Where are Catholics when the collection basket gets passed?

by David Scott

Inspired by her parents’ commitment to sacrificial giving, when 10-year-old Lucy Menard of Albany, New York, made her first Communion, she asked her family and friends to donate money to the needy in Latin America instead of buying gifts for her.

The first check that John Ricci writes each month doesn’t go to pay his mortgage or electric bills. Before he pays his bills, he figures out five percent of his gross pay. Then he makes out a check for that amount and drops it in the collection basket at his parish in Guilderland, New York.

Ricci’s 18-year-old daughter, Christine, now a college freshman, while in high school donated five percent of the money she made at her after school job to her parish. Like her dad, she also tried to give another five percent of what she made to diocesan and other charitable groups.

collectionmainThe Menards and the Riccis are being touted by Church officials as role models for the Catholic family of the future. As pioneers in an ambitious new project in the Diocese of Albany, New York, they’re practicing stewardship and sacrificial giving—volunteering their time, their skills and their money to do and support the work of their Church.

Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard started the experimental program because he feared that, if alarming declines in Catholic giving weren’t reversed, the diocese and its 195 parishes would soon be left without the resources needed to carry out the Church’s mission.

Similar concerns extend beyond the Church in Albany. All over the country, churches and dioceses are singing the money blues. Faced with rising costs, dwindling donations and the flight of Catholics from cities to the suburbs, the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses and archdioceses have had to scale back service and shut down facilities.

“The Church is in somewhat dire financial straits,” says George Holloway, director of the National Catholic Development Conference, an independent organization that helps religious orders and Church agencies raise money.

Cash Crunch

The economic crunch is most striking in large, predominantly urban archdioceses.

The Archdiocese of Detroit was forced to close 31 parishes in 1989. In Chicago last year, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin faced a $28 million deficit and two thirds of the archdiocese’s parishes were in debt. As of June 1991, there are 33 fewer parishes due to consolidations and closing.

In New York, a rash of Catholic school closures in 1990 focused national attention on the declining fortunes of the Catholic education system. Across the country, fiscal pressures have caused approximately 200 elementary schools to close their doors since 1965. In that same period, almost half of the nation’s Catholic high schools have shut down.

More than a century ago, Catholic schools were the symbol of the immigrant Church in America, which provided material as well as spiritual aid to Catholics who flocked to this country from Central and Eastern Europe.

Catholics have come a long way from their poor immigrant forbearers who scraped their pennies together to finance construction of towering cathedrals like St. Patrick’s in Manhattan.

Today, Catholics are the wealthiest religious group in the nation, with the average Catholic family bringing home $31,475 a year.

Yet the Church in America is in the throes of a fiscal crisis.

At their June meeting, the U.S. bishops agreed to slash more than $1 million from the $34 million operating budget of their policy and administrative arms, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference.

The cuts were needed to offset the steady decrease in the amount that individual dioceses contribute to the bishops’ confrence. A reflection of the current financial pinch being felt by dioceses nationwide, those contributions—currently about 16 cents per Catholic—have failed to keep pace with inflation.

Giving Less

Hard figures on the extent of the Church’s financial woes are difficult to come by because each diocese and archdiocese operates independently. Analysts, however, agree on the root cause of the crisis—the steady and progressive decline in Catholic contributions.

James Burns, development director for the Seattle Archdiocese and an authority on parish finances, says the country’s 55 million Catholics only contribute about half as much as they did 20 years ago. He says, moreover, that only about one in every five Catholic families gives anything at all either to their parishes or to their diocese.

The growing stinginess of Catholics has cost the Church about $65 billion over the last two decades, according to Matthew Paratore, director of the National Catholic Stewardship Council, an association of diocese development directors.

For Paratore and other Church authorities, the anatomy of failing Church fortunes is documented definitively Father Andrew Greeley’s “Catholic Contributions: Sociology and Policy,” a 1987 study of Protestant and Catholic giving patterns for the last quarter century.

Greeley found that Catholics and Protestants gave a little more than 2 percent of their annual income to their Churches in the early 1960’s. By mid-1980’s Protestants were still giving at the same rate, but Catholic giving had dropped by almost one half, despite an upward surge in their annual incomes.

Those giving trends continued through the end of the decade, and Catholics today still give only about one percent of their income to the Church, according to a more recent study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Those national trends are borne out on the local diocesan level.

John Manning, stewardship director for the Albany diocese, says his studies show only about one third of Albany’s 175,000 Catholic families support the Church financially. Even members of that one third only give an average of $6 per week to their parishes and less than $1.50 per week to fund the operations of their diocese. Diocesan studies show that, in an area with annual family incomes averaging $35,000, Catholics are giving barely one percent of their incomes to the Church.

Sitting On Their Wallets

Manning and other officials find Greeley’s study to be accurate and helpful for framing the issue of declining Catholic giving. But they criticize Greeley’s explanations for why Catholics are giving less.

Greeley acknowledges that some of the decline can be attributed to decreasing Mass attendance and the fact that the average churchgoer is younger today than two decades ago. But he argues that the real reasons Catholics don’t give more is that they’re fed up with the Church’s stands on birth control, women’s rights, divorce, and sex before marriage. Catholics, also resentful of the “authoritarianism” they perceive in the Church hierarchy, have made a conscious decision to sit on their wallets.

Church analysts fault Greeley for projecting his own liberal agenda onto the statistical data.

“Maybe in some individual cases, Catholics won’t give because their dissatisfied with the Church’s position, but there is a much more basic explanation,” says Francis Doyle, associate general secretary of the bishops’ conference in Washington, D.C.

The problem, as he and others in the parish-finance field see it, lies in Catholics’ fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between their wealth and their faith.

“Broadly speaking, our tradition lacks a concept of stewardship. We’ve been educated to give generously in response to a specific need in the Church. But we haven’t been educated to see stewardship and giving as a basic responsibility of our faith,” he says.

Doyle is staff director of a special bishops’ committee that is drafting a pastoral letter on stewardship, slated to be published in early 1992. The impetus behind the letter, is the belief of many bishops that Catholic attitudes about faith and money must change if the Church is to survive in a materialistic and consumerist society.

Goodbye Bingo?

The same belief about the need to change attitudes is behind a variety of stewardship and “sacrificial giving” programs that have sprung up in Albany and nearly ever other diocese in the country.

The methods vary from diocese to diocese. In the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, Bishop Warren Boudreaux five years ago ordered that traditional Church fund-raisers like bingo, bazaars, raffles and fairs be phased out by 1996. He launched a campaign to teach Catholics about their duty to “good stewards and give back to God a portion of what they have been so abundantly blessed with.”

With rising inflation and the bottoming out of Louisiana’s oil economy, weaning local parishes from fairs and bingo nights hasn’t been easy, admits J.C. Cunningham, the diocese’s stewardship and development director.

Even in good economic times, he says, his own parish relied on an annual fair to supply 30 percent of the parish’s yearly budget. But since eliminating that fair and other money-making gatherings, and enrolling in a stewardship awareness program, his 1,100-family parish has seen contributions more than double—from $3,000 a week to $7,800 a week.

Indeed, in the five years since Bishop Boudreaux announced his phase-out plan, Cunningham says that about half of the diocese’s 40 parishes have adopted a sacrificial giving program and contributions in the diocese are up 17 percent.

“We’ve just scratched the surface,” he says. “But if we do things right, the next generation will have a much easier job of it.”

Religious education in the diocese now includes a component on stewardship and students are given envelopes and encouraged to use them. “The problem,” Cunningham adds, “is that their parishes aren’t very good role models.”

The Stewardship “Way of Life”

It’s too early to see the overall results of the Albany diocese’s recently initiated stewardship program. However, parishes that have enrolled, report a marked upturn in envelope use, and a 33 percent increase in contributions.

Whatever the immediate outcome of the stewardship experiment, development director Manning emphasizes that the long-term goal of “evangelizing” both Church workers and people in the pews is far more than important.

“Stewardship is much more than money and balancing budgets,” he says. “Unless the people of the diocese begin to see stewardship as a way of life, the whole project will be just another short-term fund-raiser for the Church.”

For Holloway, director of the Catholic Development Conference, more accountability is also needed on the part of pastors and parishes. Pastors have long disdained fund-raising as distasteful money-grubbing. Now, he says, they need to learn that operating debt-free parishes is an important element of their roles as “builders of community.”

Pastors also need to do a better job of relying on the financial expertise of  lay specialists, says William Corbett, a Traverse City, Michigan, investment broker who writes a newsletter for parish finance council members.

“The Greeley study showed that people want improved accountability on the part of their pastors,” he says. “Basically, people want to know that their money is being managed responsibly.”

In addition to stressing the “corporate accountability” of parishes and dioceses, diocesan stewardship strategies incorporate several other key proposals made by Greeley in his 1987 study.

Protestant giving levels are being used as a benchmark against which to measure Catholic giving. Catholics are urged to give at the same levels—roughly 2 percent of their gross incomes. Also, as Greeley suggested, Catholics are asked to use their parish envelopes to structure their contributions. And they are encouraged to factor contributions to the Church into their annual household budgets.

A New Theology of Giving Needed

The search for an answer to the Church’s money blues is also turning Church accountants into theologians. This was another recommendation of the Greeley study—that the Church needs a new “theology” of money-giving.

The architects of this new giving theology insist it’s more than just dogmatic window dressing for an effort to tug on Catholics’ purse strings. These architects say they’re doing what theologians have done throughout the history of the Church—studying the Scriptures for new insights and developing new language for explaining the faith in a way that is relevant to the current needs of the Church and its members.

“Stewardship goes way beyond giving money to the Church,” says the Rev. John Haughey, S.J., the Charlotte, North Carolina, pastor who is drafting the bishops’ forthcoming letter on stewardship.

“It gets down to questions as radical as: What does following Christ call you to as regards your use of the goods of the created world? For whom do you use your time, gifts and talents? Do you use them for yourself or for the glory of God?” he says.

Stewardship and the offering of personal talents as a sacrificial gifts have always been central to the biblical notion of how God wants people to relate to the natural world, to each other and to God, agrees Burns, the Seattle development director.

Tithing can be traced back to the laws given by Moses, he says, and the wisdom literature of the Bible is filled with instructions on giving. For instance, Proverbs 3:9 commands: “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your produce.”

Stewardship advocates point out that Jesus often dwelt on these themes, especially in his parables.

Some of his most memorable statements—“You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24); “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21); and “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48)—were about people giving their money and gifts for the good of God’s Kingdom.

In his “parable of the talents” (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus makes salvation hinge on how well the believer uses the gifts that God has given to him of her.

The apostles took Jesus’ words to heart be sharing their goods and their property, according to Manning, who quotes St. Peter: “Put your gifts at the service of on another, each in the measure received” (1 Peter 4:10).

Form these deep biblical roots, Haughey and other are trying to sketch the broad outlines of a systematic theology of stewardship. God created the world and entrusted it to people, Haughey says, and God wants people to use the world in a responsible and creative way. With the talents they’ve been given by God, men and women are to be “co-creators” with God, building up the world and using its resources to be close to God and one another.

“Christ was the perfect steward,” Haughey says, because Jesus gave up all that he had—his life—for the love of the world and the love of God. Christians are called to follow Christ in using and giving what they have for the love of God and the building of his Kingdom on earth.

At that level, the stewardship theology approaches “the heart of the paschal mystery,” according to the Rev. Michael Raschko, theologian for the Seattle Archdiocese and an authority on stewardship. “The central Christian mystery is that when you give your self  and your life, as Christ did, life comes flowing back in abundance.”

For Raschko, the theology of stewardship is incomplete without the idea of sacrificial giving. While stewardship is correct in stressing people’s duty to use their wealth and talents to build up the Kingdom, “Sacrificial giving is the fundamental pattern of life that enables us to do that.”

Catholics, he indicates, should see their Baptism as a calling to join in Jesus’ mission of saving the world. In giving their talents and money to the service of the Church, they will begin “to become Christ-like, to approach the holiness toward which Jesus called us,” he says.

Mammon and Father McGread

When critics charge that the new theology is hopelessly theoretical and that stewardship goals are impossible to attain in the real world, advocates point of the case of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wichita, Kansas.

The pastor at St. Francis, the Rev. Thomas McGread, says that 60 percent of the parish’s 1,800 families are fully tithing, giving eight percent of their income to their parish and two percent to outside charities. He says he has a pool of more than 3,000 volunteers to draw on for parish programs and that the parish offers some 48 programs and outreach agencies.

McGread is proud of the children’s medical clinic the parish set up for families who have no health insurance. Started several years ago by two parishioners who are doctors, the clinic now has a staff of 46 doctors who volunteer their time so that children can receive free treatment.

But such dramatic and encouraging results weren’t achieved overnight, McGread cautions. They’re the outcome of more than 20 years of reflecting, preaching and organizing. The key to stewardship and sacrificial giving, he feels, is to build community in the parish: “When you offer people a sense of prayer, hospitality, belonging and community, then you’ll be ready to hear the call of responsibility and service.”

Along with the stewardship theologians, he sees the call to stewardship as a message that’s woven into the fabric of the Gospel. “In Matthew 25, Christ says that we will be judged by what we do for others,” McGread tells the people in the pews. “That means we will be accountable for the gifts of time, talent and treasure that all come from God. We will be asked how much importance we attached to using our gifts for the service of Christ.”

For McGread and other disciples of stewardship, the new theology is a prophetic one, almost what one might call a liberation theology for the American middle class. Calling American Catholics to task for buying into the consumerism and materialism of American culture, the new theology offers them a way to free themselves from that culture and return to the true meaning of their religion.

The question of stewardship goes to the heart of the Catholic faith, Haughey argues. In essence, he says, stewardship asks whether a person is working for God or serving what Jesus called “mammon,” material riches or wealth.

“Mammon is an alternate source of trust,” he says. “Jesus is saying you can either trust in God or you can trust in mammon, but you can’t trust in both because you’ll eventually distance yourself from the one and continue a deeper embrace of the other.”

Catholic families who practice sacrificial giving testify that their giving has made them countercultural in the way they think about their lives and their work. They agree with Church officials that, if widely adopted by middle-class believers, the sacrificial practice could effect a wholesale change in the evangelical and social mission of the Church.

Michael and Catherine Burgess and their two children are participating in the Albany diocesan project. They see sacrificial giving as a way of reconciling their faith with their responsibility as citizens in the world’s wealthiest nation.

Stewardship, they say, is a way of thanking God for their relative prosperity in a world where so many live in want and need.

“We believe that we’ve been blessed and that other people maybe haven’t been,” Michael says. “Sacrificial giving is for us a way of giving back to God some of the riches and blessings that we’ve been given.”

Over and above its influence on the social dimensions of her faith, the practice of sacrificial giving has proven to be spiritually liberating, says Katherine Menard of Albany. Stewardship, she says, has given her a new experience of faith and trust in God’s providence.

“Sacrificial giving makes it easier to surrender your agenda and do what God wants you to,” she says. “It gives you the luxury of being able to trust that God is looking after you. I wish that I could say that it’s been a metamorphosis and that I don’t worry about it anymore about anything. But it hasn’t been; it’s a growth process. But I can say I’ve become more serene. I feel like if I take time for prayer, there will be enough time for everything else. And if I give that first portion of my money, there will still be enough.”

Bishops and development directors around the country hope that families like the Menards and the Burgesses will spread the good news of stewardship to others in their parishes. With the help of their testimony and witness, the Church hopes that one day it, too, can stop singing those money blues.

First published in St. Anthony Messenger (November 1991)
© David Scott, 1991. All rights reserved.