December 11, 2023

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All over the country decisions are being made by Catholic dioceses how best to use their resources. Parishes and schools are closing. In the face of this, one option considered by schools is to become an independent Catholic school. What exactly does this mean?
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While the recent decision by the Archdiocese of Saint Louis surfaced the need to explain these concepts, the purpose of what is written below is simply for the purpose of understanding. In no way should any of this be interpreted as an attempt to agree or disagree with any specific decisions.

These days hardly a day goes by when a parish, school or other institution is either worried about closing, or is closing. Yesterday my own Archdiocese of Saint Louis announced that at the end of this school year they were closing two Catholic high schools, an all boys Catholic high school and an all girls Catholic high school. Anytime a school, parish or any other ministry closes, it is first a time of great sadness. Both of these high schools have long and storied history of educating well and successfully thousands of students over their many decades of existence.

The problem of declining enrollment and fewer financial resources make for difficult decisions. One option was immediately mentioned by the all boys Catholic high school was to become an “independent” Catholic high school. What exactly does this mean?

Catholic law
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Juridic Persons

It is important to start with the concept in Church law known as a juridic person. This is a matter of law similar to the way a corporation can be seen as a “person” for the purpose of civil law. It is a way of distinguishing a person who works for an institution from the institution. Juridic persons exist for “a purpose that is in keeping with the mission of the Church and which transcends the purpose of individuals.” (Can. 114 §1)

Moreover, it remains important to note that the juridic personality is not to be given “except on those aggregates of persons or things which pursue a truly useful purpose and, all things considered, possess the means which are foreseen to be efficient to achieve their designated purpose.” (Can. 114 §3) Lastly, the statutes of a juridic personality must be approved by the competent authority in the Church.

All of this is because a public juridic person exercises its ministry in the name of the Church. As such the statues used to govern the juridic person, and the resources needed to accomplish the mission. While certainly financial resources come to mind, resources can also refer to non-monetary resources such as buildings, for example.

In Church law there are “public” and “private” juridic persons. Public juridic persons are carrying out ministry in the name of the Church. Private juridic persons are Catholics who act in their own name. The types of Catholic school governance structures listed below would be considered public juridic persons.

Types of Catholic Schools

The most common types of Catholic schools fall into three categories: those sponsored by a parish, those sponsored by an archdiocese, and those sponsored by a religious community. When the Archdiocese of Saint Louis made its announcement, it was referring to two Catholic high schools it sponsored. Many people are familiar with schools sponsored by the Jesuits or Christian Brothers and other community of religious sisters.

Parish Sponsored Schools

These schools are most likely to be elementary schools. The funding and oversight comes from the parish, and the pastor of the parish is the “head of school” as pastor. While the parish is the sponsor, given the relationship between parishes and the bishop, and the fact that priests work in concert with bishops, this model generally also assumes a strong connection to the diocese. Still, the primary sources of funding are the parish, tuition, and fundraising.

Diocesan Sponsored Schools

These schools are most likely to be high schools. The funding and oversight comes from the diocese, which generally means the diocese also provides much more oversight. No one parish is responsible for a school sponsored by a diocese, though it is sometimes the case that many area parishes provide some financial support. This arrangement happens, however, through the direction of the diocese.

Religious Community Sponsored Schools

There are also schools sponsored by religious communities. Many people are familiar with these schools. A specific religious community is responsible for oversight, and may or may not provide funding. While not the largest sponsor of schools, many people are familiar with Jesuit schools.

Independent Catholic schools

These are Catholic schools that are not sponsored by a diocese, parish or religious community. In essence, a board is created which becomes the sponsor of the school. In this way, the board becomes the equivalent of a diocese, parish or religious community. As the number of priests and religious decline, these schools are becoming more common.

The Role of the Bishop

In all of these instances, for a school to call itself a Catholic school, it is necessary for the bishop of the diocese where the school is located to recognize it as such. No school may refer to itself as a Catholic school without the recognition from the diocesan bishop, even if the school is sponsored by a religious community or an independent board.

So what does this mean?

As it pertains to a school that is wishing to change its status, say from a religious community or a diocese to an independent school, certain things need to be accomplished. The first would require the creation of a corporate structure for its governance. This generally refers to a set of by-laws that help a school to be governed and to delineate responsibilities. Secondly is the concern there are sufficient resources to carry out the mission successfully. Lastly, the independent structure must be approved by a competent authority, either a bishop or a religious superior.

The Friar offers commentary, homilies and resources for spiritual growth.

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