Lay Boards: Clerical Conversations – Episode Overview

Clerical Conversations 28: Lay Boards

In the absence of a functioning Catholic hierarchy in place to regulate the affairs of Church communities, enterprising Catholics have taken the initiative to establish their own missions and churches. In these organisations, laymen exercise the authority which ordinarily is reserved to the bishop or his nominee.

In this episode of Clerical Conversations His Lordship Bishop Donald Sanborn and Stephen Heiner explore the economic, legal and theological problems which arise with lay-controlled boards.

The peculiar history of the Catholic Church in the United States and the evolution of suitable administrative structures around Church property and governance serve as a useful guides as to what works and what must be avoided in the relative anarchy of post-Vatican II lay-religious communities.

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, several councils of Baltimore issued, and reiterated, rulings in response to the various crises in the administration of Church property. Most famously, as a result of poor lay administration and overreach, the original estate of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York came close to being auctioned off. The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore of 1866 decreed:

Of Ecclesiastical Property – The decrees of the first seven councils of Baltimore concerning the abuses of lay trustees and of the best method of securing Church property by civil sanction are repeated and re-enacted. As to lay trustees, they must not be members of secret societies nor men who have not fulfilled the Paschal duty. They cannot expend a sum of money above $300 without written consent of the bishop. The pastor, not the trustees, appoints organist, singers, sacristan, school-teachers, and others employed about the parish. When difference of opinion exists between pastor and trustees, all must abide by the decision of the bishop. All misunderstanding between the ordinary and regulars concerning temporal affairs will be averted if, at the founding of a new house, a document be drawn up expressing clearly all that relates to the foundation itself, to the rights thence flowing and to the duties connected with it.

Subsequent to this statement, each diocese in the United States was set up as a corporation, with the bishop as chairman of the board and two other clergy serving as board members. This framework has been adopted by the Roman Catholic Institute (RCI) in their Mass centres today.

The overarching problem with lay control of Church property and monies, flows from the prerogative of the paymaster. Clerics under this system live at the pleasure of the laity.  They have no security of tenure. Their zeal is enervated. Would a hired hand engage in worthwhile long-term projects under such an arrangement? Should a priest displease the lay board (or anyone who can influence the board) for whatever reason, he may be evicted from his position with no notice. In such an event, the unfortunate priest may be forced to market himself to another community simply to sustain himself and to carry out the solemn duty for which he was ordained.

Many people may be unaware of the precarious economic condition of the Catholic priest. His salary is below the poverty level. From this meagre pittance he must pay for much of his own living expenses. Should the lay board system be in place, the priest would also need to pay for his own set of vestments and sacristy items (all of which are extremely expensive) so as to effectuate the beauty of the Catholic ceremony, in the event he gets terminated by his current employer.

The Protestant pastor – at the very least – is paid a living wage, does not have such expenses and has a reasonable hope of providing for his own retirement. On a practical level, for prospective priests, such extreme uncertainty around the ability to secure the means of survival, to use His Lordship’s words, are “vocation killers.” Needless to say, such a situation, where the priest has the status of an economic slave, is beneath the dignity of his state.

A far more serious point against lay-controlled boards pertains to doctrine and discipline. Under a lay board the spiritual lives of the parishioners are controlled by laymen. Should a layman wish, he may attempt to issue directives on matters of faith, morals and the cultus of the parish or school which are at odds with Catholic teaching. In any other area of life, it would be considered imprudent for a man who is lay, with respect to a profession, to micromanage the practice of the professional. Yet these types of arrangements do exist in clerical-lay communities.

Like in Protestant sects, lay boards have a tendency to reflect the biases, both good and bad, of the constituent members. They are likely to seek out priests who say and teach things with which they agree. The eventual breakup of the lay board should also be expected.


To highlight the folly of lay-controlled boards, Bishop Sanborn lists examples of some of the lay board directives which he has been subject to, or has known of: At one mass centre, High Mass was forbidden except for twice a year, in another, multiple requests for funds to upgrade an altar in a “disgraceful state” were denied. His Lordship was involved in a situation where one of his priests was dismissed without reason or without receiving the news directly, at the behest of the lay board, for trivial reasons.

From the standpoint of the Church benefactor, the obvious objection to clerically-controlled boards is: What guarantee do the laity have that their own donations and the donations of their deceased family members will not ultimately be subsumed by the Novus Ordo, or mismanaged or misappropriated? To this, His Lordship responds: “There’s no better guarantee that a lay board will preserve the use of these properties than priests are.” Laity are not above going back on their own positions.

One safeguard which the parishioners can appeal to is the publicly available statement of principles, which the RCI has devised and to which all their clergy must assent. In the unlikely event of a grave violation of these principles, the aggrieved party may seek redress in court.

Given the unimpeachable character of each and every priest of the RCI, it is near impossible that a more temporally and spiritually competent group of lay fiduciaries could be assembled by the congregation.

For the lay community or layman wishing to establish any apostolate, or which has already formed a corporate body for such purposes, they should prepare a set of principles for the ongoing operation of the properties or apostolate and present them to the clergy for approval. Particular care should be taken with independent priests who may not be subject to any outside clerical regulation. Once a trial period is completed, a process of transferring control to the cleric(s) will need to commence.

These principles, if adhered to, will tend to secure the ongoing operation of the Church, the just treatment of the clerics and will also conform to Catholic teaching.

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TR Staff

True Restoration Staff