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Fr. George Rutler, pastor of the vibrantly orthodox Church of Our Saviour in midtown Manhattan, is being reassigned to St. Michael’s Church in Hell’s Kitchen. In his latest weekly column , Rutler acknowledges a quiet campaign against the reassignment:

I was gratified that so many wanted me to stay here, and Cardinal Dolan was not unaware of that when he decided that he has other tasks for me to undertake.

But Rutler insists on the importance of obedience to his bishop:
I promised obedience to the Cardinal and to his successors, and I have done that and continue to do that and shall do that until all my earthly shepherds turn me over to the Chief Shepherd.

Under the Church’s universal canon law, priests are appointed “for an indeterminate period of time,” (can. 522) and can only be removed according to a set procedure and for specific reasons. However, the canon law also allows bishops’ conferences to create set terms for priests at which point they can be reassigned at the bishop’s will (thus skirting the wrangling that might otherwise arise during an attempted reassignment). In the U.S., the set term for a priest at a parish is six years. Rutler has served two six-year terms at Our Saviour and now, at the end of his second term, is being reassigned.

Term limits are certainly good for bishops who otherwise would have to find different ways to move problematic priests, but they also make it difficult for a priest to feel true fatherhood for his parish. As soon as he gets to know his parishioners, he has to face the prospect of a move. As George Weigel writes in today’s column , the appropriate time for a priest to be at a parish will vary from case to case but “certainly can’t be measured in un-renewable terms of office”:

Once Evangelical Catholicism has taken hold in a parish—the gospel is being preached with conviction, the liturgy is being celebrated with dignity, the parish is attracting many new Catholics, religious and priestly vocations and solid Catholic marriages are being nurtured, the works of charity and service are flourishing, and the parish finances are in order—moving a pastor out because “his term is up” is about as old Church, as institutional-maintenance Church, as you can get.

Those who might lament Rutler’s reassignment are unlikely to have the full facts and so must be cautious in drawing conclusions. Any frustration would be better focused not on this particular reassignment but on the general institution of terms for priests, which shapes this case and all others.

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