In U.S. Catholic history, trusteeism was a form of insubordination in which lay parishioners, particularly lay parish trustees, on the basis of civil law claimed excessive parochial administrative powers and even the right to choose and dismiss pastors.
Lay intrusion into the temporal and temporal-spiritual affairs of the Catholic Church has a long history, and trusteeism has been its principal American episode. Although trustee troubles were far from universal, they occurred widely and sometimes intensely in nearly 20 states of the East, South, and near Middle West. The "trustee-mania" waned only when the hierarchy, through more adequate canonical and civil rulings, gained legal protection for their native right to manage church goods and appoint church personnel.
Roots of Trusteeism. An old American trustee system of parish administration, Protestant in origin and conception, invested lay trustees or churchwardens with wide control of parish temporalities, a control that in the Protestant context usually implied the right of patronage. Early state legislation favored the system, and where a state granted legal incorporation to a Catholic parish, it recognized the laity as the true administrators.
Lay parochial associates were not unknown in the Catholic Church where the existence of fabricae, or boards of lay managers, was recognized by the Council of Trent (Sess. 22, Cap. 9, de ref.). Committees of these churchwardens (marguilliers ) were familiar in the parishes of France, and in the Rhineland, the home country of many early German Catholic immigrants to the U.S. But there was this difference between marguillier board and trustee board: the original marguilliers were essentially subject to the clergy; the trustees, essentially independent of them. Catholic trustees could, of course, interpret their civil powers in a Catholic light, even as a civilly divorced Catholic can repudiate his legal "right" to remarry. But too frequent abuse eventually turned the hierarchy against the old trustee system in principle.
Initial Period: 1785–1829. The state of New York was the first to enact a law of general incorporation for church congregations. The Act of April 6, 1784 (some-what amended in 1813), allowed the male adults of a parish of any denomination to elect trustees, who thereby became a parochial corporation with wide administrative powers. While the law declared its intention not to disturb the "doctrine, discipline, or worship" of the incorporating denomination, its inadequate terminology gave parish suffrage even to lapsed Catholics, left clergy off trustee boards, and tolerated lay "right of patronage" [S. Jones and R. Varick, eds., Laws of the State of New York (New York 1789) 1:104–10; Laws of the State of New York (Albany 1813) 2:212–19]. Several states imitated the New York law; others made parallel provisions.
The first case of trusteeism occurred in New York City's pioneer Catholic parish while John Carroll was prefect apostolic of the U.S. The lay founders of St. Peter's chose to incorporate on June 10, 1785, under the Act of 1784, as "The Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church of the City of New York." Carroll permitted the incorporation and granted faculties as rector to Irish-born Charles Whelan, OFMCap, and as assistant rector—some months later—to Irish-born Andrew Nugent, OFMCap. But before long the ambitious Nugent, abler than Whelan as a preacher, so influenced the trustees that in January 1786 they threatened to invoke civil law if Carroll did not at once discharge Whelan and replace him with Nugent. Dismayed by the trustees' un-Catholic appeal to their "civil rights" and by the partisan tumult they had caused in church, Carroll rejected their demand and pointed out that in Church law they enjoyed no right of patronage. Whelan chose to depart after intolerable harassment. Nugent, however, soon antagonized even the trustees by his misbehavior. Suspended by Carroll, he led his die-hard adherents into schism, declaring himself subject only to Christ and the civil officials of New York. The trustees had to bring suit to wrest from the unfortunate friar the church property that he had forcibly retained.
Most of the elements of trusteeism, including unruly priests, were present in this original case.
Soon national sensitivities also began to figure. Carroll's trouble with Holy Trinity in Philadelphia was largely one of German nationalism. At St. Mary's, Charleston, S.C., the Irish objected to French-born pastors. As a bishop, John Carroll met new complications in the Diocese of Louisiana when he was named its administrator in 1805. The marguilliers, recently installed by civil authority at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, claimed the right in American civil law to elect church superiors, and therefore refused to accept the priest whom Carroll appointed as their vicar-general.
After the subdivision of the Diocese of Baltimore in 1808, trusteeism spread rather than subsided, largely for want of an organized stand against it. True, the bishops of Boston and Bardstown kept matters in hand throughout New England and the near Middle West, but there were grave disorders in the Diocese of New York, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and the Diocese of Philadelphia. The factions dispersed at St. Peter's, New York, only after Rome, in 1821, ordered Bp. John Connolly to dismiss two troublesome clerics. The trustees of St. Mary's, Charleston, S.C., and the Gallican-minded trustees of St. Patrick's, Norfolk, Va., by incessant agitation coupled with the threat of a Jansenist schism, wrung from the Holy See the establishment of new dioceses centered at Charleston and Richmond, Va. In Philadelphia the aged Bp. Henry Conwell, after long withstanding the scandalous Hogan schism at St. Mary's Church, incurred the displeasure of Rome because of an ill-advised strategy, and had to yield his jurisdiction and its trustee problems into the hands of a coadjutor and administrator, Bp. Francis P. Kenrick.
One good effect of these conflicts was the issuance of two papal documents. Disturbed by the Hogan schism, Pius VII, in the brief Non sine magno (Aug. 24, 1822), reiterated to the American hierarchy the Catholic principle that church property is subject to hierarchical, not lay, control and branded trusteeist claims to the jus patronatus as "novum … ac plane inauditum" (novel … and quite unheard of) [R. De Martinis, Juris Pontifici de Propaganda Fide (Rome 1888–98), Pars Ia, 4:619–22]. Leo XII, in the Quo longius, addressed on Aug. 28, 1828, to Bp. Joseph Rosati, administrator of the Diocese of New Orleans, restated the warnings of the Non sine magno to the New Orleans Cathedral trustees (ibid., 705–706).
Decisive Period: 1829 to 1884. As first bishop of Charleston, John England harnessed trusteeism with his ingenious diocesan "constitution" of 1823. The hierarchy in general at last found an effective weapon in the antitrusteeist legislation of the Councils of baltimore. Decree 5 of the First Provincial Council (1829) urged bishops wherever possible to demand the property deed before dedicating any future church. Decree 6 denied the existence of any canonical jus patronatus in the province of Baltimore and declared that church benefactors did not acquire such a right by virtue of their donations. Decrees 7 and 8 instructed bishops to impose canonical penalties on refractory clerics and laymen. Amplified in subsequent Provincial Councils—the Third (1837), Fourth (1840), Fifth (1843), and Seventh (1847)—the legislation was extended to the whole country by Decrees 2, 15, 16, and 17 of the First Plenary Council of Baltimore (1852).
Applying the Baltimorean rules with all deference to civil law, the bishops gradually cured the old cases of trusteeism and checked its westward spread. The task was hardest in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and New York.
When in 1846 Bp. Anthony Blanc of New Orleans vanquished the marguilliers of his cathedral, his hand was strengthened by a Louisiana supreme court decision and a letter from Gregory XVI (Ecclesiae universae, March 26, 1844: De Martinis, 5:331–32). But at Holy Trinity in Philadelphia and St. Louis in Buffalo the trusteeists stoutly withstood Abp. Gaetano bedini, whom the Holy See sent over in 1853 to examine their claims. Two years later a number of trusteeists, conspiring with newly elected state legislators of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party (see know-nothingism), procured in New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere laws intended to compel all Catholic parishes to adopt the odious trustee form of incorporation.
Except in Pennsylvania this discriminatory legislation was soon repealed and fairer regulations for property tenure were devised. The most influential was the New York State act of March 25, 1863, which framed a type of corporation aggregate quite acceptable to Catholics in that its board comprised the bishop, vicar-general, pastor, and two lay trustees chosen by the three [Laws of the State of New York Passed in the Eighty-Sixth Session of the Legislature (Albany 1863) 65–67; McKinney's Consolidated Laws of New York Annotated (Brooklyn 1952) 50:116–19, 120–22]. While Titulus IV of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866) indicated no preference regarding modes of property tenure, Titulus IX of the Third Plenary Council (1884) implicitly favored the aggregate corporation. On July 29, 1911, the Congregation of the Council officially ranked the corporation aggregate ahead of the corporation sole [Decree Sacrorum Antistitum, in American Ecclesiastical Review, 45 (1911) 585–86]. Precedents had meanwhile accumulated in civil courts tending to uphold the church authorities in litigation over church properties, e.g., Watson v. Jones, U.S. Supreme Court, 1871 [80 U.S., 679 (1872)].
Later Trusteeism. After 1884 trusteeism occurred mostly among Slavic immigrants from central and eastern Europe. Untutored like the earlier immigrants and faced with similar parish problems, the new immigrants likewise appealed to the un-Catholic ambiguities of civil law. The story of later trusteeism has yet to be investigated. A trusteeist mentality was certainly evident in the formation of the polish national catholic church and the large schismatic movements among the Greek-rite Ruthenian Catholics, both Ukrainian and Russian.
Conclusion. The struggle with trusteeism was an important phase in the accommodation of the Catholic Church to the American milieu. Extreme doctrinaire trusteeists were few, were usually nominal Catholics, and maintained their brief leadership only in the face of a real or imagined grievance. It must be admitted, however, that the trustee system appealed to many worthy Catholics. Entranced by the democratic procedures of the U.S., they were eager to apply them even as their Protestant neighbors did, in the small republic of the parish. The battle against trusteeism was therefore a canonical, legal, and educational battle against an incipient Catholic congregationalism. Understandably, the campaign engendered in the American hierarchy a caution, sometimes even excessive, about delegating to laymen extensive authority over church temporalities.
Bibliography: p. j. dignan, A History of the Legal Incorporation of Catholic Church Property in the United States, 1784–1932 (Washington 1933). r. f. mcnamara, "Trusteeism in the Atlantic States, 1785–1863," American Catholic Historical Review 30 (1944) 135–154. a. g. stritch, "Trusteeism in the Old Northwest, 1800–1850," ibid. 155–164; and works cited by all three. For the marguillier tradition see r. baudier, The Catholic Church in Louisiana (New Orleans 1939). g. parÉ, The Catholic Church in Detroit, 1701–1888 (Detroit 1951). See also recent histories of eastern and southern dioceses and m. j. curley, Venerable John Neumann, CSSR, Fourth Bishop of Philadelphia (Washington 1952). v. j. fecher, A Study of the Movement for German National Parishes in Philadelphia and Baltimore, 1787–1802 (Rome 1955). h. j. nolan, The Most Reverend Francis Patrick Kenrick, Third Bishop of Philadelphia, 1813–1886 in Catholic University of America, Studies in American Church History, 37 (Washington 1948). a. p. stokes, Church and State in the United States, 3 v. (New York 1950). Slavic trusteeism is touched on in: t. andrews, The Polish National Catholic Church (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London 1953). s. gulovich, Windows Westward: Rome, Russia, Reunion (New York 1947); "The Russian Exarchate in the United States," The Eastern Churches Quarterly 6 (1946) 459–486. a. senyshyn, "The Ukrainian Catholics in the United States," ibid. 439–458.
[r. f. mcnamara]
"Trusteeism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/trusteeism
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