The temporal goods of the Church

The temporal goods of the Church

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is seen at sunset at the Vatican in 2010. PAUL HARING/CNS

By Fr. Jaime B. Achacoso, J.C.D.

ANY responsible person must at one time or another have asked himself the questions: How does the Church support itself? How do the temples get built and maintained? How do the priests live? In short, granted that the end of the Church is a supernatural and eternal one, the fact is obvious that it has a temporal dimension: it carries out its work in this world, until the end of time, steeped in material realities. Hence, it must have material means to carry out its spiritual work in a material world.

The Code of Canon Law dedicates the entire Book V to The Temporal Goods of the Church. Title I of Book V is entitled: The Acquisition of Goods. We must distinguish two related aspects of this subject:  what is understood as the sources of income—systems of financing or collection of resources—and the juridical means or manners of acquiring property in Canon Law, which are all the just means of Natural and Positive Law (cc.1259 and 1290).


  1. The duty of the faithful to fiinance the needs of the Church

A premise in this consideration is the option taken by the Church, so that the faithful contribute in a voluntary basis for the subsidy of the common needs of the ecclesial community.  Thus, all allusion to tithes and first-fruits in the old Code of 1917 has disappeared in the new Code.

The duty of the faithful to finance the Church can be viewed from two different angles:

1) an obligation of the faithful, as c.222,§1 explicitly states that the Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for apostolic works and works of charity and for the decent sustenance of ministers; or

2) an expression of the original fiscal sovereignty of the Church. Notwith­standing the option for voluntary contribution, the Church has not renounced its original fiscal sovereignty over the faithful, according to which it can demand proportionate contributions from them. This power (to tax the faithful) remains included in c.1260, and is made possible in c.1263.

The Church simply considers it more in accord with tradi­tion, with the present sensibilities, and with the condition of the faithful as children—more than subjects—, to appeal more to their sense of responsibility. This preference was manifested in the work of codification when the order of cc.1262 and 1263 was reversed—not without objections—in order to make it clear what the ordinary way of getting the faithfuls’ contribution was (c.1262), without thus excluding the possibility of demanding tributes (c.1263).


  1. The different ways of acquiring temporal goods:

With the above premises, we are left with two general ways of getting income for the ecclesiastical patrimony: voluntary contributions of the faithful, and tributes (taxes). Within these two systems of financing, there are variations and even in-between figures, like quotas.

  1. Voluntary Offerings. Included in this general concept are all contributions of the faithful of a voluntary nature—i.e., those which do not correspond to the fulfillment of a strictly juridical obligation.

The general rule regarding these contributions is respect for the will of the donor. This principle of Patrimonial Law is enshrined in c.1267,§3, which states that offerings made for a specific end should be destined to that finality.

The most common forms of voluntary offerings are the ff:

1) Collections, referred to in c.1262. Their specific characteristic stems from their being a response to a petition of the Church (understood in the wider sense of c.1258—i.e., “not only the universal Church or the Apostolic See, but also any public juridic person within the Church”) to the faithful, for them to collaborate for a concrete end (cf. cc.264,§1; 791, 3°). They should be carried out according to the norms estab­lished by the Episcopal Conference in accordance with c.1262.

2) Petition of Alms (Fund-Raising). These are made by private persons, whether physical or juridic (even if they be for a public institution).  The two written permission required by c.1265,§1—one from their own ordinary, and another from the local ordinary—are designed to avoid conflicts, abuses and scandals. The Episcopal Conference can give additional norms, which may require the aforementioned permissions even for religious mendicants (exempted in c.1265,§1).

3) Spontaneous Offerings (Donations).  These are made by the faithful on their own initiative, without any concrete or circumstantial petition.  Included in this heading are the alms given by hand which is presumed given to a juridic person when the physical person who receives the offering represents the juridic person in some way (c.1267,§1).

The acceptance of the donee is required as an essential element for the consummation of the transaction.  This acceptance includes the goods donated, the end, conditions and modal obliga­tions attached to the donation as follows (c.1267,§2):

  1. a) Clean Donations, as a general rule, should be accepted. To reject them in the name of a public entity, a just cause is required, aside from the permission of the Ordinary, according to the value.
  2. b) Modal or Conditioned Donations, as a rule, require permission of the Ordinary for their acceptance.

4) Offerings occasioned by Pastoral Services.  These corre­spond to the old right of the stole, and are offerings requested from the faithful, on the occasion of the administration of some sacraments and sacramentals (baptism, funeral, blessing, etc.).

These are neither taxes nor a fee for the services received; hence, the expression “on the occasion of” is used, avoiding others which may convey the meaning of remunera­tion and much less of purchase of spiritual goods, which would be a case of simony.  Consequently, the pastoral service which occasions them cannot be denied to those who may not be able to afford such offerings—totally or partially (cc.848 and 1181)—, and even to those who refuse to make them.

The CIC establishes the following norms in this regard:

  1. a) Fixed amount. The amount is fixed by a meeting of the Bishops of the province (c.1264).  This fixed amounts mark the maximum that can and should be asked, the faithful remaining free to give more or less than the said quota.
  2. b) Ecclesiastical destinatary. When the pastoral service that occasion these offerings falls under the so-called parochial functions of c.531—which will be the common case—, these offer­ings are understood to be made to the parish—except when the contrary will is explicit—and not to the parish priest (as was the case of c.463,§3 of the CIC 17).

This is true even if the cleric who has carried out the function does not belong to the parish in question. The Bishop should precisely establish the destination of such offerings, and provide for the remuneration of those clerics who carry out parochial functions (cc.531 and 551).

  1. c) Fees. These are economic obligations, which must be paid by those who solicit an act of ecclesiastical jurisdic­tion (e.g., permission, dispensation, process, certification). The nature of such quotas is that of a certain remuneration for the act carried out by the ecclesiastical organization (which must contend with office expenses), for private benefit, even if the Church will never refuse to carry out such act in favor of those who may not be able to give such quotas, partly or totally.


  1. Taxes (Tributes). Tributes are financial obligations imposed by the authority upon its subjects, without any specific and direct service to the latter in exchange. In this they differ from offerings and fees.

As previously pointed out, the present ecclesiastical law tends to consider this system as a secondary—and in a certain way supplementary—way of financing, when the voluntary offerings do not suffice. This does not mean that the imposition of taxes is not congruent with the social nature of the Church, insofar as such constitute a strictly juridical specification of the general and fundamental obligation of the faithful to support the needs of the Church (c.222,§1).

Three types of taxes appear in the Code:

1) Ordinary Diocesan Tax: Conceived in c.1263 as a general and stable contribution to the needs of the diocese. It has its immediate antecedent in c.1504 of the Code of 1917.

2) Extraodinary Diocesan Tax: A subsidy foreseen by law for the cases when the diocese finds itself in extreme financial need.  Its antecedent is the subsidium caritativum of the c.1505 of the Code of 1917.  It is an extraordinary tax, which cannot be consti­tuted stably.

3) Seminary Tax.  In addition to the special collection mentioned in c.1266, the Bishop can impose a tax within the diocese to provide for the needs of the seminary (c.264,§1).  It is of Tridentine origin, and is the only tax which has passed from the old to the new Code without much variation.

  1. a) Passive subjects: all juridic persons (public and private) with foundation in the diocese, regardless of whether or not such juridic persons are subject to the jurisdiction of the Bishop.  Thus, a strictly territorial criterion is followed (which is an anachronism).
  2. b) Specifics: It must be moderate, according to the real needs of the seminary which are not covered by other sources.

As can be seen, all three types of Church taxes have certain common characteristics:

1) Discretionary obligations.  They are obligations, the effective imposition of which is left to the discretion of the diocesan Bishop, who should legislate opportunely.

2) General Character. They are of a general character, and cannot be imposed on particular subjects.

3) Diocesan. They are diocesan, their establishment, desti­nation, collection and finality circumscribed within the diocese.

4) Moderate and Proportionate. The tax should be moderate and proportionate to the economic capacity of each passive sub­ject.