Parish Property Ownership in the Catholic Church and the Ordinariate

The Catholic Church organizes itself through the use of the Code of Canon Law, which was promulgated in 1983. It binds the entire Latin Church, including the Ordinariate and all of its parishes, missions, or established juridic communities. All actions taken by the Ordinariate and the juridic/canonically legal entities associated with it must be in accord with canon law. There is no way for a Catholic entity to “opt out” of following canon law. The Code of Canon Law can be found on the Vatican website.

Canons 1254-1310 in canon law regulate the purchase, ownership, administration, and sale of temporal goods. The definition of “temporal goods” is all property both movable and immovable that is owned by juridic persons in the Church. Much like the civil law allows groups to form civil corporations, canon law allows groups to become public juridic persons. A public juridic person is similar to a canonical corporation. Dioceses are independent juridic persons, as are parishes, missions, Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, etc.

The Ordinariate will have parishes that will be independently incorporated in civil law. Though some dioceses in the United States are set up as civil “corporations sole”, this civil legal construct is not appropriate for the Ordinariate, nor does it accurately reflect the Church’s understanding that each individual parish is its own separate public juridic person. However, the Ordinariate will require that each public juridic person’s civil articles of incorporation reflect the canonical reality that parishes are required to administer their property (temporal goods) as governed by the requirements of canon law.

If a group is a formally established juridic person, then it is bound to follow the canonical norms concerning the purchase, administration, or sale of its property. The applicable canon states:

c. 1257§1 All temporal goods which belong to the Universal Church, the Apostolic See, or other public juridic persons in the Church are ecclesiastical goods and are governed by the following canons and their own statutes.

What this means in plain language is that when a group comes into the Catholic Church, the parish or mission is designated as a public juridic person to give it a formal canonical status. The juridic person as a canonical “corporation” then assumes all of the obligations and privileges of an established parish or mission. If it owns property, the property becomes part of the public juridic person of the parish and its administration must be governed by canon law. This means that all parish property is controlled by the parish (in the person of the pastor (c. 532)), and its civil incorporation must reflect that reality. Since parish pastoral councils and finance councils do not have the same range of financial oversight that Anglican vestries exercise, the oversight of the Ordinary (c. 1276) regarding some parish transactions (ones over a certain dollar amount) is the insurance that parish property is being administered properly.

There has been some concern regarding whether parish property could be appropriated by the Ordinariate for its own use. According to canon law, all of the property, buildings, endowments, etc. that a parish owns belongs to the juridic person of the parish (c. 1256), and is to be used for its benefit. If the property produces income, that income belongs to the juridic person of the parish. If the parish has a fundraiser, the funds raised belong to the parish. Parishes need the permission of the Ordinary and his finance council to spend funds over a certain amount, which usually means that the purchase and sale of buildings would require the Ordinary’s permission (c. 1291). This requirement is meant to protect parishes from their pastor spending large amounts of parish funds without any check or oversight.

The Ordinariate itself is its own public juridic person. The Ordinariate is financially supported through an Ordinariate tax (c. 1263) or second collections (c. 1266), or direct donations. The Ordinary cannot take or utilize the assets of a separate juridic person (e.g., parish, mission, or established public association of the faithful), other than to require the yearly tax. The only exception to this is unless for a grave reason the entire parish must be closed.

It is not possible for a parish to opt out of the canonical requirements and own property privately. All property, buildings, and goods owned by the parish become or are ecclesiastical temporal goods and must be owned and administered according to canon law, and used for the benefit of the juridic person.

If one’s community joins the Catholic Church, like ALL other Catholic parishes or missions it is expected that the community will conform to the Church’s law governing property ownership. This means that titles to Church buildings, properties, endowments, and other temporal goods must be changed to reflect that the purchase, sale, or administration of these goods will be governed by the law of the Catholic Church.

Additionally, parish ownership of property is never completely independent from the oversight of the Ordinary because that oversight is required by canon law – though the parish’s day to day administration is conducted on the parish level and is controlled by the pastor with the advice of his finance council. The duties of the pastor and those whose task is to administer the temporal goods of the parish are spelled out in c. 1283. If they employ others, they are bound to follow the requirements for just employment found in c. 1286. Finally, administrators are bound to produce an annual financial report to the Ordinary, the parish finance council, and to the parish (c. 1287).

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