Each time I walk into my parish church,
I pass a plaque listing the names of all
the families who donated money to help
build the church. My parents’ names
are on that plaque. To say they feel a
sense of ownership and investment in
the parish is putting it mildly.
Perhaps that sense of ownership
comes from our history. In colonial days,
families did own churches. And in the
1800s, various ethnic groups were given
control of parishes in order to ensure
that their needs were being met.
But times have changed, and according
to federal judges in the bankruptcy
cases of the Archdioceses of Portland,
Oregon, and Spokane, Washington, we
don’t own our parishes—the dioceses
do. And that means they’re fair game in
settling clergy sex-abuse cases.
The Church contends, however, that
the bishop does not “own” the parishes
and property, but merely holds them in
trust for the parish’s benefit.
Faced with the same dilemma after
filing for bankruptcy in September
2004, the Diocese of Tucson decided to
incorporate each of its 74 parishes so
that they will be recognized as legal
entities separate from the diocese.
In seven other dioceses, parish incorporation
is already in place.
In Tucson, each parish will now be
run by a five-member board of directors,
composed of the pastor as head of
the board, the bishop, the diocesan
moderator of the curia, and two laypersons
from the parish serving as treasurer
What Took So Long?
But as much as we would like to believe
that we are in totally uncharted territory,
that’s not completely true.
In 1911, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation
of the Council addressed this
topic at the request of the U.S. bishops.
In a letter to the bishops, the congregation
suggested that all parishes in
the United States be separately incorporated.
So never let it be said that
we here in the United States move on
things more quickly than the Vatican!
In the directives (available at www.arcc-catholic-rights.net/1911_
vatican_directive.htm), the congregation
wrote, “Among the methods
which are now in use in the United
States for holding and administering
church property, the one known as
Parish Corporation is preferable to the
others, but with the conditions and
safeguards which are now in use in the
state of New York. [The Archdiocese of
New York incorporated each of its
parishes in 1911.] The bishops, therefore,
should immediately take steps to
introduce this method for handling
property in their dioceses, if the civil
law allows it. If the civil law does not
allow it, they should exert their influence
with civil authorities that it may
be made legal as soon as possible.”
But let’s call a spade a spade. This
whole issue of who owns what is finally
coming to light because of the big-money
settlements attached to the sex-abuse
Not a Simple Fix
If all of the parishes were incorporated,
would that fix everything? Not quite.
As is evident by the numbers on the
parish boards in Tucson, the deck is still
stacked in favor of the diocese versus the
individual parish. But maybe that’s in
the best interest of the parish itself.
St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in St.
Louis is a case in point. In 1891, this
Polish parish was incorporated under
bylaws that stated that the archbishop
appointed all directors, including the
pastor, and held final decision-making
authority. The bylaws also made it clear
that the parish must be in compliance
with Roman Catholic Church law.
In 1978, and then again in 2001 and
2004, the parish’s board of directors
amended the bylaws, taking the archbishop
out of the equation. When
Archbishop Raymond Burke attempted
to bring the parish back into compliance
with Church law, the board cried
foul. They claimed the archdiocese was
trying to seize the parish’s assets—a
claim the archbishop assured them was
not true. The parish became divided.
The Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy
ordered the board to relinquish administrative
control of the parish. Last
December, the board hired a priest
from the Diocese of Springfield-Cape
Girardeau, Missouri, without the bishop’s
permission. So Archbishop Burke
announced the excommunication of
board members and suppressed the
parish. More information is available at
So it’s obvious incorporation is not a
cure-all, quick fix to the problems facing
parishes. Unchecked power—by the
hierarchy or laity—will benefit no one.
Dialogue Is Needed
After filing for bankruptcy, the Archdiocese
of Portland formed a Committee
of Parishioners to represent individual
Catholic parishioners who support the
churches in that archdiocese. The Diocese
of Tucson also took steps to keep
parishioners informed through monthly
articles in the diocesan newspaper. But
wouldn’t it have made sense to have
this type of openness all along?
If we truly believe that we have a
stake in our parishes and our Church, as
laity we need to step up and take some
responsibility. We need to ask questions
and pay attention to the answers.
For instance, does your parish publish
a yearly finance report? Does your
diocese? If so, do you read it? As a
parishioner, if you have concerns about
the way money is being spent, voice
them to your parish’s finance committee.
Every parish is required to have
one. If you have questions, ask them.
If you’re still not satisfied, get involved.
After all, it is “our” Church.—S.H.B.