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Who Owns the Parish?


What Took So Long?
Not a Simple Fix
Dialogue Is Needed

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 and secretary.


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 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 lawsuits.

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.

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