WASHINGTON (CNS) – When a bishop suppresses a parish, its assets and liabilities must go to the parish or parishes that receive the parishioners, not to the diocese, a top Vatican official said in a letter to U.S. bishops.
The letter from Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Clergy to Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, could have significant implications for many U.S. dioceses that are closing parishes because of a shortage of priests or a declining Catholic population. Cardinal Castrillon asked the USCCB head to notify the nation's bishops about the congregation's position.
Last year the clergy congregation ruled that assets and liabilities of several parishes closed in the Boston Archdiocese belonged to the parishes that received the members of the closed parishes, not to the archdiocese.
In his letter, sent in March and distributed to U.S. bishops in mid-July, Cardinal Castrillon said that most parish closings fall under the provisions of Canon 121 or Canon 122 of the church's Code of Canon Law, not Canon 123.
His congregation was concerned that "erroneous use of Canon 123 in the dioceses of the United States is not uncommon," he said.
Canon 121 deals with two or more parishes – or any other institutions similarly classified in church law as "public juridic persons" – simply being merged into one.
Canon 122 deals with parishes or other public juridic persons being divided – as might happen if one portion of the Catholic community in a suppressed parish goes to one neighboring parish and one portion to another.
Canon 123 deals with the simple "extinction" of a parish or other church institution similarly classified.
In the first case, the assets of the suppressed parish should go to the parish it is merged with, Cardinal Castrillon said.
In the second case, the assets should be distributed equitably and proportionately to the two or more receiving parishes, he said.
Only in the third case should the parish assets revert back to the diocese, he said.
"Only with great difficulty can one say that a parish becomes extinct," the cardinal wrote. "A parish is extinguished by the law itself only if no Catholic community any longer exists in its territory, or if no pastoral activity has taken place for a hundred years."
"Often when a bishop calls his action a 'suppression,' it is in reality a merger of two communities of Christ's faithful," he wrote. "Thus Canon 121 applies: 'When aggregrates of persons or of things which are public juridic persons are so joined that from them one aggregate is constituted which also possesses juridic personality, this new juridical person obtains the patrimonial goods and rights proper to the previous aggregates.'"
"If a parish is divided between more than one existing parish then Canon 122 would apply," he added.
"In the case where the portion of the Christian faithful is reallocated among pre-existing or newly created parishes, the corresponding patrimony and obligations of the closed parishes must follow the faithful in an equitable and proportionate fashion in accord with corresponding responsibilities and pastoral duties assumed by the (receiving) parishes," he wrote.
"Thus the goods and liabilities should go with the amalgamated juridic person, and not to the diocese," he said.
Father John P. Beal, a canon law professor at The Catholic University of America, told Catholic News Service that the letter addresses common occurrences in the United States that are not expressly covered by Canon 121 and Canon 122.
The Canon Law Society of America's "New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law," published in 2000, says that Canon 121 does not deal with the situation in which "one juridic person is absorbed by another – e.g. one parish being absorbed by another – with only one of the previously existing juridic persons retaining its juridical identity."
Father Beal, concurring with the commentary, said the language of Canon 121 refers only to a situation where a new parish – a "new juridic person" – is created and both previous parishes lose their previous juridic identity. He said the cardinal's letter makes clear, however, that in any cases appealed to the congregation, it will rule that this law applies, the same as if the receiving parish was made a new entity by the merger.
Canon 122 speaks of part of a public juridic person – such as a parish or diocese – being divided, either to be joined to another or to create a new one, he said.
That canon is the main one governing creation of new parishes or dioceses in areas where the church is growing – where the old parish or diocese continues to exist, even though its size is reduced. It does not specifically address the case of the original parish being completely dissolved with all its parts being joined to other surrounding parishes.
Father Beal said that when Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington merged or consolidated parishes during his time as bishop of Pittsburgh, he always followed those two laws, treating reconfigured parishes as new public juridic persons and allocating all the assets and liabilities of the former parishes to the new parish or parishes.
Father Lawrence A. DiNardo, Pittsburgh diocesan vicar for canonical services, said that was true and the diocese never took over the assets of a closed parish.
Father Beal said that elsewhere in the country, however, it has not been uncommon for bishops to treat such a change as the extinction of a parish under Canon 123, with part or all of the suppressed parish's assets reverting to the diocese.
He said Cardinal Castrillon's letter gives notice to the bishops that the Congregation for Clergy, which has Vatican oversight over the disposition of parish property, has decided that "as a matter of equity, that's unfair."
He said that Canon 19, which governs in cases where there are gaps in church law, is the basis for Cardinal Castrillon's decision even though it is not explicitly cited in the letter. Canon 19 says that questions not expressly governed by church law must be resolved "in light of laws issued in similar matters, general principles of law applied with canonical equity, the jurisprudence and practice of the Roman Curia and the common and constant opinion of learned persons."
Father Beal said he did not think the cardinal's letter would affect the bankruptcy cases in the Spokane Diocese or the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., because court disputes over diocesan or parish ownership of parish properties in those cases are being decided on the basis of how those dioceses and parishes are set up under civil law, not their status in church law.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops