When Can Parish Buildings be Rented Out for Secular Use?

Q: Our parish church is located in a two-story building. The church where we have Mass is on the first floor and there is classroom space on the second floor.

The bishop has decided to lease the classroom space to a public school. I am very much opposed to this (as are others) for numerous reasons.

Does a bishop have the right to do this? In other words, is there anything in canon law forbidding him to do this including, but not limited to, the forbiddence (sic) in canon law to use such property for sordid use?  Inasmuch as the public school will be free to invite representatives from the “Planned Parenthood” abortion facility to promote the culture of death to some or all of the students, I would think that constitutes sordid use.

Do we parishioners and/or the pastor have any say in what will happen in this matter regarding the classroom space? –Patrick

A: If readers are already confused by Patrick’s question, there’s a good reason for that! Some important information, directly relevant to the legality of the situation he describes, is missing here; some questionable assumptions are being made; and on top of that, Patrick seems to be misapplying some canonical terminology which does not apply to this case. Let’s take the situation apart and look at it, piece by piece.

For starters, renting out church property constitutes an administrative act, and the law tells us that the administration of such property pertains to the one with direct power of governance over the person to whom the goods belong (c. 1279.1).  In this context, the term “person” refers to a juridic person (cf. cc. 113.2-118), which is technical canonical lingo describing an entity—not a physical, human person—in the Church which has its own rights and obligations.

As canon 515.3 tells us, a parish like Patrick’s, canonically erected by competent authority within the diocese (i.e., by the current or a previous diocesan bishop), is a juridic person by virtue of the law itself.  This means that the aforementioned canon 1279.1 is applicable to a parish; which in turn tells us that it is the pastor of the parish (and not the parishioners, by the way!) who is in charge of the administration of parish property (cf. c. 532).

So what authority does a diocesan bishop have over parish property?  Canon 1276.1 tells us generally that bishops must carefully supervise the administration of all the goods belonging to public juridic persons subject to them (including parishes).  It’s worth pointing out here that “supervise” is not synonymous with “micro-manage.” If, let’s say, it became clear that the pastor of a parish was altogether failing to handle some or all aspects of the ordinary management of parish property, including parish funds—and yes, this sort of negligence certainly does happen sometimes!—the bishop would be obliged to intervene.  The same would of course hold true if a parish priest were found to be mismanaging parish property in an irresponsible way.  But the authority of the diocesan bishop does not extend to what one might call “vicarious management” of the run-of-the-mill aspects of operating a parish.  Legitimate judgment-calls about ordinary decisions that arise on daily basis are the purview of the pastor, not the bishop. (But see “Can the Pastor Buy and Sell Parish Property Without Our Consent?” for a discussion of some of the less common, “big” occasions when the bishop’s approval is required).

Speaking generally, therefore, if parish property is to be rented to an outsider, the parish priest obviously should be involved in making that decision!  Patrick fails to tell us whose idea it was to rent out the second floor of the parish church building; but if both the pastor of the parish and the bishop are on-board with this, it sounds like the matter should be settled.  Similarly, if the pastor were adamantly opposed to this for some reason, one would think that logically the discussion would end right there; any bishop who happens to disagree should be very wary of interfering in the sort of decision-making which rightly belongs to the parish priest.

Without more information, then, we cannot determine what exactly is happening at Patrick’s parish; and thus it’s not possible to comment on whether Patrick’s bishop is actually meddling in parish affairs in an inappropriate way or not.  But let’s move on to the next issue, which involves the way in which the rented property will be used.

Patrick says that the second floor of the building contains “classroom space,” and this is going to be rented to a public (government-run) school.  Schools and classroom space logically go together, so there doesn’t seem to be anything innately odd about the use to which the property will be put.  But Patrick describes this as “sordid use,” because “the public school will be free to invite representatives from the ‘Planned Parenthood’ abortion facility to promote the culture of death to some or all of the students.”  This assertion immediately prompts a couple of questions, the first of which is this: where did he get the term “sordid use”?

It would appear that Patrick was flipping through the Code of Canon Law and found canon 1222, which is the only instance in the entire code where any reference to “sordid use” is made.  This canon addresses what may be done with a church that can no longer be used for divine worship and cannot be repaired.  The canon tells us that the bishop can relegate the church building to “profane but not sordid use.”  In other words, the church can be sold and used for a secular purpose (which would constitute “profane use”), but it cannot be used for any purpose that is immoral or scandalous (or in other words, “sordid”).  Under certain circumstances, for example, it could be permitted that a church building be deconsecrated and turned into a museum or an auditorium; but deconsecrating a church and then selling it to someone who intended to transform it into a bar, an abortion clinic, a brothel, etc., would never be allowed because the new purpose would be “sordid” and inherently objectionable on moral grounds.

The situation at Patrick’s parish does not involve transforming the church itself into a building intended for a morally wrong and scandalous purpose, and thus canon 1222 does not apply to this case at all.  Patrick is of course free to object to what is happening at his parish, but it is not correct to discuss it in terms of the “sordid use” (or not) of the classroom space.

But this leads us to the next issue: Patrick asserts that if the parish’s classroom space is rented to a public school, the school “will be free” to invite speakers from organizations directly involved in morally reprehensible activity—like Planned Parenthood, which not only supports legalized abortion, but actually performs abortions and provides contraceptives to school-students for profit—to speak to the students.  Why does he make this assumption?

It seems safe to say that Patrick has not actually seen the proposed contract, to be signed by representatives of the school system (the tenant) and the parish (the landlord).  Thus it’s not at all clear why he takes it for granted that this lease will give the public school carte-blanche as to what they can do in the classrooms they rent from the parish.

Speaking broadly, legally sound leases around the world routinely specify the purpose for which a building or other property is being rented.  A house or apartment lease, for instance, frequently states explicitly that the tenant is going to live there, not operate a business from that address.  A lease for an office or other business may specify that the property is going to be used for X, and not for Y or Z.  Similarly, churches and other religious entities—both Catholic and non-Catholic—often rent property to outsiders, but stipulate in their contracts that the rental property may not be used for purposes that conflict with the religious beliefs and mission of the landlord.  Absent direct evidence to the contrary, it’s hard to imagine that the lease in Patrick’s case would not include these routine sorts of limitations on the activities of the tenant.

Think about it: if the classroom space at Patrick’s parish were rented with no restrictions of any kind to the public school, there are all sorts of outrageous things that could conceivably go on there which the parish would not want: the school’s administrators could, for example, establish a weekly “free-speech movie night” to show films which are sexually explicit or which mock and/or attack the Catholic faith; they might decide to allow homeless students and their families to live right there on the property; or they could even schedule tap-dancing classes in that second-floor classroom space on Sunday mornings, right over the heads of the parishioners attending Sunday Mass on the first floor.  The possibilities would be endless—which is why a properly written lease would never allow these things!

Government-run schools certainly can (and often do) provide their students with information that the Catholic Church considers morally objectionable, including lectures by someone affiliated with Planned Parenthood.  This is why one would assume that the civil lawyer helping the parish to write the lease would be sure to include some parameters as to what the school-tenant can and cannot do on the premises.  If Patrick had access to the proposed lease, and knew for a fact that it’s so poorly written that the public school administrators will be able to do absolutely anything they want, then he definitely would have solid grounds to complain.  But without actually seeing the lease, his arguments are not on solid footing.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth pointing out that depending on what country you’re in, the Catholic Church and its real estate may enjoy tax-exempt status—and in that case, renting church property to outsiders for secular purposes might affect that status.  Here’s a good general discussion of the issue, written from the point of view of non-Catholics in the United States.  But once again, a competent civil attorney working for the parish or diocese ought to be able to ascertain in advance whether renting property could perhaps cause problems with this; and without knowing more about the lease to be signed by Patrick’s parish, we have no particular reason to think that this is going to be an issue.

So, to sum up: we can’t reach a definitive conclusion about the situation at Patrick’s parish without first obtaining a lot more information!  It is entirely possible that there is something canonically amiss here; it may be true, for example, that the bishop is improperly interfering in the routine management of the parish, which is rightly the purview of the parish priest.  Likewise, it could very well be that the lease drawn up between the parish and the public school is legally flawed (from the vantage-point of civil law), and thus allows the school free rein with regard to activities on the property that are objectionable to our faith.  But it’s also quite possible that everything in this situation is being done in full accord with both civil and canon law!  In other words, before anyone casts aspersions, it’s necessary to get all the facts.  Renting parish property to a public school could, depending on the circumstances, conflict with Catholic teaching and possibly canon law; but we should not automatically assume here that anything is wrong.

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