Connecticut Lawmakers Want to Reorganize Catholic Churches

There is breaking news in Connecticut that has mobilized the bishops of its three Catholic dioceses. Together, they are calling for their church members to stand up and be counted. An open hearing will take place tomorrow regarding a bill that has been proposed by the state judiciary committee. The bill revises and changes the financial relationship between a bishop and a pastor and the lay members of a local parish. Connecticut Catholics are mobilizing to fight it. And in the process, they will be fighting fellow Catholics who have brought the bill forward in the name of fiscal responsibility and transparency.

The proposed state legislation, bill 1098, changes the way a parish church does business. It is still early in the process of becoming a law, and it likely will not pass muster constitutionally, but it is worrisome, nonetheless. Let’s review what’s at stake.

The current corporation laws state that a church has five people who make up its religious corporation: the bishop, the pastor, a parochial vicar and two parish trustees. Bill 1078 would do away with this structure, and replace it with a group of elected board members who make the financial decisions in each parish. In this new scenario, the bishop and the pastor have no votes in the local church’s financial matters. They are ex-officio members of the board. And, yes, this means the pastor has to report to the board on all financial matters.

The statement from the Diocese of Bridgeport describes it this way:

This bill violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It forces a radical reorganization of the legal, financial, and administrative structure of our parishes. This is contrary to the Apostolic nature of the Catholic Church because it disconnects parishes from their Pastors and their Bishop. Parishes would be run by boards from which Pastors and the Bishop would be effectively excluded…

The State has no right to interfere in the internal affairs and structure of the Catholic Church. This bill is directed only at the Catholic Church but could someday be forced on other denominations. The State has no business controlling religion.

The first objection is the constitutionality of the proposed bill. The portion of the First Amendment of the US Constitution that deals with freedom of religion says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

A change proposed by bill 1098 prohibits the Catholic bishops in Connecticut to freely exercise their authority over the parishes in their jurisdiction.

The second objection is that no parish church stands alone. It is part of the wider body of Christ, as part of a diocese under a bishop. For example, my local parish might be St. Pat’s, but it is part of the Church of Boston. By imposing a structure like the proposed bill in Connecticut suggests, each parish church’s proposed elected financial board would have no ties to the wider body, the Diocesan Church.

Now, to be honest, there are some people that wish all local parishes could be independent of a diocese. Church scandals have rocked confidence in church leadership, especially bishops, for some time. I know. I live in Massachusetts in the Archdiocese of Boston: ground-zero for the clergy sex scandals of recent history. Maybe that makes me just a wee bit sensitive when it comes to church scandal… I can understand what Catholics in Connecticut felt when, in recent years, a priest was charge with embezzling over a million dollars from his local parish to finance his personal life. He was convicted of the crime and is now serving time behind bars. It is said that embezzlements of this kind are the reason behind the legislation proposed in Connecticut. But moving to enact state legislation is not the answer to the problem of fiscal malfeasance.

Even before the sex abuse scandals, many parishes already used collaborative models between pastors and laity to run churches effectively. These days, there is much emphasis on Parish Councils and Financial Councils employing best practices for financial transparency to conduct the parish’s business of stewardship. Pastors and capable lay leaders fully cooperate, in most cases, already, with each other.

The reason we must watch what happens in Connecticut is that this financial tactic is the latest front in the war to silence the Church on public affairs. First, by trying to change the fiscal structure and take the church hierarchy out of the local parish. Second, by having well-meaning Catholics fight each other on this issue. Third, by trying to distract the Church from the task at hand: the proclamation of the Gospel to the world.

Please consider reading more about this and watching Bishop Lori’s video about this cause here: – D

And please consider using the contacts on that page to voice your concerns.

BREAKING NEWS — MIDDAY MARCH 10: As the author and another poster are reporting below in the comboxes: The public hearing for Proposed Bill 1098 has been postponed, but the Bill is STILL ALIVE. And the Rally in Hartford is STILL ON for Wednesday, March 11, at 10:30 a.m.

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