Who Owns Church Property? (Church Restoration Series IX) By Fr. Anand Muttungal
22 Jan 2012
We are living in an era where ‘Gods’ own a considerable amount of wealth! The Church is no exception! Church as an organization holds a great amount of wealth in the name of its poor. In the case of the Catholic Church, “property belongs, according to canon law, to the juridic person that lawfully acquired it (Canon 1256). A physical person, such as a bishop or a parish pastor, cannot lawfully, according to canon law, own church property; however, physical persons are the administrators of church property.” The main juridic persons under consideration here are: the Holy See, which is the office of the Pope, diocese and parish. In short the Pope, Bishop or a parish priest are the ones who are authorized to carry out the administration of these properties. In the case of the religious communities, the main juridic persons who administer the property are the provinces and local communities.
Lumen Gentium in its second chapter defines that Church is "the People of God". Their role has been decided despite being the majority in the Church. They are expected to strive to embody the teachings of the Church and to share the gift of the Catholic faith. They are called to be active members of their own parishes and in the temporal world as ministers of the faith, bringing the principles of Christianity in work place, school, and home. Lay people can also take part in some of the sacred rituals of the Church by being altar servers, lectors, and lay ministers who can help distribute the Holy Eucharist during Mass and bring Holy Communion to sick. Nowhere, one finds any role defined for them to be part of the financial administration. So the question arises whether they got any right to be part of the decision making including the administration of properties of the Church.
The ownership of the Church property can be better understood through the story told by an old man. A debt ridden man had two sons aging two years and fifteen years. He died leaving an elephant named prince as sole of his property. The elder brother used it in the mills for pulling woods, temple functions etc. He slowly through its hard work built up a large business empire. At one point of time the brothers thought to separate. The elder brother said that whole property belongs to him and he alone through his hard-work built up the whole property. So the younger one will be given whatever he feels as a gift. The matter reached the Court for settlement. The younger one said that his brother is very right that whole property is of his brother but he wants a little more so that he can settle somewhere. But the brother insisted that he has no right and he should accept whatever he gifts. After hearing both sides the judge came to conclusion that the capital used in the business was the elephant Prince. So the properties equally belong to both of them.
This parable would give us a clear picture of the Church property. The people donated money to the Church for its needs and also for the welfare of the less privileged. In the case of the Church in India, people from India and abroad contributed to the Church as a community. The sole aim people contributing to the Church to buy land build Churches, schools, hospitals, social services etc. was to make the Christian community strong and help themselves and also others. So the aim of the donor was the welfare of the people through the body of Church. Thus, the donations too are made to the Community rather than to an organization. So the laity must have an equal right and role in the use and administration of the property owned by the churches or religious congregations. The property of the Church belongs to the community and the Church officials / authorities are only the care takers of the property. They can not be the owners of the property as it is understood now. So the Churches must start involving the laity into the administration of its affairs.