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Who Owns the Local Church? A Pressing Issue for Dioceses in Bankruptcy

26 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2005  

Catharine P. Wells

Boston College - Law School


The recent bankruptcies of Catholic Dioceses are unprecedented. For the first time, Bankruptcy Courts must deal with the difficult question of who owns the parish church. In this paper, I will explore two possible sources of confusion about this question. The first is the non-commercial, charitable nature of the Church. The second is its organizational complexity. Resolving the confusion requires a familiarity with various different sources of law including charities law, bankruptcy law, trust law, and Canon Law. In this paper I address this issue by: 1. discussing why the equities and policies that govern charitable bankruptcies are different from those that govern commercial bankruptcies; 2. laying out a road map for determining ownership issues that indicates what sub-questions must be answered and in what order; and 3. discussing the role that each of the different sources of law plays in answering these questions. My conclusion is that, in most circumstances, individual parishes do have a significant ownership stake in assets that are given or dedicated for their use.

Keywords: Catholic Church, Catholic Dioceses, Bankruptcy Court, charities law, bankruptcy law, trust law, Canon Law, charitable bankruptcies, commercial bankruptcies, ownership, parish church

Suggested Citation

Wells, Catharine P., Who Owns the Local Church? A Pressing Issue for Dioceses in Bankruptcy. Seton Hall Legislative Journal, Symposium Issue: Bankruptcy in the Religious Non-Profit Context, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2005; Boston College Law School Research Paper No. 85. Available at SSRN:

Catharine P. Wells (Contact Author)

Boston College - Law School ( email )

885 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02459-1163
United States

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