Spanish Catholic Church Writes Its Own Name on Thousands of Real Estate Deeds

Cathedral of Navarre Repairs for the Cathedral of Navarre were paid for with public money before the Church appropriated the property. Photo by Luis Azanza.

Spanish Catholic Church Writes Its Own Name on Thousands of Real Estate Deeds
A 1998 law permits bishops to take ownership of places of worship in an opaque fashion. Towns throughout Spain have discovered the appropriations by surprise.
El País: La Iglesia inscribe como propios miles de inmuebles
Carmen Morán reporting from Madrid July 11, 2011

The Spanish Catholic Church has been putting its name on the deeds of rectories, vineyards, olive gardens, vestibules, tenement buildings, and apartments which were presumed to belong to towns but were never officially registered. It has done so quietly, with no one perceiving its good fortune that its appetite for real estate is protected by Articles 206 and 304 of the Mortgage Regulation Law. The bishops can emit certificates of dominion as if they were public functionaries. The privilege was extended in 1998 when the government of the time abolished Article 5 of the cited regulation, which had impeded use of this practice for places of worship, churches, cathedrals, and hermitages.

Since that year, the church has also been able to inscribe properties in its name. This is called, in administrative jargon, inmatricular (registration of property). It is doing so to its heart’s content. One could say the cassock hierarchy has swept up the land of Navarre. Hundreds of parishes, hermitages, and basilicas, and everything inside them, are now property of the diocese, which also now owns homes and warehouses and even cemeteries, garages, and ballfields.

Is it only Navarre? No. The same procedure is being repeated throughout Spain. It is as cheap and simple for the church as it is complex for a private citizen. Many mayors and private citizens have discovered the cases to their surprise and are now fighting to return this immense patrimony of culture and real estate to the public from which they believe it was seized. “Robbery” and “exploitation” are words they repeat when asked about these cases.

“Unconstitutional” is the word on the lips of judicial experts. “[Clergymen] are not public functionaries, but they’re acting like they are. Since Article 16 of the Constitution says there is no state religion, they cannot equilibrate themselves with public servants,” began Alejandro Torres, chair of Civil Law at the Public University of Navarre.

Torres cited a 1993 ruling which declared Article 76.1 of the Urban Rent Law unconstitutional. Until then, a curate could evict a tenant from a house without proving it was necessary. A father could not evict a tenant without demonstrating, for example, that his child needed the home. The Church could. But that court went on to say that “one cannot confuse state ends with religious ends or public ends with religious ends, whether one is the church or a public corporation.”

That may well be, but for a case to arrive at the Supreme Court, a judge will have to raise the question of unconstitutionality or make an appeal for legal protection. Or a particular case will have to exhaust other judicial recourse in order to come before the tribunal.

“They have time and money, and we don’t,” said the mayor of Garisoain, Javier Ilzarbe, who has only been able to save a hermitage. “They have taken the Church of the Assumption, the atrium, the parish house and its land, and the remains of another hermitage. We realized it a couple years ago, but we didn’t think to appeal, and it isn’t possible now. We’d like to, but…”

The mayors of small towns, like this one from Navarre, don’t even have the right to get upset. “We cut the lights, since we had been paying for them until then; now they pay. They keep asking us to help with repairs, but we won’t. In the ’80s, we repaired the ceiling,” said Ilzarbe.

“We’ll need public support so the big parties or someone in the courts will put a stop to this. It’s occurring all over Spain, and it’s a monumental scandal,” said Josemari Esparza of the Navarrese advocacy group Ekimena, created in 2007 to defend the community’s heritage.

But the bishops have been going to the courts themselves, as they did over the Pilar hermitage in Garisoain, which they pressured City Hall into registering for them. The public one. “We argued that the property belonged to the people, who continue to worship there. They said no way, they wanted the property, period. On top of that, they don’t even pay the property tax,” Ilzarbe said in criticism.

In Huarte, another place in Navarre, the mayor requested a meeting with the bishop. “He declined, and the bursar received us. He sent us to the courts, and here we are. We’re lucky we have the 1820 document in which the clergy acknowledged the public’s ownership of the church,” he said.

The Spanish Episcopal Conference leaves the matter in the hands of each diocese. The Diocese of Navarre responded, “The Church is not writing its name on buildings to appropriate them, but rather because they’re its property.” In another e-mail, it said “City Hall wants to appropriate them,” so the Church has to “defend itself.”

“If the buildings pass to other hands, they aren’t guaranteed to be used for the purposes for which they were created, and such cases have already happened,” it affirmed. It denies that the property comes into church ownership simply because it writes its own name on the deed. “We are following the 1998 law and registering what was already ours.” It also explains that price of conserving this heritage is very high: “It isn’t that the Church wants to become wealthy on the back of the state, but rather that the state is saving money at the expense of the Church.”

Let us return to Navarre and its cathedral. The public paid millions to repair the building months before the diocese claimed it: 15 million euros, to be exact. In 2006, the bishop made the building the church’s own and put prices on visits and activities occurring there, the party says. “The Church wants the property for three things: sale, rent, and mortgages. We already know it is selling and renting property, and we don’t know what it’s doing about mortgages,” said Josemari Esparza.

Esparza cited a case in a book his group published, that of San Miguel de Lizoian, a 13th century church “which was burned and desecrated when City Hall made it into a civic center. In 2003, the Church claimed it, the same day it took ownership of the rest of the churches in the valley; City Hall had to repurchase it to complete the center it was planning. A redundant deal,” Esparza said, indignant. Remember that in the past, the church was the municipal center, the church, the meeting place. Everything. “They ultimately became exclusive places of worship, but that wasn’t always the case. The Church now charges 300 euros in Tallafa for bands to have the concerts they traditionally performed there. Real estate is the church’s business of the future,” continued Esparza.

The party’s book also analyzes the history of the chapel of San Fermín, emblematic of Pamplona. “The archives recount the immense efforts the city had to make to construct it, so great that they had to suspend the Running of the Bulls for six years. It couldn’t be more clear that this was public property. But the diocese claimed it in 2003. And it’s made good money off it on weddings and other rites,” Esparza said.

In Navarre, the group is requesting that mayors make rules to prevent real estate speculation in areas neighboring the churches which are being registered.

To whom do the churches belong? One has to dive into archives to find out, and there isn’t always proof. For the Church, “the peaceful possession of real estate for over 100 years is, judicially, sufficient title to merit legitimate inscription in the Property Registry.” The clergy fear that churches will be used for other ends. But this fear couldn’t also extend to tenements, olive gardens, rectories, and cemeteries, could it?

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