Breakthrough in Spain: Catholic Church starts returning thousand possessions

by Lorraine Williamson
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MADRID – Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez has agreed with the President of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Omella, to start restoring properties that were improperly registered as belonging to the Catholic Church on the basis of a 1998 law of the conservative Partido Popular.  

After years of effort and dozens of meetings of the commission formed for this case, the Spanish government has succeeded. The Church admitted it is not the legal owner of around 1,000 of the 35,000 properties registered since 1998. Furthermore, some 20,000 of these are places of worship. Moreover, this amounts to 2.8% of the total number of registered properties. 

The government and the church have issued a joint communiqué in which the church admits that these thousand properties ‘belong to a third party or the church has no proof of ownership’. With the signing of the agreement, the procedures for the return of these properties to their owners begin. 

Houses, schools, and cemeteries throughout Spain 

The properties, include a large number of houses, as well as schools and plots of land. These are both rural and urban and are spread unevenly throughout Spain. Furthermore, Castilla y León leads the list, with 485 of the total 965 properties registered by the Church.

This is followed by;

  • Catalonia (101)
  • Navarra (74)
  • Extremadura (67)
  • Andalucia (54)
  • Aragon (35)
  • Castilla La Mancha (35)
  • Canary Islands (32)
  • Madrid (23)
  • Murcia (19)
  • Cantabria (18)
  • Asturias (17)
  • La Rioja (16)
  • Balearic Islands (12)
  • Valencia Region (10)
  • Galicia (9)
  • Basque Country (8)

Of the 965 properties, 208, although registered in the name of the Church, do not actually belong to it. And of 757, the Church has discovered they belong to another owner, although they are registered in the name of the Church. The list includes 38 cemeteries, 502 rural fincas, 151 urban fincas and 98 residential properties.  

Breakthrough since 1998 

This list of properties will now be sent to the Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces, which, according to the government, will be ‘the one to distribute the list to local entities in order to identify the owner’. And although this process has yet to be completed, this agreement represents a breakthrough since 1998. Back then, a PP decree simplified the registration of property by the Catholic Church. Now, through a special procedure requiring only church certification, a start is being made on returning some of these properties to their original owners or their heirs. In most cases, these will be the congregations. 

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Almost 35,000 properties in 18 years 

According to government data, the Catholic Church appropriated 34,961 homes between 1998 and 2015. These were provided by the reform of then Prime Minister Aznar and then maintained by the PSOE and the PP. Various civic organisations regularly demanded the return of irregularly appropriated properties. They also demanded that the Franciscan law, which allowed bishops to register estates orally, be brought before the Constitutional Court. In the end, the Church now recognises that 965 of these 34,961 appropriated properties (2.8%) are irregular and that it must return them.  

Relevant for five years 

In 2017, when the issue became politically relevant, the Congress of Deputies approved an initiative by the PSOE, then in opposition. This urged the government to draw up a list of the assets in question. Following the 2018 motion of censure, the new PSOE government pursued the matter again with the coalition. In February 2021, the government sent the Congress of Deputies a list of the 34,961 properties appropriated by the church between 1995 and 2015. Of these, 20,014 are registered as pilgrimage sites and 14,947 properties have other uses. Consequently, after detailed investigations, the Spanish church has acknowledged about a thousand properties that do not belong to it.  

Agreement 

The agreement between the government and the church means that the dioceses undertake to facilitate the process of restitution of the properties, which according to the investigation are in the name of other persons. In any case, the agreement and meeting between Omella and Sánchez show a clear rapprochement between the Spanish Church and the government, at a time when the coalition is welcoming the line taken by Pope Francis. 

Unresolved issues  

The Spanish government is committed to a good relationship with the church, although there are differences of opinion on several issues. For example, one of the most delicate issues is that of taxation, particularly the exemption from the annual property tax (IBI), which the government wants to reverse. Another sensitive issue is the confirmed years of child abuse within the church. The Spanish church is now taking action to investigate the abuses.

What does not seem to make any headway is the Socialists’ commitment to work on a ‘revision’, with the agreement of the Episcopal Conference, of the agreements with the Vatican and the Concordat. Revision of these bilateral agreements between the Catholic Church and the state, which predate the introduction of the Constitution, is ‘within the framework of the values and principles of constitutional democracy’. For the time being, however, the priority is on the expropriations and the discussion of taxation, although no agreement has yet been reached on the latter.  

Related article:

Catholic Church appropriated Spanish heritage list published

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