September 30, 2005

Who Owns Catholic Parishes?

I'm sorry I haven't had anything to say for awhile. I'm a native of New Orleans, and we had six evacuees living with us this past month. They're gone now, but I still spend a lot of my time in front of CNN. I also have to deal with their mail, which they had forwarded to my house. My sister and brother-in-law (and their two dogs, whom I count as two evacuees) are safe and at home in St. Rose, Louisiana. My first cousin and her husband are with their daughter near Baton Rouge. Their daughter, and one of my daughters, is ready to pop out a baby any day, and I think the girls are in a kind of race to see which one will have hers first. No, I don't think it. I know they are.

Last weekend, my daughter and son-in-law spent time driving around the upper elevations of the Rockies in the hope that the old wives tale about higher elevations make babies come quicker. Ostentibly, they went to look at the fall folliage, but they confessed the real reason. Alas, that didn't work.

Anyway, here's the post I had planned for tonight.

Who Owns Catholic Parishes?

Today the Wall Street Journal had an editorial about the bankruptcy of the Diocese of Spokane in Washington state. The ruling by the judge in the case was that the Spokane diocese parishes should help pay off the victims of child sex abuse, even if it means selling off property. The arguments go this way, as best I understand them.


The diocese owns the property of the parishes and other Catholic institutions.

The bishop, as a "corporation sole," really owns all that stuff personally.

Therefore, sell that stuff off, and give us the money.

Defendant (the diocese)

The parish owns the parish, not the diocese.

That's what it says in canon law, and we can't disobey canon law. To force us to disobey canon law would be a violation of the separation of church and state.

Therefore, we're not selling our property, and y'all ain't getting no money.

There are some real problems here, as I see it. I'm not a lawyer, but I've been told by several lawyer friends that I think like one. Allow me this riff, and take from it what you will.


For all of my 58 years, I've believed the bishop was the "corporation sole" because the bishops have told me they were. Now Bishop William Skylstad, of Spokane (he's also president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, by the way) is saying "NO!" He doesn't own Catholic parishes. The parishes own Catholic parishes, so their property can't be confiscated in a bankruptcy settlement against the diocese. Oh, yeah? Who in my parish owns my parish's assets? We're not a corporation as far as I know. We're a parish. Bottom line, who owns the millions of dollars worth of land and buildings that make up my parish's center? If all members of the parish are sort of like stockholders, shouldn't there be stockholder votes? There aren't.


The Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri, who could well be the first American pope, is locked in furious battle with the parishioners of St. Stanislaus Kostka parish over much the same thing. The people at St. Stan say they own the parish, not the Archbishop. They've got documentation that's over a hundred years old to prove their point, but the Archbishop says "no." He owns it, not them. Burke wants to sell off the property to help pay off the sex abuse claims against the St. Louis Archdiocese. Does canon law apply differently in Spokane and St. Louis? Which is it, guys? Here's the link: click here.

I'm no canon lawyer, but I actually think Skylstag of Spokane is right and Burke of St. Louis is wrong. Either way, it's a total mess, and Skylstag and Burke need to reconcile before more scandal is perpetrated upon the land. If more scandal is possible.