The Principles Guiding the Administration of Ecclesiastical Goods By Fr S. Ejiofor Asadu


The church deals with two types of goods: spiritual goods such as grace, salvation, etc and temporal goods such as money, land, buildings, etc. Every organisation usually renders accounts of the administration of its temporal goods at the end of every year and makes not only evaluations of the previous year but also some projections for the new financial year. The Catholic Church as organisation also needs temporal goods to carry out her mission on earth and as such, the administrators of the Church’s temporal goods also render accounts at the end of the Church’s financial year (can. 1284, §2, n. 8). At the beginning of this year, it is important to remind administrators of the temporal goods of the church of some principles governing the use of church property. The Church asserts that it has inherent right over temporal goods independent of any secular power (can. 1254, §1), that is, it is not an acquired right granted by any human power. This innate right includes the right to acquire, retain, administer, and alienate temporal goods in order to regulate divine worship, to care for the decent support of the clergy and other ministers, and to exercise works of the sacred apostolate and of charity, especially toward the needy. (can. 1254, §2). The subjects of this innate right over temporal goods are the moral persons (the universal Church and the Apostolic See, can. 113 §1), public juridic persons such as dioceses, parishes, institutes of consecrated life and as well as private juridic persons (can. 1255). The canons of Book V of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, however, govern only ecclesiastical goods, that is, temporal goods belonging to the universal Church, the Apostolic See, or other public juridic persons in the Church (can. 1257 §1; can. 116). Dioceses, parishes, religious institutes (can. 634, §1), etc., are examples of public juridic persons in the Church and as such temporal goods belonging to them are ecclesiastical goods and are governed by the provisions of Book V on “The Temporal Good of the Church” and their own statutes (can. 635, §§1&2). Temporal goods belonging to a private juridic person (though also undoubtedly connected to the church, her purposes and mission on the basis of can. 114 §2) are, nevertheless, regulated by its own statues unless the code states otherwise (can. 1257 §2). The reason is that only public juridic persons are established by the law itself or by a special decree of the competent ecclesiastical authority for specific purposes in view of the public good and can act in the name of the church within the limits assigned to them (can. 116). The principles governing the administration of ecclesiastical goods are scattered all over the code of canon law but especially in Book V: The Temporal Good of the Church. JOHN A. RENKEN sieves out ten guiding principles from Book V and other parts of the code that govern the application of the law of the Church governing the acquisition, retention, administration and alienation of ecclesiastical goods (Cf. John A. Renken, The Principles Guiding the Care of Church Property, in The Jurist 68 (2008), 136-177). This article follows from the writing of John Renken.

Principle I: Communio
One of the fundamental ecclesiological principles of the Vatican Council II is that the Church is communio. Ecclesiastical laws find their origin in the Church which is communio and exist to build up that same communio. This Church is constituted and organised in the world as a society and subsists in the Catholic Church governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops who are the successors of the apostles (cann. 204, §2; 330). By virtue of baptism, all the Christ faithful are in full communion with the Church when they “are joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical governance (can. 205). Through baptism, God invites the faithful to participate in the intra-trinitarian communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to share in the threefold munera of Christ as priest, prophet and king. It follows that all the baptized are “placed in communion with God, with all the other baptized, and with the Catholic Church in which the Church of Christ subsists (can. 204, §2)” [Cf. R. J. Kaslyn, Commentary on canons 204-223, in BEAL, Corigen & Green (eds.), New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Theological Publications in India: Bangalore 2003, p. 243]. It is this understanding of the Church as communion that provides the underlying unity of the different local churches, vocations, states of life and ministries existing in the same Catholic Church and the Holy Spirit is “always the dynamic principle of diversity and unity in the Church” [John Paul II, apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici, 20, December 8, 1988, in AAS 81 (1989), 425].
Within this same communio exists both physical persons (can. 96) and juridic persons (can. 113, §2). The juridic persons are subject to and enjoy the protection of the “supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power” which the Roman Pontiff exercises freely within the Church (can. 331). Although the public juridic persons by legitimate right acquire, retain, administer and alienate temporal goods, they exercise this right under the supremacy of the Supreme Pontiff who is the supreme administrator and steward of all ecclesiastical goods (can. 1273). So, within the internal ordering of public juridic persons, the administration of the temporal good is to be guided by the principle of communion in view of the fact that ecclesiastical goods are for universal destination and that the ownership of legitimately acquired goods by the juridic persons actually belongs the juridic persons but under the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff (can. 1256).

Principle II: Subsidiarity
The principle of solidarity states that as far as it is possible, matters ought to be handled by smaller units other than the highest centralized unit, or that the higher body should not usurp the legitimate functions of the lower body. The one Catholic Church is manifested in different local churches and institutions throughout the world. For this reason, it is very difficult for the Universal Church to issue a detailed universal legislation on temporal goods. “Therefore, the code applies the principle of subsidiarity and requires that more specific determinations about church property be made by competent ecclesiastical authorities at more immediate and appropriate local levels.”
As regards religious institutes, the code says that each institute’s temporal goods are governed by the provisions of Book V unless the contrary is expressly indicated (can. 635, §1). The code also requires that each institute is “to establish suitable norms concerning the use and administration of goods, by which the poverty proper to it is to be fostered, protected, and expressed.” (can. 635, §2).

Principle III: Proper Purposes of Temporal Goods
This refers to the reasons for which the Church owns temporal goods: to order divine worship, to care for the decent support of the clergy and other ministers, and to exercise works of the sacred apostolate and of charity, especially toward the needy (can. 1254, §2). The local churches are to use temporal goods for the above purposes. The religious institutes are also required to identify these purposes unless their constitution excluded or restricted this capacity (can. 634, §1). This implies that ecclesiastical goods must be seen as an instrument for the realization of the mission which the Divine Founder, Christ the Lord entrusted to his church. It is on the basis of this instrumentality of the temporal goods that the church has native right to require from the faithful what is necessary to attain these proper finalities (can 1260).

Principle IV: Collaboration
“To collaborate means to work together for a common purpose, whether as equals, as agents of a superior, as persons who give consent, or as persons who offer their counsel.” In the local churches, the local ordinaries may appeal for support from the faithful for parochial, diocesan, national or even universal needs of the church as collaboration (cann. 1266, 1271). Special funds could also be established in dioceses to which all public juridic persons can make contributions as collaboration (can.1274). There should also be collaboration in the internal administration of temporal goods (eg. Can 627, §2) as well as collaboration with the Roman Pontiff through the appropriate dicastery of the Roman Curia, in this case, the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (eg. Can. 592, §1).

Principle V: Vigilance
Ecclesiastical goods are not private possessions of individuals but the property of the Church. For this reason, competent ecclesiastical authorities are to exercise vigilance over them. For instances: the superiors of religious institutes are to exercise vigilance over finance officers who perform their function under the superiors (cann. 636, §1, 741, §1); superiors of clerical institutes are to exercise vigilance over Mass obligations (can. 957); ordinaries must carefully supervise the administration of ecclesiastical goods (can. 1276).

Principle VI: Justice in Employment
This principle assures justice in compensation and employment issues. The Church is committed to the just treatment of those who serve her: both the clergy and others. Those who work for the Church have right to decent remuneration so that they can provide decently for their own needs and those of their families. So, administrators must ensure that they pay just and decent wages (can. 1286). This is one of the fundamental principles governing the code’s legislation on church property.

Principle VII: Respecting the Intentions of Donors
Sometimes we hear the allegation that the goods of the Catholic Church are not always administered and used according to their ecclesiastical purposes especially when financial church scandals become public knowledge. In the administration of the temporal goods of the Church, the intentions of the donors must be respected. The faithful have the right to donate their goods to the Church (cann. 1260; 1261, §1) and the Church is committed to applying them for the purposes intended by the donors (can. 1267, §3) or where no particular intention is mentioned, the goods must be used for the purposes of ecclesiastical goods (Cf. can. 1254, §2). Administrators must observe the prescripts imposed by the founders and donors of pious foundations (can. 1284, §2, 4o; 1300).

Principle VIII: Observance of Civil Law/Canonization of Civil Law
Canon 22 says, “Civil laws to which the law of the Church yields are to be observed in canon law with the same effects, insofar as they are not contrary to divine law and unless canon law provides otherwise.” Canon 22 is technically referred to as the canonization of civil law. The areas that this canonization of civil law is evident are in the administration of temporal goods provided that the provision of civil law is not contrary to divine law. The code requires that administrators of ecclesiastical goods must observe the provisions of both canon and civil law especially for the safeguarding of ownership (can. 1284, §2, nn. 2&3). Other examples are prescription (can. 197, with exceptions: can 199, 5o; etc); contracts (can. 1290); wills (can. 668, §1) etc.

Principle IX: Transparency and Accountability
Those who administer ecclesiastical goods are obliged to be accountable to their lawful superiors, to the finance council and the faithful (can. 1287, 494 §4). Their services also must be transparent. For this reason, administrators are to take an oath of office that they will administer well and faithfully (can. 1283, 1o) and with the diligence of a good householder (can. 1284, §1). The administrators are to draw up annual accounts (can. 1284, §2, 8o) and in religious institutes as determined by the proper law (cann. 636, §2; 637). To ensure transparency and accountability, the diocesan bishop is obliged to constitute a diocesan finance council to be composed of at least three of Christ’s faithful, expert in financial matters and civil law (can. 492); and after consultations with the finance council and college of consultors, to appoint a financial administrator who is to be someone of expertise in finance and of outstanding integrity (can. 494). None of these persons is to be related to the bishop up to the fourth degree of consanguinity or affinity (can 492 §3). The finance council and the financial administrator help the bishop to regulate the financial administration of the diocese and the public juridic persons for whom he is responsible. Besides all the functions which Book V entrusted to the finance council and the financial administrator, as regards the beginning of new year, they are to prepare a budget and account annually and evaluate the accounts of the preceding year presented by the financial administrator (cann. 493, 494 §4).

Principle X: Protection for Future Generation
The code speaks of the stable patrimony of public juridic persons: stipulating that donation cannot be made from the goods belonging to the stable patrimony (can. 1285); mandatory updates of inventory of ecclesiastical good to distinguish stable patrimony from other goods and also permission of competent authority for valid alienation (can. 1291) and transactions which can worsen the patrimonial condition of a juridic person (can. 1295). Diocesan bishops ought to make proper consultations and/or seek consents of committees and of college of consultors as the case maybe before acts of extraordinary administrations (can. 1277). If the two bodies (Finance Council and the College of Consultors) were not consulted or consent was not sought as the case may demand, his subsequent act is invalid (can 127). In addition, all administrators are to make sure that ecclesiastical good are neither lost nor damaged, are properly insured, and enjoy the protection of civil law; they are to liquidate loans in a timely fashion, to invest surplus funds, and to maintain carefully all records dealing with the administration and retention of ecclesiastical goods (cann. 1284, §2; 639, §5). While the church has the duty of protecting her temporal goods, Christ faithful who wish to leave their goods at the disposition in favour of the church, are to ensure that they observe as far as possible the formalities of the civil law (can. 1299).

The Catholic Church in the course of her history has developed beautiful administrative principles which have been influencing the civil society at large. The problem, therefore, is not lack of principles but inadequate application in practice.