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.