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Canon Law for Today

By Rev. Frank Morrisey


Rev. Frank MorriseyUsing temporal goods in the church is subject to numerous safeguards

In my last column I made reference to a number of actions to be taken by administrators in relation to the proper administration of the temporal goods entrusted to their care. However, these actions often cannot be taken by the administrators acting alone. Before proceeding, they need the intervention of certain groups of persons who will review the proposed act and express an opinion on its eventual significance for the diocese or religious institute.

At the diocesan level there are two entities to which I have referred in earlier columns: the diocesan finance council, and the college of consultors.

To carry out acts of major importance, a diocesan bishop must consult both of these bodies. He is not bound by the outcome of the consultation, but he is called upon to listen seriously to the advice received.

When, however, it comes to acts of extraordinary administration, he needs the consents of these groups, and not just their advice. If either or both bodies deny consent, the bishop is unable to act.

For instance, in Canada, initiating or responding to a lawsuit is considered to be an act of extraordinary administration. The members of the finance council might consider in a given case that it would be preferable to settle the suit, rather than going to court to respond to it and risk having an adverse precedent established. Without their consent, the bishop, even if he wanted to take the case to court, would be unable to proceed.

For acts of alienation of stable patrimony, such as the sale of property, the finance council and the diocesan consultors are again involved. When appropriate, the Code also calls for the consent of interested parties; such persons might be the original donors, or those who have used the property for many years. The consent of each of these is required if the value of the property being sold exceeds a minimum threshold (currently in Canada, this minimum is slightly above $500,000).

Furthermore, if the value of the property exceeds the maximum sum determined for Canada (presently just above $5 million), the permission of the Holy See is also required. These amounts apply likewise in the case of mortgaging properties, granting perpetual servitudes, and the like.

Of course, it is not always easy to determine the value of a piece of property or a building. We could consider depreciated value, replacement value, insurance value, and so forth. Today, however, the standard is to use what is known as “fair market value,” based on evaluations provided by two independent appraisers.

These measures are certainly important to assure sound administration. When large sums of money are involved in a transaction, it would not be prudent to act solely on one’s own information. There are so many factors to be taken into consideration. Very few companies would allow the chair of the board or the CEO to spend such amounts without involving the board or specially designated persons, and so it is not surprising to find similar policies in effect in the church itself.

The code gives to the diocesan bishop the responsibility of overseeing the proper use of temporal goods. Thus, on certain conditions, he can intervene in parish temporal administration, he can visit the parish and examine the books, he can also make provisions for particular situations. The Holy See has likewise reserved to itself the right to intervene when there is serious improper administration of diocesan funds.

There are similar norms in effect for religious institutes. The same maximum threshold applies as for dioceses, and the permission of the Holy See is also required in such cases. However, for transactions below the maximum amount established, the institute’s own law determines which levels of consultation and approval are required. These can vary, depending on the size and geographic extension of the institute.

In addition, other safeguards are foreseen in the canonical legislation. For instance, a diocesan bishop can issue instructions applicable in his diocese, and these apply to all parishes. Thus, the intervention of the parish finance council can be required when a request for expenditure is to be presented to the diocesan authorities for approval. Norms can be issued regarding the counting of Sunday collections — such as, for instance, that there are always two sets of counters, that no two members of the same family can be involved, that the money is never to be taken from the church property, and so forth.

With sound management techniques, many expenditures can be foreseen in the annual parish budget to be approved by the bishop. In such cases, it is not always necessary to return for authorization for each individual act.

Canon 1287 also calls for periodic accounts to be given to the faithful concerning the use of goods which they have donated to the church.

In order to determine which goods are subject to these various rules, canon 1283 calls for detailed inventories to be drawn up and kept up to date in each parish, religious institute, and diocese.

Likewise, the code provides a number of possible penalties against those who do not observe the canonical legislation applicable to the proper administration of temporal goods. Although, hopefully, it will not be necessary to invoke these provisions too frequently, nevertheless they are there in case of necessity.

Cases of embezzlement, of false reporting, of improper use of funds, and the like, can occur. In such instances it is important to have a canonical mechanism available to address the situation and take appropriate measures for the well-being of all concerned.

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 38th article in a series.