Msgr Philip Heng Explains (1 of 4): Church Structure and Governance


Part 1 of 4: Church Governance Series by Msgr Philip Heng

Structure and Governance of the Catholic Church in Singapore

The Giving in Faith & Thankfulness (GIFT) programme, which calls for greater financial support for the archdiocese, has raised renewed curiosity on how the archdiocese is governed in the collection and use of its funds. In this first of a series on governance, Msgr Philip Heng, Spiritual Director of Catholic Foundation and Vicar General for Finance and Administration, provides an overview of the structure and governance of the Catholic Church in Singapore.

The Catholic Church depends on its faithful for the resources necessary to sustain and extend its mission. This is evident in the Church’s collection of money from the faithful and the active participation of the laity in the mission of the Church. But what structures and practices does the Church have in place to protect these resources given to do God’s Will?


For an organisation with an estimated 1.29 billion members worldwide, with all its complexities, a robust and professional governance structure is necessary for the universal Catholic Church to function and fulfil its mission.

As the Church grew over the centuries, a system of laws, legal principles and norms came to be established and are enforced by the Church’s hierarchical authorities. This system is known as the canon law of the Church.

Canon law is updated with the times. As St Pope John Paul II said on the promulgation of the latest edition of the Code of Canon Law in 1983: “During the course of the centuries the Catholic Church has been accustomed to reform and renew the laws of canonical discipline so that in constant fidelity to its divine founder, they may be better adapted to the saving mission entrusted to it.”

The current edition comprises 1,752 canons divided into seven books, and is freely available on the Vatican’s website:

  • Book I – General Norms (1)
  • Book II – The People of God (204)
  • Book III – The Teaching Office of the Church (756)
  • Book IV – The Sanctifying Office of the Church (834)
  • Book V – The Temporary Goods of the Church (1259)
  • Book VI – Sanctions in the Church (1311)
  • Book VII – Processes (1400)
  • End: 1752

Canon law concerns the Catholic Church’s life and organisation and is distinct from civil law. Canon law is meant to complement civil law.

In recognition of the competence of the state, canon law sometimes defers to civil law. In these instances, the prescriptions of the civil law must be observed and are given effect in canon law, insofar as the civil law is not contrary to the Gospel.


Following canon law, the Archdiocese of Singapore is governed by Archbishop William Goh and the archdiocesan curia, which “consists of those institutions and persons which assist the bishop in the governance of the whole diocese, especially in guiding pastoral action, in caring for the administration of the diocese, and in exercising judicial power” (Can. 469).

The key institutions in the curia include the Board of Consultors, Senate of Priests, Presbyterium (of all priests), Chancery, and Ecclesiastical Tribunals.

Assisting the Archbishop of Singapore are also several individuals appointed by him to take on special tasks:

  • Msgr Ambrose Vaz, Vicar General (Pastoral)
  • Msgr Philip Heng SJ, Vicar General (Admin and Finance, Inter-religious relations)
  • Fr John-Paul Tan OFM, Chancellor
  • Deacon Clement Chen, Financial Administrator

The roles of each institution and individual can be found in Book Two of the Code of Canon Law, as well as the archdiocese’s website.


The archdiocese consists of more than 300,000 Catholics, organised in a network of over 200 pastoral units: 32 parishes, commissions, offices, groups, councils, apostolates and other organisations, like many parts of the same Body of Christ.

Every group and organisation is connected to the archbishop and the archdiocesan curia, and thus to the Universal Church. However, each group has its own governance and governing body, and depending upon the organisational construct, a greater or lesser degree of autonomy and accountability to the archbishop as defined by canon and/or civil law.

This diagram is a simplified visualisation of the Archdiocese of Singapore, and does not reflect all organisations in the archdiocese.


The Catholic Church in Singapore is established in Singapore by special legislation, the Roman Catholic Archbishop Act (Chapter 375).

Under the Parliament Act, the Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore and his successors in office is a body corporate known as the Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore (TRCAS). TRCAS is an exempt charity.

Most Catholic organisations in the archdiocese, such as the Office for Young People (OYP), Archdiocesan Commission for Catholic Schools (ACCS), Archdiocesan Land and Properties Singapore (ALPS) and Office for the New Evangelisation (ONE), for instance, are an integral part of TRCAS.

They work under the auspices of TRCAS, functioning like offices, departments or divisions, even if they may have their own board of directors or an equivalent oversight body. These boards, appointed by the archbishop, are directly accountable to him.

Certain affiliated Catholic organisations are separately legally constituted under civil law. For example, Caritas Singapore and many Catholic charities such as Catholic Welfare Services, ABLE and Clarity are legally set up as either companies limited by guarantee (CLGs) under the Companies Act or societies under the Societies Act. They are also typically granted charity status and sometimes Institution of a Public Character status under the Charities Act.

Such organisations are accountable to their boards which have to comply with the laws under which they are constituted (Companies Act and Societies Act) as well as their constitutional documents. The latter will often include a connection back to the archbishop and/ or TRCAS.

While parishes are an integral part of TRCAS, a parish is a “juridical person” (an entity under canon law). The parish priest, appointed by and accountable to the archbishop, has certain rights and responsibilities under canon law.

Religious congregations are usually legally registered as CLGs or societies. They are ultimately accountable to their superior-generals, but they reside and function in the archdiocese with the mutual agreement of the archbishop, to provide pastoral services for the various needs and growth of the faithful in the archdiocese.

The archbishop has established diocesan committees, such as the Church Structures and Governance Committee, to review and advise on the legal and governance constructs (e.g. on finance, legal form, land and buildings matters) of the respective organisations in the Church.

Details of the more than 200 Catholic organisations and groups in the diocese can be found in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore Directory here.

The information provided includes a brief profile of the organisation, office bearers, and contact information.


This is the first article in a series on Church governance by Msgr Philip Heng.
To read his other articles, click on the following:


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