DC parish leases raise questions

News: Archdiocese of Washington

Local pastors and lay advisors have raised questions about centralized leasing policies for parish property in the Archdiocese of Washington. Critics say policies restrict both the religious use and financial benefit of parish properties, even while some parishes struggle to make ends meet. 

The archdiocese operates a centralized process of managing leased parish property, through which Catholic Charities of Washington leases parish properties for use as program locations, with rental rates far below market rate — charging in some cases only a nominal fee of dollars annually. The process reportedly restricts pastors from renegotiating lease rates, and in some cases prohibits pastors from offering any pastoral or religious services at programs conducted on parish property.

Sources said the same centralized leasing approach rents several unused Catholic school buildings to public charter schools. At least eight former Catholic school buildings have been used as DC charter schools. Pastors say that while parishes receive almost half of rental income for school rental arrangements, the rest of the funds are retained by the Washington archdiocese, even while parishes are responsible for upkeep on the buildings.

One Washington pastor with a Catholic Charities project on parish property told The Pillar that the parish’s arrangement with Catholic Charities seemed to him to be out of his hands. 

“Of course, I would like to have the opportunity to see something of a return for the parish on the building’s use, we certainly need the money. Now more than ever because of the pandemic. But I and the finance council just don’t have a say in any of it,” the pastor said.

“They were here when I arrived, and I expect they will be here after I am long gone. There was no input from me in their use of the building, which the parish is supposed to own. They are just a fact of life.”

“I asked the priest who was here before me about it when I arrived, he said it was like inviting a cousin to come and stay for a week and finding out they had moved in forever.”

“I’m not saying they don’t do good work, and of course we want the archdiocese to be involved in acts of charity in the community. It would just be nice if it was a little more Catholic: they’re right here, on our doorstep, in our house, really, but they have nothing to do with the parish,” the pastor said.

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Catholic Charities leases space at nine parishes in the Washington archdiocese. Representatives said at an October 2020 presentation to the archdiocesan presbyteral council that it would soon be looking for additional sites.

The arrangement raises questions about the canonical rights and autonomy of archdiocesan parishes, and points to the financial and operational challenges parishes face in an increasingly secular culture — challenges that seem to require pastors to rethink old ways of doing things, and consider new ways of funding evangelization ministries. 

And as potential legislation — including the Equality Act now pending in the U.S. Senate — could make it more difficult for Catholic social services agencies to observe Catholic moral teachings, some pastors say they want to ensure that programs undertaken in the name of the Church reflect Catholic values.

But Catholic Charities representatives have expressed concern about the impact of pastors modifying or canceling leases for parish property.

The October 2020 Catholic Charities’ presentation said that under “young pastors who are not familiar with the history of the archdiocese, the support of Catholic Charities by the archbishop, or the relationship of Catholic Charities to the archdiocese” some parishes have viewed their lease with Catholic Charities “in terms of commercial real estate,” with pastors who want “to receive more money from Catholic Charities for the use of parish property, as if Catholic Charities were just another commercial entity renting parish property, or like a Charter School, which has public funding.”   

Noting the Catholic Charities sometimes incurs expenses renovating parish rectories or convents when it begins to lease them, the presentation said that “if a new pastor comes in and tries to change commercial rates for rent, or worse, tries to take back the property on his own authority, this is not only unjust, it goes against the very nature of Catholic Charities as the social service arm of the archdiocese and the authority of the archbishop who supports this role for Catholic Charities.”

“Pastors need to be reminded that they administer the property of their parishes under the authority of the archbishop and they cannot unilaterally abrogate agreements made by their predecessors,” the presentation added.

“Once an agreement...is reached between a parish and Catholic Charities for use of parish property, it should be reviewed only where there are serious circumstances in the parish or in Catholic Charities that call for a review. This review should be done with the parish, Catholic Charities, the Facilities Office, and the Vicar General’s Office. In general, a review of an existing agreement should not be requested in the first year of a new pastor’s term,” Catholic Charities recommended.  

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Canon law designates the pastor to represent the parish in “all juridic affairs” and designates him as responsible to “collect the return of goods and the income accurately and on time, protect what is collected, and use [the income] according to the intention of the founder or legitimate norms.” 

While diocesan bishops are empowered to establish norms regarding financial administration, parishes are regarded in canon law as distinct corporate entities, and pastors are not understood to act as vicarious representatives of the diocesan bishop. In many dioceses, parishes are organized as distinct civil corporations who hold title to their own parish property. 

Special concern is given in canon law to the “stable patrimony” of legal entities like parishes, which is meant to ensure the long-term stability of the parish and its capacity to fulfill its essential mission.

The Archdiocese of Washington and its parishes are organized as a “corporation sole,” which means that the distinctions between parish and diocese delineated in canon law are not recognized in civil law.  

A member of one parish finance council told The Pillar that in practice, the arrangement with Catholic Charities means that pastors are not empowered to seek rent increases or change terms of their leases, because the archdiocese limits their ability to negotiate with Catholic Charities. That limitation effectively ties the hands of pastors, the finance council member said, no matter how dire the financial need parishes face. 

“The money that we get from building rental is billed by the diocese, collected by the diocese, and held by the diocese. The pastor sees a portion of that every month but most is held in reserve; if we need to access it for building maintenance or improvements, we have to go to the diocese and ask for their approval to get it. We’re in their hands.”

“It isn’t that these policies were created to be obstructive or disenfranchising, but there’s no openness to addressing their effects either. This is supposed to be the parishes’ stable patrimony, but it isn’t being used as a foundation for the parishes’ future, it’s being used for other things entirely. Those don’t have to be bad things for it to be ok to ask whether there is room to do both.”

“When other essential revenue streams dry up for the parish, we’re left looking for ways to meet our basic needs. The ability to have access to all the parish’s resources, or at least a say in what is done with them, is no small matter. This isn’t just about the arrangement with Catholic Charities, it’s a similar situation with school buildings being rented out to the charter school system.”

“In many cases, there just aren’t other options to turn to, especially after the Covid.”

“Rent you can get quickly, but it’s a bit of a short term fix. But developing a parish is a long term problem that needs a longer term solution. If parishes in the archdiocese are going to come up with plans that put evangelization at their core, they do need to be able to structure themselves and their resources around that premise.”

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The finance council member also explained that, although services are offered on parish property and under the auspices of the local Catholic Church, the nature of Catholic Charities’ arrangement is to provide services funded with public money, which meant that the possibility of offering spiritual support, let alone evangelization, is often heavily curtailed. 

“I don’t know if it’s written down anywhere, but certainly the directors of these places are very clear with us that the outreach cannot be ‘Catholic.’ There is no possibility of our priest going in and offering to say a prayer, even offering spiritual help — the idea that there might be Mass or confessions is totally out of the question.”

“If it's government money, there’s no God allowed.”

“There’s also no say for parishes in what programs take place in these buildings, that is decided between Catholic Charities and the archdiocese. It’s not a question of this or that ministry not being good or welcome, but for example, a women’s shelter or a mental health clinic — both in parish buildings in the city —- need special consideration.”

“Moreover, while you would ideally want parishioners to be able to volunteer and help, and this is often what Catholic Charities and the archdiocese say, build up our local Catholic community through service, you can’t necessarily do that if you need special training just to walk into the building.”

In their October 2020 presentation to the archdiocesan presbyteral council, Catholic Charities officials urged that “parishes with Catholic Charities ministries on their property should involve their parishioners in opportunities to partner with Catholic Charities as part of the social concerns outreach of the parish.” The same recommendations also confirm that training is required for parishioners wanting to assist. 

And another Washington priest with Catholic Charities programs renting parish space told The Pillar that for him, the disconnect between tenant and parish is the most difficult part of the arrangement.

“I can’t say I am unhappy with them being here, I mean who would say that about Catholic Charities? And there is certainly a lot of need —  a lot — in the local community. But it’s not at all integrated into the life of the parish.”

“That’s the thing I am uncomfortable about. They seem to see the parish, themselves, and the local community as three separate groups. I think of the parish as being the local community and we are all part of it together. It’s just not very joined up, not very Catholic, in that sense.”

The Pillar asked Catholic Charities about the details and rates of its lease arrangements with parishes, and about whether government contracts impact the religious character of Catholic Charities’ social programs. A spokesperson for Catholic Charities forwarded questions to the Archdiocese of Washington, which has not yet responded.