Katrina-hit parish sues bishop over rebuilding church

Katrina-hit parish sues bishop over rebuilding church

Speaking of closing parishes, they’re dealing with this on a massive scale on the Gulf Coast. A parish in Pass Christian, Mississippi, is suing the diocese because it won’t rebuild their church. But the implications are more wide-reaching, raising questions of the balance between clericalism and congregationalism.

Bishop Thomas Rodi of Biloxi, Mississippi, had decided to merge St. Paul Parish with Holy Family Parish after St. Paul’s—which was located on the beach—had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. About 150 parishioners have sued Rodi and the pastor of Holy Family, claiming that the property was deeded to the congregation, not the diocese, and that the diocese was only holding it in trust for the congregation.

This is not how the Church organizes parishes. Dioceses do not hold property in trust in that fashion and would not accept the sale or donation of property to the congregation itself and not the diocese. For one thing, the congregation does not exist independent of the diocese or bishop, that is a parish can only exist as part of a diocese or under the authority of a bishop.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs claims that the lawsuit is not about getting the parish rebuilt in the same location, but only about demanding an accounting for the assets of St. Paul’s. If that’s the case, then that’s their right under both civil law and canon law. Under canon law, a parish’s property belongs to it and cannot simply be appropriated by a bishop for his own use. He must account for it. If the parish is merged with another parish, then the closed parish’s property goes to the new parish. If a parish is suppressed, then it’s assets would go to the diocese, but they must follow proper procedure.

Bishop Rodi responded to the lawsuit with a public statement published in the diocesan newspaper and the local newspaper. In it he outlines the background of the situation, including the fact that there were originally three parishes in the town, one of them staffed by a religious order. But after the hurricane, the order decided to pull out of the parish. That left the diocese with a decision to consolidate the two parishes. At first they were going to maintain two locations, but then they changed their minds, saying that both financial and spiritual considerations led them to decide to rebuild only one.

The bottom line of the lawsuit is that it is an attempt to have the courts order the Catholic Church to have a church building at a specific place. If this lawsuit would be successful, it would mean, in effect, that the courts would tell the Catholic Church where God must be worshipped, where Mass and the other sacraments must be celebrated, and how the Catholic Church must use the financial resources of Holy Family Parish. This lawsuit attacks both the unity and liberty of the Church.


Any pastor desires to create unity in his parish and the pastor of Holy Family Parish reached the conclusion that having two churches would tend to have parishioners identify with one church building or the other rather than identify as one Holy Family Parish. One church building would also allow for a combining and strengthening of parish ministries, especially those associated with the celebration of the Eucharist, which have been weakened by the loss of so many parishioners. At present only about 700 individuals (not 700 families) attend Mass at Holy Family Parish.


This deeply saddens me since this lawsuit is not in keeping with our understanding of the fundamental nature of the Catholic Church. We are a church, not independent congregations. In faith, worship, and practice, we are in union with the successor of Saint Peter, the Pope. The Pope appoints the bishop of each diocese to serve as shepherd of the diocese. The bishop in turn appoints pastors to serve as shepherds for the parishes. The pastor is to minister for and with his parishioners. In making decisions affecting the good of the parish, he is to carefully consider the advice of the parishioners, especially his advisory committees, but the final decision is his as pastor.

I’m left with a couple of questions: The plaintiffs’ lawyer says they only want an accounting for the assets of the parish, while the bishop says that the lawsuit wants to tell the diocese where to build its churches. They can’t both be telling the truth. What does the lawsuit actually say?

Second, the tension between clericalism and congregationalism in the Church is one of the most contentious today, exacerbated by the Scandal and the perception of “a pray, pay, obey and ignore the pervert in the corner” mentality on the one hand and a “we are the church”, “it’s my parish”, “I don’t like that doctrine” mentality on the other. Finding the correct balance is one of the challenges we have to deal with.

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli