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.