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Who Owns the Church, Legally? (Sun May 30, 2004 11:27 am )

As financially viable parish communities are faced with unwanted mergers or closures because of the priest shortage, the question arises as to who actually owns the parish property and its resources.

Universal Church Canon Law states, "Under the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff, ownership of goods belongs to that juridical person which has lawfully acquired them" (c. 1256). Parishes, established under this same law, are such juridical persons (c. 515.3). They have ownership of their property and goods and must have a finance committee to help in the administration of their resources. Moreover, church authorities are obliged to honor the wishes of donors (c. 1267.3), and the envelope system used in most parishes clearly establishes the intentions of donors. While canon law seems clear, it is interpreted in the U.S. as meaning that parishes CAN, under civil law, legally acquire and administer their own property but they are NOT OBLIGED to do so (and a few are actually allowed to do this). By this circumvention of universal church law, U.S. bishops, with very few exceptions, continue to make themselves the civil owners (and hence the targets of civil litigation) of all Church properties.

An effort is under way to conform to universal Church law. Some are attempting to incorporate each parish, which also might insulate the bishop from catastrophic lawsuits. But here again the bishop maintains control, as he is named head (but not owner) of each parish corporation. Establishing "Charitable Trusts" for each parish is another option bishops are exploring to shelter themselves while controlling resources. While this system works fairly well in the administration of Church resources, it does not provide for adequate accountability. In addition, it merely honors the letter of canon law but not its spirit i.e. the right of the parish to the ownership of its property and resources.

The one defense a financially-sound parish has against unwanted mergers and closures resides in its finance committee. With the endorsement of the parish council and the people of the parish, the finance committee can resist even to the point of appealing to Rome where Universal Canon Law is the norm. Bishops are aware of this and usually tread lightly when attempting to close financially healthy parishes even when there are not enough priests. Appeals to Rome can be made but must be based on the lack of due process and consultation. The more enlightened bishops engage their people as they plan for this eventuality and work with them to explore alternate ways of providing ministry for healthy parish communities through parish clustering and priest sharing (c 374). The diocese of Dubuque Iowa is a model of this participatory process, and one that every bishop might emulate. http://www.arch.pvt.k12.ia.us/ and dbqcpp@arch.pvt.k12.ia.us

Ask your bishop how he is involving the people of the parishes that are under consideration for closure or merger. Get to know your parish finance committee, and support them in their efforts to be accountable.

Other voices

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(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

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