In Gebenstorf, in the canton of Aargau, the parish priest of the church, Fr. Adam Serafin, from the Polish province of the Salvatorians, was refused access to a place of worship by two security guards from a society security when celebrating Palm Sunday Mass, according to the Badener Tagblatt. The police intervened and registered a complaint from the parishioners for non-compliance with the access ban.
How could such a ludicrous – or Kafkaesque – situation arise? Parishioners forbidding their priest to enter his church, with the support of the secular arm, and this, being perfectly legal.
The remote basis of this implausible affair lies in the so-called “dual” system of ecclesiastical government, which characterizes the Swiss cantons. In these States, alongside what is called the “Canonical Church” or the “Pastoral Church” – the Catholic hierarchy – another governing power over dioceses and parishes is exercised mainly by lay people.
This system concerns almost the whole country, because there is a cantonal ecclesiastical organization parallel to the dioceses, vicariates, pastoral units, etc., in each canton, except in Valais. This system is the result of several factors.
First, the fact that it is the cantonal states which have always been competent in matters of Church-State relations. In the reformed cantons, under the Ancien Régime, Protestantism was a State Church, which became autonomous during the 19th and 20th centuries. It then adopted an organization modeled on that of its canton.
During the 20th century, when the Reformed cantons, Bern and Zurich in particular, recognized their Catholic minority, they “naturally” provided for an organization symmetrical to that of their own Reformed National Church, but diverging from Catholic tradition.
This was also the case in the parity cantons (Aargau, Thurgau, Glarus, Graubünden). Some Catholic cantons have also created similar ecclesiastical structures—such as Fribourg at the end of the 19th century. The State – the Swiss cantons – thus grants the Church the right to levy ecclesiastical tax through the organization of a democratic structure under public law.
So, in the Swiss cantons, except in Valais, a mainly secular organization represents the Catholic Church with regard to its public life. In an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, in 2013, Msgr. Markus Büchel, bishop of Saint-Gall, recognized that “the creation of tension is possible,” but he considered that the system should be “optimized” and not called into question.
However, it can produce situations of real conflict. Thus, in 2007, Msgr. Kurt Koch, then bishop of Basel, dismissed the administrator of the parish of Röschenz, Fr. Franz Sabo for serious misconduct. But the priest had the support of his parish and won in court. The future Cardinal Koch admitted that the “dual” system has serious flaws. After many adventures, the priest was kept, after having made amends.
In this parish in the canton of Aargau, the situation has been deteriorating for three years. Fr. Adam Serafin, originally from Poland, has been a resident priest for 5 years. He is contested by a faction of the faithful for being too conservative. His bishop, Msgr. Felix Gmür, finally dismissed him, but Fr. Serafin appealed to the Holy See, which is keeping him in place, pending a decision on the merits.
The parish, which is the employer of the parish priest, has the right to elect him. This election is generally not carried out, the faithful welcoming the priest sent by the bishop. As for the cantonal ecclesiastical district of Aargau, it supports the bishop against the parish.
But the parish, who has the upper hand over all that is material, asked for and obtained from the justice system the interdiction of the Salvatorian priest from entry into the places of worship. This explains the intervention of the police and the priest not be able to enter the churches he serves
Some rejoice that the dual system better represents the ecclesiology of Vatican II than the previous one. There is a lot to be said about this. In any case, it seems that the Gebenstorf parish is a good illustration of the “journeying together” which characterizes synodality according to Francis.