Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Church as Mirror of Justice

This was the Marian title Archbishop Burke, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, chose to describe the image that the Church should present to the world in its practice of Canon Law when he spoke to delegates attending the recent Canon Law Conference at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

The fact that the Church had perhaps not been a very good 'mirror of justice' in recent years was a theme running through the presentations of the other speakers, Father James Conn SJ, Professor of Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Father John Coughlin, OFM, Professor of Law and Concurrent Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, and Benedict Nguyen, Chancellor of the Diocese of La Crosse.

Father John Coughlin

One of Archbishop Burke's presentations concerned the Administration of the Church's Temporal goods. The following are notes I took during his lecture so they are in no way intended to be textual or attributable to the Archbishop.

It is a pre-eminent mission of the Church to order the use of temporal goods to God, above all in and through the sacraments and the liturgy. We speak of Sacred Vessels, Sacred Art, Sacred Linens, etc. These temporal things are ordered towards the worship of Almighty God.

Consider the anointing of Jesus at Bethany with the expensive ointment: the love of Christ should lead us to use the most noble of the goods of the earth for the glory of God. There is, of course, always a Judas who will condemn the Church’s use of temporal goods.

It is arguable that the barbaric and iconoclastic reordering of so many of our churches over the last 40 to 50 years was a gravely dishonest use of the temporal goods that had been given to the Church by people of past generations. It constituted a violation of the wishes of the donors.

The Church must manifest justice in its care of temporal goods. This constitutes a matter of trust between shepherd and flock. The misappropriation of temporal goods damages the Church’s image in the world. It makes the Church less a Mirror of Justice.

Temporal Goods as Property

The reasons for owning temporal goods are enumerated in Canon 1254 §2:
  • - to order divine worship
  • - to care for the decent support of the clergy and other ministers
  • - to exercise works of the sacred apostolate and of charity, especially toward the needy.
On 12th February 2004, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (PCILT) published a ‘nota explicativa’ stating that ‘the ecclesial nature common to all these goods derives from their destination towards the mission of the Church’, not from who owns them.

(The Italian original reads: L’ecclesialità, comune a tutti questi beni, deriva dalla destinazione ai fini propri della Chiesa. Questo, però, non impedisce che la proprietà appartenga esclusivamente a ciascuno degli enti singolarmente considerati. Translation: the ecclesial nature common to all these goods derives from their destination to the proper ends of the Church. This, however, does not prevent the property from belonging exclusively to the particular entity in question.’ (Nota Explicativa La funzione dell’autorità ecclesiastica sui beni ecclesiastici, No. 1)

Canon 116 of the Code of Canon Law tells us what a Public Juridic Person (PJP) is:

  • an aggregate of persons or of things which are constituted by competent ecclesiastical authority so that, within the purposes set for them, they fulfil in the name of the Church, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, the proper function entrusted to them in view of the public good.
All of the goods belonging to a PJP are ecclesiastical goods in accordance with Canons 1257 and 1258. And in accordance with Canon 1256, ownership of these goods by a PJP is under the authority of the Roman Pontiff even though they remain under the ownership of the PJP.

Interpretation of Canonical Norms

The starting point for us in dealing with temporal goods has to be Canon Law, not Civil Law. Civil Law must be obeyed, but this is not sufficient.

Ecclesiastical Law will accept into its own law certain provisions of Civil Law. For example: prescription as a means of acquiring temporal goods or of freeing oneself from them is accepted in accord with the Civil Law of the nation concerned, unless the Code of Canon Law provides otherwise. (Cann. 1268, 197-199)

Furthermore, administrators of ecclesiastical goods must make sure that their ownership is protected by civilly valid methods. (Can. 1284 §2, 2°) The primary concern is with Ecclesiastical Law. The Civil Law is used to protect the ownership in accord with Ecclesiastical Law.

All ecclesiastical juridical entities must have statutes approved by the competent authority (Can. 117) before they can be erected as juridical persons, and any changes in these statutes also need the approval of the competent authority. (Can. 314) This is so that the ownership of its temporal goods is adequately protected. In all things not foreseen in the statutes, the Code of Canon Law will apply.

The term ‘Administration’ has a double semantic weight:
  • on the one hand, to administrate can signify the proper function of ecclesiastical authority in placing an act of governance in accordance with the law;
  • but there is also an economic function: ensuring the conservation and the betterment of the ecclesiastical patrimony. (Nota explicativa no. 4)
Archbishop Burke also discussed the will of founders and benefactors and acquired rights.

Three things can happen to alter the status of PJP’s and give rise to consequences concerning the ecclesiastical goods that belong to them:
  1. Merging/Joining of PJP’s (Can. 121)
    If two or more PJP’s are joined so that one new PJP is formed, all the goods belonging to the previously separate PJP’s pass to the new PJP. But the intention of the founders and donors (benefactors) must always be respected. This is particularly important when two or more parishes are merged to form one parish. Great care must be taken when, for example, deciding to close one or more of the churches. Proceeds from the sale of any church or other property do not pass to the diocese but remain with the new parish.
  2. Division of a PJP (Can. 122)
    If a PJP is divided so that either a part of it is united with another PJP or the separated part becomes a distinct PJP, firstly the intention of the founders and donors must be observed. Also the goods, rights, debts etc. of the original PJP must be divided amongst the new PJP’s with due proportion in equity and justice, taking into account the circumstances and needs of each. (So, if a parish is divided and two new parishes formed, the assets and debts of the original parish are to be divided in an equitable manner between the two new parishes.)

    Furthermore, the use and usufruct of common goods which are not divisible accrue to each PJP. In the above scenario of division of parishes, some arrangement must be made so that the new parish also benefits in some way from the indivisible goods of the original parish. It might be that the new church for the new parish is built out of funds from the original parish, given that the new parish will need a church and the original church is an asset that cannot be divided.

    In my previous parish, we received a share each year of the income from an endowment that had been left to the original parish before my parish was erected from the division of the parishes and that could not be divided.
  3. Extinction of a PJP (Can. 123)
    When a PJP is ‘wound up’, its goods are dealt with in accordance with Canon Law and the statutes of the PJP. If these are silent, they go to PJP immediately superior to the extinguished PJP, always with attention being paid to the intention of founders and donors. This does not mean, however, that a Bishop can extinguish a parish and take possession of the goods for the diocese. For when a parish ceases to exist, it actually merges with another parish, and its goods are dealt with under Can. 122. This was the subject of a clarification by the Congregation for the Clergy when it heard complaints that parishes were being closed and the assets being transferred to the diocese rather than remaining with the community for which they were originally intended.

My conclusion
Maybe this is a bit boring to the non-canonist. All of the above seems very logical but has not always been observed, leading to failures in the observations of justice and a dimming of the Church's reflection of justice. But also I had the impression of an extremely 'priestly' approach to temporal goods, that the Church somehow gives matter its ultimate orientation to God by owning them and destining them to the three purposes mentioned above, particularly the Divine Worship and the works of Charity.

This very much coincides with the approach our lecturers at the Angelicum had. We were to be priests of justice.

I'll try and write a few more reflections from the other lectures that throw further light on the matter.


  1. Catholics avoid justice17 August, 2010 14:24

    Pity the Church wasn't so concerned about justice when it used every means possible to avoid paying reparations to the victims of child sexual abuse by it's clergy.

  2. I might come onto that topic in a further post. One of the reasons why the Catholic Church is being sued so much in the USA is that it is considered a 'hierarchical' church and therefore easy to plunder since, corporately, the assets of a whole diocese are up for grabs. This is by no means an excuse for the terrible crimes of sex abuse. But it has happened also in 'congregational' churches, and because, corporately, the assets of those churches are minimal, there has been very little litigation against them.

    And how much money, anyway, can make up for the horror of sex abuse? Are punitive damages really the way to resolve these terrible crimes? Such damages hit education, medical and other charitable work that benefits those in need.

  3. Sounds like a very interesting talk. Thank you for your outline! Concern for management of the temporal goods of the Church (and the moral implications thereof) has been, to my mind, woefully lacking in many places over the past few years.

    With so many parishes merging or being suppressed it would seem appropriate to consider anew the implications of the canons.

  4. Yes Father, a timely reminder about the temporal goods of the church, their proper use and ownership. I’m not sure that is always made clear in these times of parish closings and lawsuits against dioceses. Archbishop Burke is admirably suited to deal with such issues, not only from his expertise in Canon Law but also his experiences in St. Louis with St. Stanislaus parish, the latter an issue that had festered for decades under previous incumbents but was finally dealt with by Archbishop Burke.

    The care for the Church’s temporal patrimony and the intentions of founders and donors is reminiscent of Chesterton’s quote about Tradition being the “democracy of the dead”. In all ages the Church in its temporal members is the steward of what has been handed on – spiritually and temporally – and we will all have to give “an account of our stewardship” – a sobering thought!


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