I am a member of the Knights of Columbus in a city in northern Mindanao. Back in the late 1950s, the diocese—through a verbal contract with the Bishop—ceded to the Knights of Columbus chapter of our city a small lot close to the parish church (now the Cathedral) on which to build our multi-purpose hall. The K of C immediately built a two-storey structure, housing our little office and meeting halls. This structure has served us well, and was even used as temporary classrooms by a catholic college which burnt down in the early 1960s. A few years ago, the bishop—now we have a new one—decided to sell the property for much-needed funds. While we understand the financial needs of the diocese, the K of C also thought we at least have the right of first refusal to the sale of that lot, at fair market value, considering all the years we had been on it and the improvements we had built on it. To our dismay, the sale was concluded even before we were informed. Perhaps it might be too late now to stop the sale, but for whatever it is worth to your readers, can the diocesan bishop really just sell Church properties?
The pertinent provisions of the Universal Law for the alienation of Church property are contained in cc.1291, 1292, §§1-2, 1293 of the Code; c.1296 contains the provision for redress of a possibly unlawful alienation.
Notion of Alienation of Ecclesiastical Property
Can.1291 establishes the general principle: The permission of the authority competent by law is required for the valid alienation of goods which, by lawful assignment, constitute the stable patrimony of a public juridic person, whenever their value exceeds the sum determined by law.
Alienation consists in transferring full ownership of goods to a third person by an act inter vivos—whether onerously (e.g., a sale) or gratuitously (a donation). Therefore the following would be included in this concept: buying and selling, donations, exchanges, credit transfers, etc. We have to note that the stable patrimony of a public juridic person (the only one whose goods are considered to be ecclesiastical) cannot be confused or identified with immovable goods, although logically the latter is part of the former. Stable patrimony would rather include all goods required by the public juridic person to achieve its proper institutional purposes—i.e., it would also include the goods without which the public juridic person could not exist or adequately achieve the purpose for which it was created. In fact, moveable goods, equities, money invested in fixed assets, etc., could also be included in the concept, provided that they were permanently allocated to provide for the needs and purposes of the juridic person in question.
This canon specifies that such goods must form the stable patrimony by lawful assignment—i.e., they must be goods whose stability or attachment to the stable patrimonial fund of the juridic person has been determined by its own statutes or by its competent bodies, or, if applicable, by lawful authority or by law.
Competent Authority for Granting Permission
to Alienate Ecclesiastical Goods.
The ecclesiastical authority competent to grant permission for the alienation of ecclesiastical property is a function of the value of the said property, as outlined in the first two sections of c.1292 as follows:
— §1. With due regard for the prescription of c.638, §3 (case for Institutes of Consecrated Life), when the value of the goods whose alienation is proposed is within the range of the minimum and maximum amounts which are determined by the Conference of Bishops for its region, the competent authority is determined in the group’s own statutes when it is a question of juridic persons who are not subject to the diocesan bishop; otherwise, the competent authority is the diocesan bishop with the consent of the finance council, the college of consultors and the parties concerned. The diocesan bishop also needs their consent to alienate the goods of the diocese.
— §2. The permission of the Holy See is also required for valid alienation when it is a case of goods whose value exceeds the maximum amount, goods donated to the Church through a vow, or goods which are especially valuable due to their artistic or historical value.
Cutting through the legal jargon, what Canon Law establishes is that permission is required for the valid alienation of Church property if the value of such property falls below, within or above a certain range to be determined by the Episcopal Conference (and approved by the Holy See). For the Philippines, the CBCP has set the following norms:
1) The permission of the diocesan bishop, acting with the consent of the finance council, the board of consultors and interested parties, is needed whenever the values of the goods to be alienated is between the minimum US $20,000 or its peso equivalent and the maximum US $100,000 or its peso equivalent.
2) If the value of the goods is between US $10,000 and US $20,000 or its peso equivalent, the diocesan bishop should hear the finance council and the board of consultors for a valid transaction.
3) The permission of the Apostolic See is required for validity:
a) whenever the value of the transaction exceeds the maximum set by the episcopal conference for the region, i.e., US $100,000;
b) if it is a case of alienation of something given to the church by a reason of a vow, or objects which are precious by reason of their artistic or historical significance (c.1292, §1), regardless of their monetary value.
The norms set by the Episcopal Conference do not apply to alienation cases of religious institutes, for whom the maximum amount is fixed by the Apostolic See for each region. For the validity of an alienation which value is below the maximum set by the Apostolic See, the written permission of the competent superior is required, which can only be given with the consent of the respective council (c. 638,3).
Invalid Alienation and Possible Action
In all the above cases—i.e., when it is a case of alienating goods belonging to the stable patrimony of the public juridic person by lawful assignment, and when the value of the goods is greater than the lawfully established value, the permission to be granted by the competent authority is expressly required for the act of alienation to be valid. Therefore, if alienation were completed without permission, the transaction would be invalid and null as a matter of law (c. 10).
In addition, c.1377 provides for imposing a just penalty upon any person responsible for alienation without the required permission. That person would normally be the Administrator, but in cases where the permission required exceeds the authority of the Local Ordinary—i.e., permission required is from the Holy See—it could happen that even the diocesan Bishop could be the one charged.
The Need to Update the Valuation Limits for the
Alienation of Ecclesiastical Property.
Since the above provisions were based on a Rescript from the Sacred Congregation of Bishops issued in 1984, and the value of the PHP vs. USD has changed since then, it has been asked whether the CBCP can suggest new valuation limits to the Holy See to amend the above provisions. Furthermore, it has also been asked if the adjustment could simply be made based on the inflation of the USD, or should it be based on the inflation of the PHP (and just translate to USD equivalent). I asked some economics experts at the University of Asia & the Pacific this question in 2006, and they came up with the following analysis:
Method 1: Get the 2006 values of the valuation limits originally given in 1984 USD based on inflation of the USD. Then translate to peso equivalent.
Method 2: Get the 1984 peso equivalent of the valuation limits originally given in 1984 USD, then get the 2006 value of that peso equivalent based on the inflation of the peso.
Conclusion: Both methods yielded similar results, and rounding upwards, the recommended valuation limits are as follows:
Valuation in 1984 Recommended Valuation in 2006
USD 10,000 PHP 1,000,000
USD 20,000 PHP 2,000,000
USD 100,000 PHP 10,000,000
 Ref. CBCP, Complementary Norms of the Code of Canon Law, given the RECOGNITIO by the Sacred Congregation for Bishops (Decretum, Prot. n.35/84, 27.IX.1985).