Canon Law and Donations to the Church

Q: My elderly mother is thinking about making a big donation to the parish school, or maybe leaving it in her will. All of her children went there and some of her grandchildren. Lately they’ve been complaining that the school is overcrowded, so she thought maybe she could give them the money to build an addition. My mother said she’d like it to be named for our family.

I ran into one of the accountants who helps the parish out, and mentioned her idea to him, and he got really excited. He said that even if they don’t build a new wing, they can use the money to pay off debt and/or other things. But that’s not what my mother wants to give the money for! Is there a way to insist that her donation be used for this one purpose? Or is my mother being unreasonable? She doesn’t want the money to be spent just on heating bills and similar things, she wants something permanent to remain at the school in memory of our family. —Mary Claire

A: Mary Claire’s mother is certainly not being unreasonable. It is perfectly natural that when someone makes a large gift for a charitable purpose, he may specify the manner in which it is to be used. The Church’s laws concerning bequests and other donations are fundamentally consistent with those found in civil law.

Canon 1300 couldn’t be clearer: the intentions of those who give goods to pious causes, once they are lawfully accepted, must be carefully observed. This holds true regardless of whether the donor gives the gift while still living or includes it in his will. The bishop is ultimately responsible for ensuring that such donations are used for the intended purposes (c. 1301.1). Under some circumstances, if the gift or bequest is made to a religious institute—a school owned and operated by the Franciscans, for example—this responsibility lies not with the diocesan bishop in whose territory the school is located, but with the superior of the religious institute. (We looked at the balancing-act that must be maintained between the authority of a diocesan bishop, and that of religious who operate institutions within his diocese, in “Notre Dame, Obama, and the Bishop’s Authority.”)

So if Mary Claire’s mother wants to give her parish school the money to build a new wing, that money cannot be used for other purposes, like retiring the school debt. But what if the parish doesn’t want or need a new wing on its school?

Note that canon 1300 states that a donation must be used for its stated purpose if it is lawfully accepted. In other words, the pastor can, with gratitude and tact, inform the potential donor that it simply is not feasible to put an addition on the school building. Perhaps there simply is no room to do so on the existing property; perhaps the school’s enrollment is high now but decreases can already be forecast for the future, so an additional wing would be a waste of money in the long term. Whatever the reason, if a gift cannot be used for the purposes envisioned by the donor, the gift must be refused. The donor cannot force unwilling church officials to take the money and use it as the donor wants!

A common enough scenario where a donation has to be refused with thanks involves the potential gift of real estate. If someone wishes to give the Church a building which is in dire need of major repairs, it may cost more to repair and maintain it than it is really worth. On the surface, it may seem offensive for a pastor or bishop to “look a gift-horse in the mouth,” but at issue here is the genuine financial wellbeing of the parish, diocese, or other Catholic institution which will have to deal with the property. A potential donor may not initially realize that his “gift” will actually amount to a financial albatross around the Church’s neck.

These conditions are not unique to the Catholic Church. In general, if someone writes a will in which he leaves some money to a young relative to be used specifically for his education, that heir cannot take the money and spend it on a new car. The intentions of the donor must, as a rule, be respected.

Readers may remember that after the September 11 tragedy, the American Red Cross was deluged with donations which were specifically intended to help the families of those who were killed or injured in the attacks. Some in the Red Cross evidently judged that the total amount collected was more than could ever reasonably be expended on the victims and their families, and tried to divert some of the money to other, unrelated relief efforts. When this became public knowledge, the outcry was so strident that the head of the American Red Cross ultimately resigned. Aiding the needy who were not 9-11 victims of is of course a laudable intention, but the fact was that the donors did not give their money for that purpose! It was entirely natural that they should object to its being used in a way other than they had wished.

We have been discussing here only those donations which the giver specifically states are to be used for a particular reason. What strings, if any, are attached to donations which are given without any specific instructions?

In the absence of any explicit directives from donors, a Catholic institution (or indeed any charity) can use the money or goods as its administrators see fit. When the average Catholic tosses money into the regular Sunday collection, that sum goes toward the general expenses of the parish. Perhaps it will be used to pay the organist’s salary, or repair the rectory driveway, or be sent to the diocese as part of the regular parish assessment. (Canon 1263 gives the bishop the specific right to levy assessments on parishes and other institutions in his diocese.) We parishioners can only trust the pastor and the parish finance council to manage the money we give as skillfully as they can. It is natural that at times we may disagree about the way that some of our money is being spent, but we have no authority to micromanage financial affairs for the parish.

If it were to become apparent that money was truly being mismanaged—let’s say the pastor spent lavishly on redecorating the rectory while the electric bill was left unpaid for months—it would ultimately be the responsibility of the diocesan bishop, the pastor’s superior, to address this. While we would naturally be unhappy about our hard-earned money being used for frivolous things, withholding our financial support for the Church would not be an option, no matter how tempting a protest it might be. The faithful are required to support the Church in response to appeals by church authorities, who in turn have the right to ask for this financial support (cc. 1260 and 1262). One might legitimately reduce one’s regular donation, but not suspend giving altogether.

What does all this mean for Mary Claire’s mother and her potential donation? The appropriate thing for her to do would be to approach the pastor with her proposal, making it clear that she would like to give the money for the sole purpose of adding a new wing onto the school building. If the pastor agrees to accept the money under these conditions, he will be bound to use it only for this purpose; otherwise he will have to gratefully decline the gift—or perhaps he might suggest a different way in which it could be used, if the donor wants to agree to this. In any case, the Church is always obliged to respect the particular wishes of the donor.

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