The fiscal relationship of a bishop with his diocese flows from his position as successor of the Apostles and protector of the Church’s good name and fidelity to the Church’s mission in his diocese. The specific responsibilities of a bishop are enumerated in Canon law here, and I suggest that before going further in today’s blog, you might want to see how universal Church law delineates the mission and obligation of the bishop. I continue to be amazed at what Canon Law expects of a bishop, and it is amazing that most bishops endure till their required retirement age of 75.
Canon Law [and civil law, for that matter] expect a great deal of a bishop. Commentators have noted since the release of the 1983 Code of Canon Law that it is impossible for a bishop to personally attend to every duty cited in the Code, and the custom in our country even before Vatican II was the assigning of competent clerical professionals to fulfill these responsibilities in the bishop’s stead, though always in full communion with the bishop’s mission for the diocese. When I was a boy in Buffalo all the major administrative diocesan posts were filled by priests—such as superintendent of schools, CEO, chancellor, director of the Tribunal, etc. For several reasons—particularly the Council’s call for lay involvement and the declining number of priests--these positions are often filled by lay persons and religious sisters and brothers today.
Again, if you scan the canonical list of episcopal responsibility, you can safely deduce that the expenses of a diocese are significant. Last week I neglected to publicize that my own Diocese of Orlando, along with Burlington, Vermont, enjoys a perfect rating among all the 177 American dioceses in terms of public financial disclosure and transparency. To see the present independent audit of my diocese, you can follow the links on this page. An audit lays out where every dime has gone and where every dime is owed, but it cannot as rule tell you whether the expenditure was prudent or whether one’s diocese is sufficiently positioned to absorb another recession such as 2008’s.
Church Law assumes that as the senior pastor of his flock, the bishop will enjoy the full support of the diocesan faithful, i.e. the members of each parish, with his pastors facilitating this cooperation by exhortation from the pulpit and/or other media about the nature of the diocesan good works undertaken. Ideally, there is a consensus between the bishop, the pastors, and the laity on the fiscal priorities of the diocese. However, this hoped for harmonious spirit depends ultimately on the relationship between the bishop and “his men,” i.e., the pastors, and further down the road between the pastor and “his people, which would be us.
Even before I became a pastor myself, I was aware of the “contested space” between chancery and parish. I doubt this is a uniquely Catholic problem, and many of you work in circumstances where you must answer to an executive office across town or hundreds of miles away, or maybe even across the ocean. Orlando is by no means the largest diocese, geographically speaking, in the United States, but when I came here in 1978 there was considerable distance between our major cities, and each of our five deaneries or regions had a distinctive personality of its own. When I say distinctive, I am referring particularly to degrees of separation from local sites and the chancery in downtown Orlando.
Historically, pastors want to exercise their authority with limited interference from “downtown.” This is particularly true in matters of finances, and specifically to the annual “tax” assessed to parishes by the bishop each year. Readers may recognize this tax by another name, “the annual Catholic Charities appeal” or some form of that type. Years ago, our local bishops named this early springtime financial harvest the “Bishop’s Annual Service Enrichment” campaign, which I have always felt is a somewhat more honest title because inclusion of the word “charity” in such campaigns is somewhat misleading to the donors. Monies pledged and collected routinely support the administration of a diocese.
This is not to say that a fair amount of money does not go to good works, but the advertising can disguise the fact that a great deal of money goes toward administrative and office salaries. Our Catholic Charities promotional video, usually shown at Mass on the weekend before the campaign, is filled with clips of children on Catholic school campuses in full uniform. The expectation of a donor, I would think, is that poorer children of limited means receive tuition assistance in our Catholic schools through the campaign, but this is not so. “Catholic Charities” supports the office of schools, whose paid staff of chancery administrators is not small by any means.
Pastors are keenly aware of such things and have complained about their annual assessments since Noah and the Flood. Each parish receives an assessment unique to their circumstances. For years I would sit with my pastor friends as we tried to decode the formula. The amount of the assessment is the “goal” of the Catholic Charities” campaign. This past spring my home parish’s goal was about $900,000; I doubt that there are more than four or five parishes in my diocese close to that range. My pastor has a reserve to cover a shortfall, but this would not be the case for most parishes in my diocese, and the annual campaign is truly a challenge for many of our parishes.
In reading about dioceses that have recently gone bankrupt, I have seen reports that some bishops assess parishes about 20%, and even 30%, of their annual offertory intake. These might be dioceses with hefty expenses resulting from clerical abuse, and I often wonder if parishioners in those locales are aware of that. [Hence the need for annual diocesan audit publication.] In any event, the authority of the bishop to assess parishes for the diocesan mission is always a tender spot with pastors, most of whom in my experience would like the availability of funds on hand to meet capital expenses or other parish concerns.
The quality of the relationship between bishops and their priests is probably the best determinant of how little or how much antagonism manifests itself in matters of money. My impression is that my own bishop, John Noonan, goes to great lengths to minister to his priests and reduce local stresses. On the other hand, if you want an example of how badly a bishop can manage his clergy, check out the three-part series in Crux Catholic news service on the Diocese of Memphis, where Pope Francis removed a bishop after only two years of his term a few weeks ago. Like all relationships, much depends on the sanity and good sense of all parties involved.
This concludes the second post in the series on the catechetics of the collection plate. I had intended this stream to go three posts, but I am adding a fourth, because I believe it is important to illustrate why and how dioceses and parishes need much more money than they receive now. The final post will be some considerations on stewardship and targeting your giving according to your conscience.