MADRID — Spain’s Catholic bishops defended their church’s property rights, after the government accused the church of improperly claiming ownership of thousands of buildings and parcels of land.
“The church has registered goods which Catholic people have created and entrusted to it over centuries, so it could carry out its work of proclaiming the Gospel, celebrating the faith and exercising charity,” said a statement on the bishops’ conference website. “It has also registered assets received through bequests and inheritances, which have been used, one way or another, for the same purposes. It has an obligation to safeguard and maintain these goods, using them for its own purposes and making them available to society.”
Historic churches and cathedrals with no property titles were not included in Spain’s first property register, established in 1863 following a wave of confiscations by radical governments and reaffirmed under laws in 1909, 1915 and 1946. Under a 1998 law, the Catholic Church was invited to register its assets by a simple ownership declaration.
However, in a 3,000-page report published Feb. 16, the government said the 34,961 assets registered before the law was modified in 2015 had included many nonreligious assets, including residential buildings, garages, farms and vineyards. The report gives the church until 2023 to provide proof of ownership of the assets.
In a Feb. 18 radio interview, Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said she had debated property issues with the bishops’ conference president, Cardinal Juan Jose Omella, and believed the church would adopt a “reasonable position,” knowing “some things have surely been registered which should not have been.”
However, she added that, while some lands and buildings were “clearly Catholic church assets in the field of historical heritage,” court challenges were likely to the church’s ownership of others.
Auxiliary Bishop Luis Argüello Garcia of Valladolid, secretary-general of the 87-member bishops’ conference, told journalists that the church’s assets remained “at the service of the common good through activities proper to the Christian community,” while also having “extraordinary historical, artistic and cultural value.” He called for cooperation in their maintenance and use.
“We are pleased with the report’s recognition that the church acted legally in meeting the registration procedures,” Argüello said. “The church does not want anything which does not belong to it to be in its name — if someone comes forward with a better right, we are willing to review the registration, as when required by law.”
Some politicians have urged the government to cancel the church’s ownership claims outright and require the reregistration of all assets, while reasserting public ownership of historic religious buildings such as Cordoba’s sixth-century mosque-cathedral.
However, in its website statement, the bishops’ conference said some of the Spanish church’s oldest properties, such as cathedrals in Toledo and Tarragona, dated from the first century, and had acquired assets via tithes, donations and acts of patronage. Such church properties predate states, municipalities and councils, it noted.
“The church runs places of worship, but also parish centers, schools, hospitals, hostels, etc., which generate significant maintenance and conservation costs which the church meets as part of its mission. … The possibility of making business from them, as some suggest, is nonexistent.”