Mar
24
2010

Who owns a Roman Catholic church?

Photo by jerine - CC-BY

The ownership of Catholic churches has received attention in recent years, but it is not new. Very early in Church history it was a question. As long as local rulers respected the Church, there was no dispute of ownership. But there were always problems of definition.

The Church defined itself as a spiritual entity, but physical assets, “temporal assets” in Church language, especially buildings and real estate, were subject to civil law. Who, under civil law, was the owner of a church, a cemetery, or properties donated to a Church? In the early medieval period, sometimes donors left property to the Saint associated with the local church.

As said, that was no problem as long as no one questioned the ownership. But in the 10th century, private ownership—instead of feudal tenure—began to develop. Many priests had families, some parishes passing on to a son who became a priest, ownership of parish property becoming privately owned by him under civil law.

Of course, bishops and Rome objected to these abrogations of canon law. Since only a bishop could establish a new parish, and only the pope could establish a new diocese, canon law defined that parish property was administered by the bishop, under his control and at his disposal, a feudal concept (with modern limits about the value of diocese property a bishop can sell without Vatican approval).

That principle has continued to the present in the legal concept of corporation sole:

“a legal entity c

ut prescription'>cialis online without prescriptiononsisting of a single ('sole') incorporated office, occupied by a single ('sole') man or woman. This allows a corporation (usually a religious corporation) to pass vertically in time from one office holder to the next successor-in-office, giving the position legal continuity with each subsequent office holder having identical powers to his predecessor.” (Wikipedia)

There has been some back and forth about the principle, but until the recent court cases against the Church it was usually a moot point whether a diocese was the legal entity or its bishop as “corporation sole.” The cases have led some bishops to “spin off” parishes as individual legal entities, effectively divesting the diocese of its assets, reducing exposure to court claims.

Thus the question can only be answered with reference to the individual diocese.

It is also a problem of the separation of civil and church law, to what extent codified civil law respects Church law—canon law. Until the Reformation, Church and State generally kept out of each other's way in legal matters, still reflected when persons seek asylum within a church.

The question also has bearing on some Episcopal and Anglican congregations in USA and Canada which have sought to separate themselves from their dioceses, but remain affiliated with the Anglican Communion via association with foreign dioceses.

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