S., I cannot agree with you more. A book should be written on the examples of how the orthodox but newly ordained have successfully bungled a good homily by being imprudent, mean, caustic, sarcastic, and scolding. Getting in the pulpit in a bad mood and having someone in your cross hairs that you need to “get back at” does no favors to the cause of truly Catholic preaching.

    One parochial vicar attacked his own bishop in the homily because the bishop had come out against the Iraq war some years ago. The pastor told the assistant that homilies were not meant for attacks against specific individuals. So, the next Sunday, the associate delivered the most scathing attack against the entire U.S. hierarchy for not defending President Bush’s actions, quoting verbatim from an editorial of a secular, political pundit.

    Sometimes, in a rectory with a liberal dissenter and a young orthodox priest, both can be jackasses in their own way.

  9. Fr_Sotelo says:

    Fr. G:

    The pastor, canonically, does not have the right to prohibit the parochial vicar from using the liturgical options or the vestments which are approved in liturgical law since those options are decreed by the pope.

    However, the realistic question a parochial vicar has to ask in dealing with a liberal pastor is “do I want to go to war with the pastor over this?” I may get my way as an assistant, or force the pastor to accept that I am going to get my way, and in the meantime get this fight “noticed” by the parishioners. So, instead of the requiem vestments expressing the sorrow mingled with hope theme of All Souls Day, I get across to the parishioners that All Souls Day was the occasion of a good fight between the two priests, and the guy who wanted black vestments won.

    Even if the parochial vicar gets his way, he may in the eyes of the people and fellow clergy be seen as someone who is not a gentleman about things, or worse, a man who is petty and immature.

  10. Random Friar says:

    In our communities, we have the understanding that if you were to preach on a controversial topic, or one that might be seen as eliciting a strong response, it is simply fraternal charity to let the other friars know about it, and offer suggestions or corrections.

    In a sense, what one friar preaches, he preaches with the support of the community, although the pastor always has final say.

  11. robtbrown says:


    IMHO, if a homily refers to controversial doctrine, it is better that it be presented within a larger Scriptural point. Not only does it soften the landing, but it also provides a foundation for the doctrine.

    My chief complaint about homilists is that they seldom preach on the Gospel that had just been read.

  12. Magpie says:

    We had a young priest in my parish, who was transferred after some parishioners complained about him. He too preached authentic faith and morals, and was not popular, so he was gotten rid of, and sent to a quiet country parish.

  13. Fr_Sotelo says:

    robtbrown: *IMHO, if a homily refers to controversial doctrine, it is better that it be presented within a larger Scriptural point. Not only does it soften the landing, but it also provides a foundation for the doctrine.* This is almost word for word the advice given to me many years ago by a great priest who I admired and who was unflinching in his loyalty to the Church before he passed away. I have personally experienced that many who ignorantly believe that a difficult teaching originates within the Church are more disposed to give assent when they realize that the teaching is proposed by the Church but is a doctrine of divine Revelation.

  14. lofstrr says:

    You want to be orthodox, always orthodox, but there is nothing wrong with subtle, or almost subversive about it if the situation warrants. What I mean is, it may be better for you to preach something that is simply orthodox but let forceful for the simple sake of being able to have a positive impact rather than fighting with a liberal pastor and having him block you at every turn. I am not suggesting you should tell people anything less than the truth. But flying a bit under the radar might help.

    Of course, if you are being dogged by a very lay liberal self-appointed keeper of hetrodoxy then you might might not even get away with that.

    Keep up the good fight. Always tell the truth. Know that people are praying for you.

    And remember, you will probably out live this pastor and his liberal allies. For now, planting seeds may be enough.

  15. I know that it often seems that orthodox-minded priests are being picked on when stuff like this happens, and they often are. However, it is not always the case as my experience shows.

    This generation of Catholics has had many priests and bishops over the past 50 years sending too many mixed signals, mostly through silence. They are a confused lot and changes need to come incrementally, with persistence and gentleness with a new generation of priests and bishops (look to Pope Benedict XVI as an example – always pressing forward, but not using a hammer).

    I remember my first trips into Assumption Grotto in 2005 and how shocking it was to hear a priest speak at all about things like contraception, abortion, having sex outside of sacramental marriage, etc. Delivery method is key. They were eloquent, often quoting the Church fathers and doctors, as well as the CCC and Church documents. Their homilies – loaded with the fullness of the faith kept me coming back and the veil of ignorance was lifted. It led to my own inner conversion and great zeal for the faith.

    Granted, at Grotto the priests are pretty much singing to the choir when they speak about these things. Nonetheless, they touch on them several times yearly – in appropriate ways in case someone isn’t getting it, and for new people. I feel they could have delivered these homilies in any parish though, because the tone was prudent, as was the timing. They end on an up-note, not leaving you hanging there feeling guilty and hopeless. I always felt these homilies had something to do with the long confession lines at the parish, yet it is devoid of “fire and brimstone” sermons.

    Over the years though, and in various settings, I have seen an orthodox priest or two, who would communicate these messages by very condescending means. They would also bite off too much at once, leaving even me feeling overwhelmed.

    Another mistake I have seen by a few well-intentioned orthodox priests is the tendency to speak about “all those other people”. The priest is so focused on what dissidents are doing “out there”, that what gets lost is the opportunity to teach people what they need to hear in that parish. When I hear these kinds of homilies out of an orthodox priest, I just cringe. It leaves me unsettled, and I accept all of the Church’s teachings without question. I can’t imagine how such a thing could bring anyone closer to conversion with this method if they are poorly formed and were accustomed to other priests not speaking on these topics.

    I have heard people reflecting on some older priests and how they polished up over the years, going from delivering truth in a caustic manner with imprudent timing, to delivering truth in a humble, gentle, and meek manner. They developed patience and saw the need to take one correction at a time, then let it sink in, before moving forward (which is what B16 does). These priests understand you cannot force a change in someone’s thinking by loading truth into the end of a bat and hitting them over the head with it.

  16. Father S. says:

    I recall a quote by Fr. Corapi. I am not sure if I have it word for word, but I think that it goes like this:

    “Indeed, as Sacred Scripture says, the Truth is a double-edged sword. Of course, it isn’t a meat cleaver or a Louisville Slugger!”

    I think that this is a great little quote to keep in mind when preparing a sermon.

  17. ROFL on the Fr. Corapi quote.

  18. patrick_f says:

    Heretic or idiot – Love the contrast LOL

    Seriously though , and I am no priest obviously, but I would imagine its just like any other situation – Many of us in the so called”Generation X” or more gifted, educated, and in some instances intelligent then many of our elders – The situation to me seems to be not too different from others, and humility would need to come into play

    Take a page out of Fr. Corapi’s book – You dont want to set yourself in a bad spot

    As a layman – I NEED orthodox preaching – but there is always a way to be orthodox, and not necessarily a trouble maker – I would guess the challenge is finding the median.

    I would also argue the term “pastoral” depends somewhat on delivery too, which I am sure you realize can totally change from situation to situation

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