4 March 2022

The “Patrimonio Stabile” and Religious Congregations

General aspects and usefulness of a legal concept which is still sometimes misunderstood

On Tuesday March 29, 2022, from 09:30 to 17:30 at the Casa Maria Immacolata in Via Ezio, 28, Rome, Dikaios will host a full-day workshop at which it will be joined by Prof. Andrea Bettetini of the Catholic University of Milan, and Dr. Marco Cottogni an expert Commercialista in Rome to discuss the legal, tax and practical aspects of the Stable Patrimony. In anticipation of this event, which we hope many of you will be able to attend, we would like to begin providing you with some preparatory and, we hope, stimulating, information on the question.

In the constantly changing social and economic environment in which religious congregations today operate, it is necessary to be aware of the various possibilities that the canonical and civil order provide to face contemporary challenges. This applies primarily to those religious congregations engaged in activities of commercial nature or, in any case, unrelated to the purposes of religion and worship. In this context, the institution of a Stable Patrimony appears to be more than ever an opportunity for Congregations to protect their assets and the representatives who manage them, in addition to contributing to more clarity in dealing with third parties. This, in turn, fosters the Congregation’s reputation.

The setting-up of a Stable Patrimony is not always perceived as an opportunity, but rather as a burdensome instrument that complicates the Congregations’ asset management and limits their freedom of action by subjecting them to more outside control. One purpose of the upcoming workshop is to overcome some of these prejudices.

What exactly is the Stable Patrimony and what is its purpose?

The Stable Patrimony consists of all real and movable property which, by lawful assignment, is necessary to ensure the economic security of a canonical public entity. In other words, it is composed of those assets that are considered indispensable, for a religious entity to realize its religious charisma and achieve its purposes. It is often thought to refer exclusively to real estate or to immovable property and the term “stable” would induce one to consider the Stable Patrimony as immutable or irreversible in time, like the permanent endowment of a foundation. But this is not the case.

The Stable Patrimony rather refers to that group of “protectedassets, which at a given period of time are dedicated to securing the religious entity’s financial wherewithal and autonomy, and which are considered fundamental to enable the entity to carry out its activities for the achievement of its institutional purposes. Assigning these assets to the Stable Patrimony withdraws them from the ordinary life of the legal entity and, by so doing, protects them against ordinary risks, such as arbitrary alienation or access by creditors in the course of insolvency or other court proceedings.

The assignment of a Congregation’s fundamental assets to the Stable Patrimony is not irreversible and may, and indeed, should reviewed based on the Congregation’s changing needs or objectives. It may therefore be adapted over time to altered economic conditions that affect commercial activities or the life of the Congregation as a whole. At the time, the Stable Patrimony constitutes a stable and reliable basis for prospective and goal-oriented future planning.

Which assets constitute the Stable Patrimony and how are these identified?

The Stable Patrimony is composed of those assets that are part of the foundational endowment of the religious legal entity and of those assets that, from time to time, must be assigned to the Stable Patrimony category.

For assets to be lawfully ascribed to the Stable Patrimony, an explicit legal act of lawful assignment must be accomplished either by provision of law, by order or resolution of the appropriate ecclesiastical authority or under the religious entity’s statutes. An implicit assignment has been discussed in doctrine but appears to be admissible only in relation to those assets which are part of the foundational endowment of the entity. From this it follows that not all assets of a religious legal entity constitute assets belonging to the Stable Patrimony, i.e. the notion of the latter does not coincide with that of the assets of the legal entity.

Canon Law does not provide for an absolute indication regarding the extent and type of assets to be assigned to the Stable Patrimony.

As already mentioned, the Stable Patrimony may be composed of both real and movable property. Therefore, asset type may not be used as a criterion to identify the assets belonging to the Stable Patrimony. The criterion is that the assets belonging to the Stable Patrimony constitute the minimum endowment of a religious entity, necessary to ensure its survival and capacity to pursue its institutional objectives at a given period of time. The Italian Episcopal Conference, in two Instructions on Administrative Matters of 1992 and 2005, provided a useful definition of Stable Patrimony: a set of assets “legitimately assigned to the legal entity as a permanent endowmentwhether instrumental assets or profitable assetsto facilitate the achievement of institutional purposes and ensure economic self-sufficiency”.

As regards the method to be used to precisely identify these assets, different approaches have been discussed in doctrine. The determination of the Patrimonio Stabile may be based on general criteria, such as: qualitative and quantitative elements of the assets themselves, economic need for the carrying out of the activity of the religious entity, the contingent situation of the entity, etc. Another approach could consist in determining a fixed quantity of assets which would have to be obligatorily assigned to the Patrimonio Stabile in relation to the total extent of the overall patrimony of the religious entity.

In this respect, the inventory of assets prescribed by canon 1283 represents an excellent opportunity for the creation or adjustment of the Stable Patrimony.

It is further advisable for every Congregation to have a list of the assets constituting its Stable Patrimony and to endeavor to make it public, by means of deeds valid also under civil law. This can prove very useful in practice and is essential for legal certainty, the lawfulness of the assignment and the opposability towards third parties.

Conclusions

The rules regarding the alienation of assets belonging to the Stable Patrimony may sometimes be perceived as burdensome or as an interference into a Congregations’ autonomy. However, they provide a particular and necessary protection of vital assets, inasmuch as they are essential to ensure the capacity to fulfil the purposes and objectives of a religious entity. Furthermore, once the assets are lawfully assigned to the Stable Patrimony in a clear and effective way, the consequential legal clarity entails an efficient safeguard in favor of the Congregation itself and, finally, of its managing bodies.

The protection produces its effects also beyond the borders of the canonical order. In terms of charisma, the concept of Stable Patrimony, may contribute to a clear and distinct positioning of Congregations in the relationship between State and Church, between contemporary challenges and spirituality. The process of establishing and defining the Congregation’s Stable Patrimony and which assets shall be comprised and shall not, may also give rise to a useful awareness of a Congregation’s identity, its values, mission and future objectives.

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