Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why Catholics aren't giving

The problem, as I see it, with getting too caught up on the question of tithing and the fixed if illogical notion that just about everybody should be perfectly capable of giving ten percent of his before-tax income to the Church every month is that it ends up distracting from the real issue: Catholics, especially in America, don't give nearly enough money to the Church.

And this is especially true if you focus on parish giving, as opposed to charitable contributions to Catholic orders, agencies, and organizations as a whole.

Of course, I should say at the outset that even if you decide that you can manage to tithe without depriving your children of what you justly owe them (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, medical care etc.) it does not follow that "tithe" means "give the whole ten percent to the parish." There's nothing wrong with deciding to do so; but there's also nothing wrong with giving less to the parish in order to fund Catholic religious orders, Catholic pro-life ministries, and other Catholic charities who need our help. In other words, just because some people only give, say, 1% of their income to their parish doesn't mean they're not giving 9% elsewhere, and it's uncharitable to assume the worst.

Still, there's data out there which suggests that Catholics may not be doing a stellar job of supporting Catholic organizations, let alone their parishes. So, why is this? And what should be done?

Let's examine some possible reasons first:

1. The elephant in the living room. Yes, I'm talking about The Scandal. While some Catholics may have used the Scandal as an excuse to stop giving money, others really were hurt and embarrassed to discover that their dioceses were among those who moved predators, covered things up, and/or arranged for secret payouts to abuse victims. Imagine finding out that some of your parish's collection money was going to compensate the victims of a former pastor! The sense of betrayal that might create isn't going to disappear overnight; I've heard comments before from people who don't mind earmarking a donation for, say, a building project but who otherwise won't give to a parish out of frustration with how things were handled for so long.

2. No sense of belonging. It's not news that people will tend to give money to groups with whom they identify or to which they really belong. But I suspect that many Catholics in America, especially these days, see the parish as more of a necessary evil than a fellowship of like-minded believers whose company they enjoy. Some of this is exacerbated by the divisions among Catholics, such as the deep divide between so-called "Trads" and so-called "Neo-Caths;" these divisions make it hard for Catholics to see themselves as united in a bigger purpose, the call to holiness which includes within it the mandate to spread the Good News.

3. "No dogma, no dollars." That quote was popular when I was a teen (many, many years ago) but I think the sentiment is still out there. While it's easy to see this as a purely "Trad" notion, I think that there are lots of people who have never been to a Latin Mass yet who long for something more on Sunday than the institutionalized version of "Nephew Tommy's wisdom;" e.g., "Jesus is nice; you be nice too." Quite frankly, when one is fed a steady diet of "cheap grace," one gets into the habit of thinking that all grace, and indeed all religious blessings, are cheap and need little in the way of cash. This is especially true in churches where a fortune was once spent to install "Random Squares of Jell-O (tm)" stained glass windows and similar quality "art;" the parishioners get into the habit of thinking that the building and its accoutrements aren't worth much, and shouldn't need much money to keep going.

4. No idea what the parish actually costs. Related to number 3 above is this notion; it is the reverse of a complaint of mine, which is that parish priests seldom have any idea what family life costs or involves (leading them to assume that people can give more than they even earn, or that it's perfectly easy for a man working a full-time job to show up during the work week to help out with some parish initiative or other). On the side of the parishioners, though, there is similar ignorance. How much does the parish pay monthly for fixed bills, including a mortgage if there is one? How much does it pay for electricity and water and garbage collection? How much for any other regular expenses? How much, annually, for those stupid paper song books (and would the pastor buy better, permanent hymnals if the parish would come up with the one-time funds)? How much for the paid employees, including but not limited to the office staff/parish secretary, the DRE, the choir director and/or organist, etc.? How much for church cleaning and yard work if this isn't being done by parish volunteers?

I sometimes think that Catholics simply forget that our parishes have to pay for these things, and think of the money going into the collection basket as a sort of "extra" money from which our favorite reforms and improvements unaccountably fail to be funded.

5. Industrial age collection methods. Speaking of collection baskets--I realize that older Catholics are very used to them and would miss them if they disappeared; I also realize that there is a school of thought when it comes to fund-raising that suggests that nothing beats passing around a container, be it a basket, a hat, or any similar object, to get people to dig into their pockets. Still, even in my generation people are less and less accustomed to carrying cash or checks with them, and I know that the people younger than me have gotten so used to being able to pay for everything with either a debit or a credit card that they, too, don't often carry tons of cash (to say nothing of checks, which some people fear because of identity theft concerns). The parish solution? Ordinarily, to send out boxes and boxes and boxes of parish offering envelopes, which is supposed to remind people to plan their giving ahead of time, to place money or a check into the envelope sometime in the week before Sunday, and then to bring the already-filled envelope with them to Mass.

But people who don't even use cash or checks all that often are going to be inclined to remember to find and use envelopes every week because...why, exactly? And people who are rushing out the door on Sunday morning with a toddler and an infant in tow are going to recall that the envelope is in mom's purse, not mom's diaper bag which is all she grabs that morning--why, exactly?

If parishes really want to increase donations from younger Catholics, they might try a PayPal (tm) button on the parish web page, along with weekly or monthly email reminders via a free service like MailChimp. Oh, wait; the parish doesn't have a website--why, exactly?

I know there are more reasons for the lack of giving among Catholics; these are, however, a conversation starter, anyway.

Now--what should be done?

The five reasons I've listed are varied, and range from serious trust or fellowship issues down to matters of convenience in giving. I would tell pastors to set aside a few minutes, perhaps just after the homily or just before Mass actually begins, on a Sunday to pass out a survey to parishioners (in this way, the ones who actually come to Mass, not merely all registered parishioners, will be most represented). The survey questions might be something like this:

  • Do you give to the parish? Weekly, monthly, occasionally, or other?
  • Do you give the same amount each time, or varying amounts? (NB: don't ask how much.)
  • Do you use the parish envelopes: always/sometimes/never?
  • If you do not give to the parish, is the reason financial or other?
  • If other, please explain: (offer space, and assure respondents that all surveys are anonymous and confidential).
There could be more, perhaps about helping people to give or what improvements in the parish they'd like to contribute to, etc., but again, I think this would get the ball rolling and help a pastor of a parish to figure out whether the problem is more one of indifference, or lack of convenient ways to give, or disconnection, or a deeper disappointment that has been translated into a lack of charitable donations.

What do you think? If you don't give to your parish, why not? What would help you to start giving, or to give more than you presently do?


John Thayer Jensen said...

Not a survey answer (because you haven't done the survey yet :-)), but...

When, totally out of the blue, at the end of 1969, when I was 27, I became a Christian ("street Christian," "Jesus Freak" style) - and was in severe financial difficulty, in debt, little income, and so on - another JF type - a few months later - started raving to me about the blessings of tithing. I responded that that was great, but that I couldn't pay my bills, etc, etc.

But - why did I have to bring my non-Christian friend to that meeting?? - my friend, listening to this, said, "Well, jj, if that's part of the Jesus trip, then maybe you should do it."


So I started.

That was sometime in mid-1970, actually, so a bit over 40 years ago.

We cannot afford it. We cannot. And I do not believe that, just because you tithe, God will bless you financially so that you will have more than ever. Certainly has not been so with us.

Several times during my history as a Christian I have tried to talk myself out of it - not succeeded.

It does not, by any means, all go to the parish (I became a Catholic some 15 years ago). It goes in various places, and I don't keep an accounting of it, but I know that it is roughly a tenth, before-tax. I include in that money spent on things like retreats and so forth.

We cannot afford it. I am, at 68, still trying to pay off a mortgage. I have no savings. We will be at the mercy of the state superannuation when I have to quit working.


We have never gone without a meal (my pot-belly can you tell you I ought to have done a few times :-)). We have brought up four kids - mostly home-schooled, or public education for part of it. University was all done by them by student loans. I think, at the end of it, I am glad I did it. I would not for a moment recommend it for anyone else. I think it was, in my case, a genuine "Jacob" call to me from God (you know, Jacob and the Jacob's Ladder story). I became a Christian out of nothing late in life, so maybe He was asking me whether I really meant it.

A story - for what it's worth. I expect, when we finally have to go on the dole, that I may not give at all - perhaps viewing the super as a kind of payout of a savings plan and not income. Don't know. I do know that at the moment I have a salary (my wife has only a tiny part-time income) that, if we did not tithe, and had not tithed, would have had us with a reasonable retirement fund and no debt.

I don't mind. I do not think it means we won't suffer in retirement - but then I don't plan on retiring until I simply cannot work any longer. But ... I cannot regret it for a moment.


L. said...

I give weekly (or, ever time I go to mass), I use the envelopes, and I give varying amounts, but always above a minimum I have set in my mind (my salary varies greatly with the exchange rate). I used to try to give 20% of my pre-tax income to charity (not just the Chruch -- in total giving everywhere), but I haven't met this target since enrolling my older two kids in private schools.

My partner and I rarely argue about money, but he deeply resents the money I give to my parish, because it's a part of my life that doesn't concern him. I wonder, in other families, if there is similar discord about the amounts of giving, or the matter of giving anything at all?

Anonymous said...

When my children were enrolled in our parish school we had to give weekly envelopes in order to qualify for the parishioner discounted rate of tuition (1500 per kid less than non-parishioners). When we later took them out of the school, we were in the habit of doing the weekly envelope, so we never stopped doing it. Our parish now does ParishPay, but I still like the envelope thing.

John Thayer Jensen said...

For parish giving, we also use the envelopes. I could do the bank Automatic Payment, I suppose. Somehow, the phrase from Scripture about "not entering empty-handed into the house of the Lord" comes to me.

L. said...

Yeah, the reason I started using the envelopes was also because their use was required for parish discount at my kids' school. But now we're at a parish that doesn't even have a school, and I like the idea of putting my donation in a sealed envelope -- that way, the amount is between me and God (and the parish book keeper), and not the eyes of judgemental fellow parishioners who think I don't give enough.

Charlotte said...

I remember one time last year we were at one of our monthly Worldwide Marriage Encounter meetings and a new couple was there - they were in their early 60's, I'd guess. The husband was a loud talker and wanted lots of attention. I tried to ignore him, but I did catch him saying that while he was Catholic and went to mass each week, he wasn't giving a red cent to his parish because of The Scandal. Even though The Scandal hadn't happened in his parish or directly touched his life. I was sooooo mad when I heard him proclaim this that I have never really looked at him kindly since that day. It was then that it hit me that there might actually be "faithful" Catholics in the pew who were angry at the Church and withholding money. I honestly can't believe that it's true, bue perhaps it is.

We don't give very much to our parish because we can't. We feel that our backload of debt comes first. Some may say that's backwards, but we believe that we have a responsibility to pay back what we owe in debt to credit card companies and the like first, before we give. Oh sure, we give a little bit, but not enough. I often feel guilty about it, but I also often stop myself and realoze that some of my guilt comes from my years as a Protestant, when 10% tithing was almost a strict rule, and the belief that God will bless those who give was foremost in my mind.


Charlotte said...

We also give to non-parish Catholic organizations. In fact, I prefer that to giving to my parish, if truth be told. My parish is run-of-the-mill with a touch of orthodox. And I know they have bills and help people out, etc. (including us!) But sometimes my heart is more with religious orders that actually are orthodox or with Catholic organizations that offer prayer and novenas.

As to envelopes, I find them annoying, sitting there, staring at you, taunting you each week, saying "Did you give any money THIS week?" (By the way, those who follow my blog know what Cecilia's Stash is.....I have a doozie of an entry about church envelopes when I get the time that is totally cool!) I prefer to throw money in the basket, and no, it's never occurred to me that people are looking to see how much anyone puts in. Let them.

Interesting aside....I'm an Andy Warhol fan big time. When we went to the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh a few years ago, they had an exhibit about Andy's church-going. He went to mass EVERY DAY OF HIS LIFE. And, oddly enough, he kept every bulletin from every Sunday mass and filed them away by year. So, in the exhibit they had some of these old bulletins from the 1930's, 40's and 50's. Guess what was in them? EVERY WEEK the church would publish the names of who gave money in envelopes and HOW MUCH! How's that for "looking in the basket"? Way to guilt people for not giving enough to the parish or not at all.

bam2066 said...

Erin, I would be embarrassed not to put my envelope in the basket every week. I don't give much to my parish: $5.00 per week, but here's the thing: my parish is quite wealthy! Really no debt, and a gorgeous new, remodeled church! Rather, I am trying to give to an Inner-city Catholic ministry that helps the poorest of the poor with food and utility payment supplements. Beyond that ?: The Catholic high school from which I graduated, oh, so many years ago! I hope to be able to do more once I am retired. But right now, it's a struggle.

scotch meg said...

I give a set amount every week to whatever parish we attend - usually it's our home parish, and then it's in the envelope. But when we go to the Latin Mass, it's elsewhere, so we give there; and when we're away, we're away - so then we give where we are. I guess we give where we go, but it's a set amount every week. I also try to give to the diocese (Scandal or no) and to as many charities as I can for a set total per month. Sometimes the monthly amount gets swallowed by emergency giving to family members who need help with a car repair or the rent. I send food money to one family member every month.

I use the envelopes at our home parish. I tried doing the electronic deposit, but I would forget. Also, to be honest, I didn't like the stares I got from the ushers when I didn't put anything in. Now the envelopes come with a square to check for EFT, but they didn't when I was doing it. I think it's funny that the envelopes have contribution amounts on them. They must be for feeling guilty; I hope they're not for showing off.

You'd be surprised at the number of things I must write checks for... either cash will make a comeback or young people will start writing checks when they have kids. The school system (and my kids don't even GO to school, just take music lessons there), the Scouts, the art teacher... checks galore.

L. said...

Our envelopes don't have contribution amounts on them. But maybe that's because so many parishioners are like me, and donate in checks from their home country, in different currencies.

My parents were among those who stopped giving to the Church because of the scandals. In fact, I believe they have stopped going to mass entirely, after half a century of regular attendance on all Sundays and holy days.

Diamantina da Brescia said...

I am on SSI and thus have little money to spare. I give $5 a week (about 3% of my income) to my parish, but I also volunteer extensively in my parish. About 3% of my income goes to other Catholic charities and religious communities, and some 3% of my income goes to secular charities.

How could I give more? Well, if I won the lottery, I could give a lot more to my parish and other charities I care for, but otherwise I don't see how I could give much more than I currently do and still have money :-)

Erin said...

I wish there was a good article on how to deal when one's spouse is not a Catholic, and is therefore not 100% on board with a generous donation. My husband is cool with me donating a small amount every week, but when I did the math, it only comes out to about 3% of our NET salary!

Incidentally, I also was listening to the local Catholic radio station last week, and a priest mentioned that one could count one's Catholic school tuition as part of the tithe...

I would have thought this was unacceptable; it does contribute to "the work of the church," but it's not exactly a free-will donation with no strings attached. I am curious what other commenters think about this?

Charlotte said...

I, too, would be curious about that.

JMB said...

Erin and Charlotte,

I would think that would be up to the discretion of the pastor. Ours was clear that sending your children to the parish school did not negate your obligation to give to the parish.

Bathilda said...

We give (we're told by the parish) generously. We are able to give, but we would have to give a whole heck of a lot more for it to be "sacrificial" (as in another post) We do the weekly envelopes that come in the mail from the parish. it's a set amount based on what we agreed to give for the year. If we miss mass at our parish, we give cash to wherever we go, and then double up on our home parish the next week. I give lots of time, as I am "stay at home", and I do prefer to not give money, for the main reason of "the scandal". It almost made me leave the church. It is so repulsive to me that I would prefer to not give anything. Husband, cradle catholic, likes to give. If Mass were only in Latin, I wouldn not go. period. I am not sure if I can even stomach these new mass translations. to be fair, I can relate a little to how difficult it must have been when the vatican II changes came about. One more thing, if our new priest continues to "sing" the Mass, I don't think I can continue to go there. it's too much on show and too little on prayer. plus he's really off key. Our old priest, whom many of you would burn for Heresy, was way better at Mass.

Oh, our church does a big spread sheet projected on the was regarding the state of the parish, which is a pretty wealthy parish. It's aging, but many of the old people are wealthy, and many of the yound people are well off professionals.

Bathilda said...

About the above (tuition), our church school used to not charge tuition, but had a "minimum amount" you should be giving (tithing) in order to have kids in school. needless to say, people took advantage, and now we have tuition. It would be nice to have it built into our money to the church, because that is tax deductible. tuition, even to a religious school, is tangible and taxable. I am not sure if the church is allowed to lump it all together now from a tax standpoint. there have been many changes recently. There is only one school in our arch diocese that doesn't charge tuition, and that is an inner city school paid for, I presume, by the archdiocese.

Anonymous said...

I pledge annually and it is taken out my bank account by my parish once a month in 12 equal installments. I ignore the plate when it is passed in front of me.

Maureen said...

Envelopes? Yes we use them with a set amt each week made up the following week if we went elsewhere for Mass.
@L - I always presumed the dollar amt space on the envelope was for the people who count the collection to fill in/verify as they opened the envelopes. This way the bookkeeper would have it to input into each envelope holders' record so they can provide the donor a year-end statement for income taxes, not for a sinister pressure technique.

MightyMighty said...

Maureen is correct. I worked in a church office one year, and if people did not mark how much money was in the envelope, we would mark it down, stack the envelopes, and then enter them into the software. You should get a tax receipt at the end of the year from your parish, and it's because of the office ladies who keep track of how much you put in your envelopes.

My income varies somewhat each month, but part of our income is set. So, we have a set amount based on our base income, and then at the end of the month I tally up the extra income and give 10% of that to various charities at the end of the month.

I have wondered if it would be more prudent to spend those extra hundreds of dollars to pay down our school loans, so that we would be able to give more generously sooner, but I always come back to the mission of these groups. Children are dying in poor countries every day, babies are slaughtered in their mothers' wombs every day. My help is needed now.

Also, my new thoughts on tithing are this: St. Paul is very clear that Christ fulfilled the old law. This is why we don't need to circumcise. I feel that it is cowardly to "tithe just in case" because that means "just in case Christ didn't fulfill the old law." I give as generously as I can because God loves a cheerful giver.

So, for those broke families out there, they should give generously, but not to the point where it is no longer a cheerful thing. People who have no savings for the future should build that up first, so they don't end up asking for help needlessly. For the better-off families, don't stop at 10%, give until you have to give something up to cover your generosity.