I have been holding in storage a news article from Brian Fraga of the always reliable Our Sunday Visitor, dated January 30, 2019. His story is titled “Parishes, dioceses feeling the financial pinch,” a look at recent patterns of giving in the United States since the Pennsylvania/McCarrick scandals of last summer. I was not surprised at the general trends reported by Fraga except that the patterns he identifies have been in play for years. Years ago, Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill used to say that all politics are local, and the same is true with Catholic giving. The OSV story reports that while Catholics still contribute to the Offertory collections in their home parishes, they are less inclined to contribute to (1) second collections that go out of the parish, (2) diocesan appeals, and (3) capital campaigns.
In previous Wednesday posts we have looked at stewardship from a variety of perspectives; today we will plunge our hands into the actual proffering of our net worth toward God’s kingdom; Church-giving is probably the best objective measure of faith we have, short of martyrdom or offering our firstborn. There is a world of difference between paying bills and rendering homage to the intention of God by underwriting his good will. For this reason, I do not use EFT for Mass offerings, because taking a pen in hand and writing my offering is a concrete step in my weekly Mass preparation along with spiritual reading [and, since retirement, shaving.] The Offertory is a tangible, living act of common worship.
Fraga’s article addresses what I would term “punitive withholding.” Anger toward the institutional church, or leaders, or specific policies, is given as a reason to discontinue Church giving altogether, or worse, to abandon the Eucharistic table entirely. There are always good reasons to be angry with Mother Church; Luther was right when he called for the Church to be semper reformanda, “always in need of reforming itself.” I would raise a few considerations about punitive withholding of self or support, though. First of all, your Church support does more than you know or realize. I volunteer with several doctors and dentists at a Catholic Charities clinic in a village about 30 miles from Orlando. We could not do this without CC and the neighboring parishes footing the bill for the rent and the salary of the clinic director, who daily makes bricks with very little straw. Such outreach is virtually de rigueur in parish life, and too little is publicized of the feeding, housing, and health care rendered under the Catholic umbrella. The punishment of withholding funds is borne by the suffering, not the guilty.
Second, while the Lord loves a cheerful giver, I think He loves a judicious one as well. The mental health practitioner in me believes that being a part of the solution is emotionally and spiritually more satisfying than withdrawing altogether, personally or financially. Canon Law explicitly provides for lay consultation in the financial management of every parish, and a parish’s budget, at the end of the day, reflects its soul. If there is a major ecclesial obstacle blocking one’s stewardship to parish or diocese, the reason may itself be a gift to the Church and deserves hearing. My parish has had a weekly second collection for “improvements to the buildings and grounds of our parish home” for some years now, and it has netted well into seven figures. It is hard for me to reconcile the scale of our parochial quest for home improvement with the papacy of Pope Francis, who opened a health care facility smack in the middle of St. Peter’s Square for the homeless. It is not easy to personally communicate distress and/or opposition to a pastor, a bishop, or church administrator, when conscience drives one to do so, but it is a right and duty that comes with Baptism.
So how does a donor divvy up the cash? The key is arriving at a total stewardship figure for all charitable giving, not just Catholic ones, in one’s annual budget and breaking it down proportionally. The tithe [10%] is still a good working number with some important qualifications [see below], but one need not feel bound to it if circumstances allow. My wife and I have been active in a quarter century of local parish support and parish capital drives, but with retirement we have felt called in recent years to address the Church’s mission beyond the parish boundaries, into such areas as Hispanic ministry, care for immigrants, Catholic Relief Services, our former religious communities, Catholic school support, Catholic Charities establishments within our diocese, and Catholic adult education and publishing, causes we have longed to embrace more deeply. We have established direct relationships with all these causes, and it is always good to bond at multiple levels of involvement where possible, including prayer and time.
The variety of parish envelopes mailed to households can be quite educational. There is one second collection per month mandated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and they are conveniently listed here. It is worth reading, and if you scan the list, you’ll see a few you recognize, such as the Peter’s Pence collection for the charitable works of the Holy Father in late June, something we used to call “Peter’s Pants” in elementary school. I recall the initiation of the collection for the December Retired Religious Retirement Grant in 1988, after the Wall Street Journal broke the story in 1986 that the cost of caring for elderly sisters would exceed $2 billion if nothing was done. One is certainly free to donate to one or two at the expense of the others.
There is a long-standing debate about whether Catholic giving should be considered separate from charitable giving in general. If a gift falls under the heading of doing good for mankind, I don’t see any reason to exclude it as part of one’s faith commitment. There is a world of difference between a $500,000 gift to a college’s breast cancer research center and a similar gift to the school’s athletic department, and I think most of us can intuit the difference.
In the next post I will address capital campaigns and gifts from beyond the grave, so to speak, wills and bequests. But I would like to add one more point: in my counseling, and in my own circle of friends, I see many folks investing much time, care, nursing and housing in their love of elderly relatives. This, and other corporal works like them, is a unique expression of the love of God and a direct contribution to his Kingdom. Therefore, I hesitated to use an arbitrary number like 10% and prefer the citation of Luke 20: 1-4, the woman who gave all that she had. At its heart, stewardship is a gift of love with its own mathematics.
Dave Dennis, a longtime friend of Margaret and me, and a CPA with years of distinguished experience in Church finance at the local and national level, was kind enough to go over my books on Wednesday’s post involving diocesan finances and annual bishops’ appeals [February 7]. On the Café Facebook site, Dave corrected a statement I had made, to the effect that Catholic dioceses in the United States must file an IRS 990 report that is available for public review on-line to the general public. I wanted to share his correct information on the blog itself.
Dave explained that Catholic entities listed in the “Official Catholic Directory” are generally exempt from this requirement [to file the IRS 990] and instead granted their Tax Exempt Status through a tax determination letter provided to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops which precludes the IRS requirement for public filing of financial statements.
Dave suggested that I explain the importance of the Official Catholic Directory, published since 1817 by P.J. Kenedy [correct spelling] and Sons. The OCD is a very large and expensive one-volume directory considered the official source of all Catholic institutions and clerical personnel in the United States between two covers. Every parish office has a copy despite the cost, because it is considered the reliable source for the addresses of every man in Holy Orders and every religious community, college, and institution. When your parishes observe First Communion, Confirmation, or marriages, certification of the event is mailed to the address of the church where the original baptismal record is kept, as it appears in the OCD. If you are trying to find the current assignment and address of the priest who married you 25 years ago, the OCD will contain this information. [Don’t be afraid to ask your parish office for assistance in this regard.]
As Dave pointed out above, the OCD has quasi-civil legal status in matters of tax exemption, among other things. If a congregation sets itself up and claims the name “Catholic,” but is not listed in the OCD, it cannot claim Roman Catholic juridical status. The same is true with clergy. There are always imposter priests wandering about performing weddings and other services for fees, but only properly ordained priests incardinated into a diocese or religious order are officially recognized in the book. The OCD includes retired clergy and a necrology.
The OCD in recent years has also served as an invaluable if sad service in the investigation of clergy accused of abuse. If my memory is correct, there is a scene in the movie “Spotlight” where the reporters are pouring through older volumes of the OCD to trace the careers of abuse perpetrators shuffled from parish to parish and diocese to diocese. As the OCD is an open publication, law enforcement officers can circumvent uncooperative dioceses by researching the book.
The cost of the OCD in its various print and internet versions is listed for non-clergy at around $399. When I was a pastor, I think I bought ours every other year.
Next Sunday my Diocese of Orlando will conduct its annual “Our Catholic Appeal” in all its parishes. In this age of wireless commerce, my household has already made its gift on-line [I never pass up a chance to earn frequent flier miles.] In his personal letter, Bishop John Noonan states that the appeal is made on behalf of the teaching, sanctifying, and administering office of the bishop. Church history itself supports the right of a bishop to call for financial and other forms of support of the ministry and eventually spelled out the obligation to support in Canon 1260.
Our Diocese has adopted a healthy transparency in recent years and was recognized last year for its financial transparency by a national Catholic watchdog organization for its openness. The full diocese audit (most recent June 2018) is available on-line, and you owe it to yourself to look at a diocesan report at least once in your life, if for no other reason than to understand what a complicated institution a Catholic diocese is. If your own diocese does not publish some sort of audited financial statement, you might ask yourself—why? As each tax-exempt entity must file a detailed IRS 990 form to maintain tax-exempt status, the information in any chancery office is at hand, even if not publicly posted. I am pleased that my bishop did not refer to the campaign as the “Catholic Charities” campaign, a title which suggests that all contributions go to direct services to the poor. A portion of Orlando’s annual diocesan appeal is directed toward the Catholic Charities corporation of the Orlando Diocese, which maintains its own books and publishes a similar full audit on line. But much of an annual diocesan campaign is focused upon “the business of running the Church.”
I must admit that in my years as a pastor there was an “us-them” attitude toward the bishop’s campaign. It was in the nature of priests in my generation that we could run our parishes just fine, thank you very much; that may still be true today. I resented having to raise an assigned amount of money to fund the “bureaucracy” downtown. I remember attending a meeting of priests years ago where one pastor said he had programmed his fax machine to reject anything from the chancery. Five other pastors immediately shouted in unison, “How?” To sweeten the annual appeal, modern social communications sometimes portray the appeal as a vehicle of direct services to people—plenty of pictures of school children, poor people, the elderly, and nuns in habit (never in professional dress). Until recent years I always had at least mild ethical scruples about this approach. One never sees the typing pool in the Marriage Tribunal or a meeting of the diocesan financial consultants studying investment strategies for the diocesan reserves. As luck would have it, a January 30, 2019 essay in Our Sunday Visitor reported that while U.S. Catholics continue to support their local parishes, giving to second collections and diocesan appeals is down in a number of locations, a backlash to recent episcopal sandals.
Our diocese, like all dioceses, funds the personnel and seed money for a wide range of ministries under the bishop. Dioceses in general carry administrative and fiscal responsibilities that most Catholics know very little about, if at all. Many of these responsibilities are not glamorous, but justice and decency demand that they be carried out. One such ministry is the “care of priests.” From vocational recruitment to appropriate burial, a diocese bears particular responsibility for those who devote their adult lives to sacramental-parish ministry, particularly its “incardinated” priests (i.e., those ordained for, or as in my case, legally received into, a specific diocese.) The Florida Catholic Conference (the eight-diocese consortium) is corporate owner of a state college-graduate seminary whose annual tuition/board is listed currently at $36,000/year. The seminary’s admissions catalogue seems to suggest obtaining tuition assistance through federal programs and a student’s sponsoring bishop. The catalogue also advises seminarians to exercise caution in taking out loans in view of the salary they might expect as priests.
My diocese, like many, wears many other hats, including that of banker. This is literally true in Orlando as there is an internal entity called the diocesan bank dating back to my years as a pastor, the early 1980’s. Essentially this was and still is a “savings and loan” fund that we pastors were encouraged to use for our parish reserves. The interest paid to us was lower than commercial rate, but so were the interest rates to pastor borrowers. When I built a parish church in 1988, I banked pledge payments with the diocesan bank and borrowed the remaining 50% at lower than commercial rate. I might add here that the 50-50 rule [cash in hand and borrowed funds] to begin construction was the practice here in Orlando for many years and kept most parishes from falling too far into debt.
Diocesan donors need to understand that like any corporation, dioceses are always in a state of flux, at the mercy of outside forces and their own management decisions. I found in our Catholic Charities audit of 2018 an auditor’s note: “Subsequent to year end, CCCF [Catholic Charities] was informed that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) would discontinue the grant for the Refugee Resettlement program in fiscal year 2019. Grant revenue for the year ended June 30, 2018 from USCCB was $239,549 and is included in contributions in the statement of activities and changes in net assets. The termination of this grant is not expected to have a significant impact on the ongoing operations of CCCF.” I’m not quite as sanguine as the auditor about the loss of a quarter million dollars of aid when the need for such funds remains significant, but these are the kinds of financial issues that bishops and their professionals face frequently, and routine administrative oversight by fulltime personnel in the chancery is a necessary expense.
On the other hand, dioceses can make their own trouble. In the 2000’s it appears that my own diocese opted away from the 50-50 rule of construction finance into the world of selling bonds. Our present-day diocesan audit includes outstanding bond obligations for a high school (of which $15,000,000 or half has been repaid by school fundraising) and seven parishes [unnamed in report] with unpaid obligations ranging from $1 million to over $5 million. I know the story of one parish very well; its new church was built in 2008 upon the projection of a housing boom in the northwest Orlando suburbs. That project included land for a relocated elementary school and a new suburban high school. Bottom line: the diocese incurred massive obligations when the Great Recession struck that year.
Dioceses work in tandem with other entities, and I think that many Catholics in general would be surprised at how much federal, state, and local funding passes through diocesan financial operations, and it should not disturb anyone as improper. It is not a new nor unique set of partnerships in my diocese today. I served as the priests’ representative to our Catholic Charities advisory board thirty-some years ago when a single county in our diocese was receiving over $1 million annually to run the county’s Meals on Wheels Program. What are the odds that my wife and I both volunteer at different diocesan entities and receive government funding? My wife receives a small federal stipend for her work with Hispanic immigrants at a diocesan community center, which she returns to the center. I, on the other hand, counsel on Mondays at a Catholic Charities medical/dental clinic, and the clinic receives a token reimbursement from Lake County, Florida, as I understand it, for each session.
Diocesan funding of education and faith formation is extensive and complex. The Catholic schools of the Diocese of Orlando comprise a larger system than many smaller public municipalities and counties around the country. The expenses of the superintendent’s office are widespread. While parishes are expected to meet salaries and benefits of their teachers, the office of schools oversees teacher development and continuing education, software systems, texts, standardized testing, frequent safety and records oversight, etc. A new challenge for school supervision is heightened physical plant safety. The superintendent is also the officer of faith formation in the schools, overseeing the theological formation of all school staff. This responsibility in itself is quite expensive, as a few years ago the diocese contracted for on-line instruction from a larger diocese.
Again, this is pure conjecture on my part, but it is possible that donors believe a diocesan tuition assistance program is a component of the campaign. I am not aware of such a full-scale program or an endowment for that purpose in my home diocese, and even if an endowment were to be established for that purpose, it would take fifteen years and massive investment to generate even a modest sum for diocesan-wide tuition assistance. My parish established and seeded a school endowment in 1995 when our school was built, and some other parishes may have done the same thing.
I never got to the full array of diocesan administrative costs: health insurance underwriting, pension, real estate, needs of religious sisters, family life personnel including Pro-Life advocacy, pre-Cana/marriage enrichment/annulments, safe training and finger-printing, media and diocesan newspaper, several institutions for the indigent sick, elderly, and developmentally challenged children, legal counsel, construction and renovation oversight, adoption, campus ministry, cemeteries, and the diocesan retreat center. And I forgot plenty.
In my forty years in this diocese, I have seen parishes and organizations undertake considerably more initiative in outreach to the hungry, the sick, the needy and the homeless through St. Vincent de Paul Societies, local food banks, and other ventures. I am sure this is happening around the country, particularly with the exhortations of Pope Francis in the direction of a common justice. Every diocese might be considered the generator of Gospel good works: preaching the Gospel, celebrating sacraments, forming Gospel consciences, providing structure and support for our work in the market place. The bishop’s appeal, by whatever name, does not fund a bureaucracy; it funds the people and structures who spark the fire. There are many avenues to express anger at Church leadership, but withholding the Church’s gifts of faith and food from the hungry is a strategy that would eventually be regretted.