Canon law on parish property

Canon law on parish property

With the case of the Archdiocese of Portland declaring bankruptcy and Archbishop John Vlazny saying that he can’t sell parish property because of canon law, the Oregon media is interested in what canon law actually says. So The Oregonian newspaper did an interview with Msgr. Ronny Jenkins of Catholic University of America. I’m a little confused by his answers.

He says that, under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, parishes are juridic persons, that is it has rights and obligations as a legal person. Okay. Jenkins also agrees with Vlazny by saying that the archbishop can’t do what he wants with parish property, e.g. he can’t order the pastor to sell off parish property and give the money to the diocese or seize parish bank accounts. Okay, I can see that too.

But at the end of the interview, Jenkins is asked to comment on the parish closings in Boston and says that the archbishop can’t sell the property of closed parishes. “No. The archbishop can close parishes but not to confiscate their assets. He doesn’t own them.” I don’t think that’s right. Perhaps Jenkins’ full answer was abbreviated. After all, if a parish is suppressed then it doesn’t exist anymore and there is no juridic person to own the property. Or is all that property supposed to stay on the books in perpetuity, long after the parish is gone? I think what he must have said is that the archbishop can’t make a unilateral decision to sell off the property, that decrees of suppression or to alter parishes must first be presented to the presbyteral council. (can. 515)

I’d love to hear a canon lawyer’s clarification of this.

  • Probably, canon 122 would apply.  Since the territory of the closed parish and the people who live in that territory, either in whole or in parts, will be (divided and) joined to one or more existing parishes, so too the goods, rights, and obligations, either in whole or in parts, are to be (divided and) joined.

  • A more basic rule applies here:  The bishop has petitioned the federal bankruptcy court and by that action, accepts its laws and jurisdiction.

    You can’t show up at a baseball game with 18 players and say “on my team we have football rules”  9 players for offense and 9 players for defense.  You don’t get to play by the rules you make.

    In civil law, the bishop is the aggregate of all those fictional and real juridical canonical persons because he has monarchial power.

    The parallel example is that a corporation like Microsoft, is in civil law its officers and directors, not all the shareholders and employees.

    I agree that is its absurd to suggest that “no one” can dispose of the assets of a closed parish.