Interview with Archbishop John Myers of Newark
November 12, 2007
Archbishop John Myers of Newark is the chair of the Committee on Canonical Affairs, and he led the bishops today in a discussion of a proposed new church law that requires bishops to obtain the permission of their finance council and college of consultors for five “extraordinary acts of administration,” all of which concern finances.
Those acts are:
•tGoing into debt beyond $1 million for a diocese with more than a half-million Catholics, and $500,000 for dioceses with smaller populations;
•tLegal settlements exceeding those same amounts;
•tRunning a business not directly related to the spiritual or charitable purposes of the church;
•tAny contract or agreement that involves a potential conflict of interest for the bishop or other senior diocesan officials;
•tGoing into bankruptcy.
The bishops approved the new financial controls by an overwhelming 98.6 percent vote, with only two ballots cast against the requirements. The measure must still obtain the approval of the Vatican, however, before it has the force of law. Myers gave a brief interview to NCR shortly after the vote.
Where did the idea of creating these provisions come from?
tThis is revisiting something we had done before with regard to canon 1277. We’ve been working on this really for seven years, though very hard the last three years. Some people wanted to have a very extensive list [of acts of ‘extraordinary administration’]. We consulted the bishops at the regional meetings last year, and they wanted it simplified, so we did that. The provisions are intended both to help the bishop, and to ensure that the patrimonial status of the diocese remains sound. What we did is list five different kinds of actions that the bishop must have the consent of both the college of consultors and the archdiocesan or diocesan finance council. The reason for that is that it assures the bishop on important matters of getting good advice, people who know both from the clergy who run parishes and the laypersons who primarily make up the finance council. It also kind of builds the confidence of the people that the process is transparent, and that the bishop, or anyone else, can’t misuse the gifts of the church.
To what extent is this a response to recent episodes in which people have raised questions precisely about misuse of the gifts of the church?
tWe certainly understand that this is an area of concern, but this really was called for in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. We did a rather quick job of it, and Rome contacted us and said, ‘You really better do a little better job than that.’
How long ago did Rome contact you?
tI’m not certain. I would say 10-12 years ago.
So it pre-dated, for example, the $30 million debt in Detroit?
tAbsolutely, yes. I’m not saying that the fact that it passed so strongly today is unrelated to these concerns, but the work has been going on a lot longer than that.
Is this the end of the road in terms of new principles of financial management, or is there more yet to be done?
tThere’s much, much more. We have a committee on audits, and we have an entire process, kind of a thick set of papers, on ‘best practices’ for parishes. That is being addressed in some detail.
Are any of those efforts likely to produce new church law?
tNo, they’re really directed, for example, to my finance officer and people who have the job of supervising parishes. It’s intended to say, ‘Here are the kinds of things you should look for and require.’ For example, they talk about regular audits or financial reviews, even in smaller dioceses or parishes. They address how you get the collection from the Mass into the bank properly. It’s across the board.
But no new canonical provisions beyond the ones you adopted today?
tNo. We’re not trying to have it become particular law. It’s going to be directed towards the finance officers as our best advice.
The new rules you adopted today require approval from the Holy See, yes?
tYes, that needs a recognitio [approval] from the Congregation for Bishops.
Is there any doubt that you’ll get it?
tNo, I don’t think so. I think it will come. We want to do more work, in the sense that our committee pledged itself to prepare a commentary to help flesh it out. The commentary will not be particular law, but it’s our reflections on what this means.
What’s your projection for when this will become law for the church in the United States?
tWell, I would think within six months. That would be my guess.
BACKGROUND ON CANON 1277
Canon 1277 of the Code of Canon Law, approved by Pope John Paul II, reads as follows: “The diocesan bishop must hear the finance council and the college of consultors in order to perform the more important acts of administration in light of the economic situation of the diocese; he needs the consent of this council and that of the college of consultors in order to perform acts of extraordinary administration besides cases specifically mentioned in universal law or in the charter of a foundation. It is for the conference of bishops to define what is meant by acts of extraordinary administration.”
The 1983 Code required every diocese and parish to have a finance council, made up of laity, priests and religious, to oversee how assets are allocated and tracked. At the diocesan level members are appointed by the bishop, while in parishes the appointments come from the pastor.
The College of Consultors is a group of priests who act as official advisors to the bishop in certain matters pertaining to the administration of the diocese as detailed in canon law. The College of Consultors also acts as a governing board when the Diocese is vacant. Consultors are appointed by the bishop from members of the diocesan priests’ council.