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If you can’t solve the whole problem, at least solve part of it

February 1, 2012

With regard to the civil law suit apparently filed by some members of San Juan Batista Parish in the Diocese of El Paso—and looking only at this aspect of a considerably wider controversy impacting that local Church—the canon law governing special donations to parishes is clear:

      • ownership of goods belongs to the “juridic person” that lawfully acquired them (c. 1256);
      • offerings given to administrators of juridic persons are presumed given to the juridic person itself (c. 1267 § 1);* and,
      • offerings given by the faithful for a certain purpose can be used only for that purpose (c. 1267 § 3, and many other canons).

Now, because parishes are “juridic persons” distinct from dioceses (see cc. 373 and 515 § 3), and because a pastor is the administrator of the goods of a parish (c. 532), any specially-designated donations made to a pastor/parish can be used by that parish only for the purpose expressed.** If the donations truly cannot be used for the purpose collected, the prudent course would seem to be to consult the donors about a redesignation of their gift (GB&I Comm 716) or, that failing, even to return the gifts.***

But if the canon law in such matters is fairly straightforward, the facts of such cases tend to get very blurry, very quickly. Some of the questions that occurred to me as I read the above news story included: Were the funds solicited, and if so, by whom and how? What stipulations, if any, were actually attached to these gifts? To whom or what were the donations actually made? Where are the funds now, how did they get there, and why?

Now, I don’t know what jurisdiction Texas law gives its courts over internal ecclesiastical disputes, but I am very sure that canon law has the authority to adjudicate this matter (c. 1400, etc.). Moreover, St. Paul’s injunction (I Cor. 6) to avoid civil litigation among ourselves, especially when the controversy is ecclesiastical, bears repeating, no matter who is filing a suit or countersuit.****

All sides to an ecclesiastical matter may have access to canonical advice and representation (c. 1481 § 1); here’s hoping that both sides proceed with a clear understanding of canon law here and an accurate presentation of the facts toward a just resolution of this matter.

Even if it is just one part of a wider controversy. + + +

* A rule that implies, by the way, that such donations should be entered in the parish books and processed through normal parochial accounts.

** There are some mechanisms by which a small percentage of a donation, even an ‘ear-marked’ donation, to a parish might be payable to a diocese, but that seems not to be at issue here; rather, a ‘confiscation’ of the entire donated amount is alleged.

*** If the difficulty or impossibility of honoring donor intentions were apparent at the time the gifts were accepted, I would consider it grounds to question the conduct of the officer accepting the gifts.

**** The canonical penalty for laity suing certain ecclesiastical officials in civil court (see 1917 CIC 120, 2341) is not found in the 1983 Code.

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