Archive for March, 2009

WHO OWNS OUR CHURCH?

March 13, 2009

faces-of-jesusStatement on SB 1098 by Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport

March 11, 2009

As everyone is very much aware, SB-1098 proposed by the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly has provoked a firestorm. Much of the commentary has been intemperate and unthinking. In such a heated atmosphere reasonable discussion of the issues is nearly impossible. The Committee cancelled the public hearing scheduled for Wednesday, March 11 to allow the Attorney General to review the constitutionality of both the existing statute concerning Religious Corporations and Societies and the amendment embodied in SB 1098.

Voice of the Faithful did not originate the billand, in fact, first learned of it two days after it was introduced. Neither did VOTF have any contact with Senator Andrew McDonald or Representative Michael Lawlor, the co-chairs of the Committee and sponsors of the bill, prior to its filing.

The existing statute contains general provisions concerning religious corporations and particular provisions for specific churches, namely, the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Roman Catholic Church. Each of the churches in question provided the language that it wished to be included in the statute. One might ask why the State enacted a statute that conferred special status on these mainstream religious bodies, but ignored many others. There are no provisions concerning the Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Mormons, or many smaller Protestant churches; nor are there any provisions concerning Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and the many other non-Christian religions represented in Connecticut. One might ask why there should even be a separate statute for religious corporations and societies at all. 

As we go forward, Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport believes that a reasoned and respectful dialogue between the bishop and the Catholic community concerning lay participation in parish administration is essential. We believe that the laity should have a real say in the administration and financial management of their parishes, not the limited advisory role envisioned by Canon Law. The laity, who constitute the great majority of the Catholic faithful and who contribute the funds essential to the sustenance of our parishes and our priests, presently are effectively excluded from exercising any decisive authority over parish administration and finance.

Connecticut’s current law relating to Roman Catholic parish corporations was enacted in the 1950s and is based upon laws going back to the middle years of the nineteenth century. That law established as ex officio members of the parish corporation the bishop, the vicar general and the pastor. These three ex officio members appoint two lay trustees annually, and may also remove them for cause or for no reason at all. As appointees serving at the pleasure of the clergy, the lay trustees are neither truly representative of the lay members of the parish nor able to act independently. In fact, the same may be said of the vicar general and the pastor, who under Canon Law owe a duty of obedience to the bishop and also hold their positions at his pleasure. The provisions of the current law reflect an outmoded nineteenth-century conception of the Church. Since the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s the Church has developed a more expansive understanding of itself as the People of God, embracing all the faithful: bishops, clergy, religious and laity.

The establishment of a board of directors composed of the bishop and the pastor, as voting members, as well as elected representatives of the parish congregation conforms to the Second Vatican Council’s description of the Church as the People of God. Participation by a specified number of laypersons elected annually by the parish congregation would acknowledge the responsibility of the laity for their parish and enhance their sense of ownership and community. The transfer of temporal responsibilities to the laity would liberate the bishop and the pastor so that they may focus on their primary role as spiritual leaders, charged to preach the Gospel and to provide spiritual guidance for their people. Allowing the laity to participate more fully in the governance of the Church, especially in those areas where laypeople have expertise, would not demean the authority of the bishop or the pastor. Presently pastors are often overwhelmed by the burden of administration and financial management. At a time when the shortage of priests threatens the celebration of the Eucharist, the center of Catholic worship, the Church should welcome the willingness of the laity to assume such responsibilities.

Now is the opportunity for the bishop to engage all the faithful of the diocese in dialogue aimed at “creating better structures of participation, consultation, and shared responsibilities,” as called for by Pope John Paul II in his admonition to the bishops of the world in September 2004.