Who Controls Ecclesiastical Property?

Q: I am hoping that you can resolve a debate we are having about the term “ecclesiastical property.”

Some Catholic friends and I were talking about how the US bishops tried to seize [the Catholic television station] EWTN from Mother Angelica [its foundress], and she told them, “I’ll blow it up first!”  One friend said the bishops had the right to intervene, because it’s a Catholic entity and so legally that makes it ecclesiastical property.

I myself disagreed, however, because bishops don’t have the right to take over Catholic institutions that they didn’t create and don’t control.  Otherwise, I think that bishops could seize profitable Catholic universities and hospitals and other institutions whenever they pleased….  Could you explain for us what “ecclesiastical property” is in canon law, and what power Catholic bishops have over it? –Elizabeth

A: There’s no denying that the Catholic Church owns a lot of property worldwide—although in actual fact it’s impossible to calculate exactly how much.  That’s because these lands, buildings, and other material goods aren’t legally owned by “The Catholic Church”; such an entity doesn’t technically exist!  Individual dioceses, parishes, religious institutes, various associations, and the State of Vatican City own countless pieces of property around the globe.  We Catholics are familiar with most of these kinds of property, and the reasons why different ecclesiastical institutions operate it: there are many thousands of churches, convents/monasteries, schools/universities, hospitals, orphanages, chanceries and rectories (etc.) on this planet today, and as a very general rule the direct purpose of most of it is divine worship, and/or the furtherance of the corporal works of mercy.  Many other properties, however, are owned by the Church for secondary sorts of reasons—often they constitute financial investments, generating rent money which is then plowed back into the Church’s primary functions of worship and charity (but see “Using (and Misusing) Donations to the Church” for another angle on this issue).

But not all church “property” consists of land and buildings; there are loads of business entities owned and operated by Catholic institutions too.  For example, many religious institutes publish books or magazines, and normally these magazines/publishing houses had to be set up in accord with the civil laws of the country where they operate.  Lots of monasteries of monks/nuns produce and sell things, in order to support themselves, too: sisters/nuns on every continent sell their own baked goods, and some American monks with carpentry skills make coffinsHere’s an interesting story about a rural monastery in the US with an enormous facility for roasting and selling coffee.

Do these business entities constitute “property” independent of the religious institutes themselves?  It depends!  In some nations you can definitely find (say) monks selling fresh eggs and produce from their farm from a shed on the monastery grounds … and civil officials may choose to turn a blind eye, since the size and scope of this “business” seem negligible in their eyes.  In such situations both X monastery, and the business transactions of the monks of X monastery, are one and the same.  But in other parts of the world, religious whose merchandise generates a significant amount of income will often be legally required to set up a business that is licensed and following civil law—and is legally separate from the religious house itself.

What does all this have to do with the term “ecclesiastical property”?  Quite a lot, in fact—because canon 1257.1 defines the term in this way:

All temporal goods which belong to the universal Church, the Apostolic See, or other public juridic persons in the Church are ecclesiastical goods and are governed by the following canons and their own statutes.

This is actually a straightforward statement, if you’re familiar with canonical lingo!  For normal people, however, perhaps the most confusing element of this paragraph is the term public juridic person (cf. cc. 116-118).  This is legal jargon describing an entity—not a physical, human person—in the Church which has its own rights and obligations.  (See “When Can Parish Buildings be Rented Out for Secular Use?” for another scenario involving public juridic persons.)  A diocese, a parish within that diocese, a religious institute and an individual convent/house of that institute, a Catholic hospital, a Catholic university … these and countless other entities within the Church are public juridic persons, because (as canon 116.1 puts it) they “fulfill 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.”  The land, buildings, bank accounts, furnishings, etc. etc. of such entities constitute “ecclesiastical property” and are thus subject to canon law, as the abovementioned canon 1257.1 tells us.

So what?  Well, this can have potentially enormous implications, if something extremely large/valuable is “ecclesiastical property”—in great part because canon law delineates who exactly controls it and has authority over it.  Particularly relevant to Elizabeth’s question is canon 1279.1, which notes that

The administration of ecclesiastical goods pertains to the one who immediately governs the [juridic] person to which the goods belong unless particular law, statutes, or legitimate custom determine otherwise and without prejudice to the right of the ordinary to intervene in case of negligence by an administrator.

This is all pretty abstract, so here’s a concrete, everyday example which should clarify things.  Imagine that the Diocese of X (which is itself a public juridic person by virtue of the law itself, as per c. 373) contains the parish of St. Michael’s (which canon 515.3 declares is likewise is a public juridic person by law).  St. Michael’s has loads of property: a church, a rectory, a school, a convent, several smaller buildings, and a sizeable parcel of land—not to mention every material thing that those buildings contain!  All of this constitutes ecclesiastical property under canon 1257.1.  Since the pastor of St. Michael’s is the administrator of the goods of the parish, he is required to see to it that those goods are administrated in accord with the law (c. 532).  If he fails in this responsibility—either through incompetence, or negligence, or outright dishonesty—his hierarchical superior (the Bishop of X Diocese) has the authority lawfully to step in and both (a) remove the priest in accord with canon 1741 n. 5 (see “When Can a Pastor be Removed From Office?”), and (b) rectify the misadministration of goods himself.  In short, because the material goods of St. Michael’s parish are ecclesiastical property, canon law provides a procedure for ensuring how they are administered generally, and by whom.

Now contrast this with the property of an entity that is not a public juridic person.  Imagine, for example, a Catholic gift shop which is owned and operated by a Catholic family, which sells religious objects and Catholic books.  This business may have an enormous impact on the spiritual life of many Catholics who patronize it, but it doesn’t constitute “ecclesiastical property”—because it is owned by private individuals.  These owners may be Catholics, but the Church has no control over the way they choose to run their shop.  The diocesan bishop can’t tax them in accord with canon 1263 (see “When (and How Much) Can a Bishop Tax a Parish?” for more on this), nor can he tell them how much to charge, or what to sell or not to sell, or force them to provide a pension for their employees, or demand to inspect their financial accounts, or intervene in any number of other ways that could be possible if the business met the definition of “ecclesiastical property” (cf. c. 1276).  If the shop goes bust due to poor management, the Catholics of that region may certainly suffer; but this is not the responsibility of either the diocese or the parish in which it is located.  In short, ecclesiastical officials have no authority over this Catholic family’s business—which obviously means that their bishop can’t swoop in for any reason and seize the property in the name of the Church, either!  This logically brings us to the specific case which Elizabeth mentions.

The Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) is the largest Catholic network in the world today.  It was established in 1981 by Mother Mary Angelica, a member of the Poor Clares (founded by St. Francis and St. Clare in the 13th century) who had founded a monastery in Alabama (USA).  Mother Angelica initially wrote and distributed Catholic pamphlets, and sometimes appeared on non-Catholic Christian television stations—which prompted her to erect a Catholic station of her own.  She and her fellow sisters of the monastery first sold fishing lures, and later sold peanuts (yes, really!), to raise funds ultimately enabling the monastery to put their Catholic programming on the air.  Additionally and significantly, ecclesiastical propertyover the years the network was—and still is—assisted by donations from the Catholic laity.

In founding the network, Mother Angelica does not appear to have ever acted in opposition to church authorities. She was obliged to conduct her ministry both in accord with the rule and constitutions of her religious institute, and with the approval (at least tacit) of the Bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, where her monastery and the network were/are located.

The phenomenal global success of EWTN unwittingly caused both the network and Mother Angelica herself to have a lot of influence, in the Church and in the world.  Sadly, it also seems to have prompted envy and resentment among far too many Catholic bishops, who lacked the level of visibility of Mother Angelica—who was a simple, uneducated woman.  This attitude was only compounded by the fact that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (see “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what a Conference of Bishops, or Episcopal Conference, is and does) had launched its own Catholic media network in 1982.  The US bishops spent $30 million in the process—and rest assured, they didn’t sell fishing lures or peanuts in order to raise that money, either!—but nonetheless the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America (CTNA) was a flop, shutting down entirely in 1994.  When the American bishops lost their own network, they began citing their own ecclesiastical authority to tell EWTN what programs they wanted the network to air, and who should be invited to appear on its shows.

Evidently it didn’t take long for the astute Mother Angelica to realize that the US bishops were angling to seize control of EWTN.  In a now legendary phone conversation with an official from the US Conference of Bishops, she exclaimed, “I happen to own the network,” and “I’ll blow the damn thing up before you get your hands on it!” and hung up.

It’s a fascinating (and apparently true) story—but how can it be reconciled with the canon law on ecclesiastical property that was discussed above?

The full details of the business dealings of Mother Angelica and EWTN are not public knowledge—nor should they be.  But it seems fairly clear that the legal entity called “the Eternal Word Television Network” was never erected in the Church as a public juridic person in its own right.  True, the monastery of Poor Clares which Mother Angelica founded is undoubtedly a public juridic person in itself (cf. c. 634.1); but EWTN doesn’t seem to have been the legal property of the Poor Clares, either.  Instead, EWTN is set up as a non-profit organization under US law (a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) charitable organization).  Mother Angelica was the President of the organization, with a Board comprised of lay Catholics.

So who actually owned/owns EWTN?  When it comes to non-profit organizations, US civil law is  murky on the subject of ownership—because technically, nobody owns an entity that is legally erected in this way.  But given the undeniable track-record of hostility by many US bishops toward both Mother Angelica and the network she founded, it is pretty easy to imagine the sorts of legal sleight-of-hand that might have been employed in order to take control.  For example, since Mother Angelica was a professed member of the Poor Clares, perhaps her hierarchical superiors in that religious institute could have ordered her, under obedience, to cede control of EWTN to the US bishops?  Alternately, the then-bishop of her diocese could theoretically have ordered the Poor Clares  to move out of his territory, necessarily leaving the property of EWTN behind (see “Canon Law and a Convent of Rebellious Sisters” for more on this kind of scenario).  Or maybe the bishops could have built an argument that EWTN’s programming was somehow objectionable and a danger to the Catholic faithful, requiring them to intervene to preserve the faith.

There could surely have been numerous other ways for the US bishops to effect what they wanted—but Mother Angelica deftly obviated them all, simply by resigning as President of the Board of EWTN.  What now remained was a television station run entirely by lay Catholics, erected legally as a non-profit organization under US civil law.  It was/is not ecclesiastical property, and it is no longer legally controlled by anyone connected in any way to a public juridic person in the Church.  Its status basically mirrors that of the fictitious Catholic gift-shop described above: it is run completely by lay people and is thus not the responsibility of ecclesiastical officials, who thus have no canonical authority to interfere with its operations.

Returning now to our original question, Elizabeth is totally right that at least as a rule, “bishops don’t have the right to take over Catholic institutions that they didn’t create and don’t control,” because “otherwise … bishops could seize profitable Catholic universities and hospitals and other institutions whenever they pleased.”  Sure, if a Catholic institution in some way flouts Catholic teaching and scandalizes the faithful, bishops can certainly object: as we saw in “Canon Law and ‘Catholic’ Organizations,” it’s quite possible for bishops to exercise their teaching office by warning the faithful to avoid a particular newspaper, or school, or other entity—and if that entity calls itself “Catholic,” bishops have the authority to demand that it cease to identify itself as such.  But this is a far cry from bishops simply grabbing something that they want, something that was created and paid for by others.  Thus we can see that “ecclesiastical property” is governed by its own rules and regulations in the world of canon law, but not everything run by Catholics falls into that category—which is as it should be.


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