Many parishes face dire financial emergency Western People 11.6.2022
Some years ago, a Catholic prelate proclaimed, ‘The Church can’t be run on Hail Marys’. It was a frustrated response to the idealism – or as he saw it, the naivety – of his colleagues in regard to money.
While I never had much time for the individual involved – a toxic mix of American brashness and Vatican arrogance – I have to admit the man had a point. Suddenly, it would seem, the wisdom of his words mark the dawn of a new and startling awareness, almost a new epiphany. Many of the parishes of the Catholic world are now in danger of running out of money.
The problem, in simple terms, is this. As parishes get their money from collections, and dioceses get their money from parishes, and the worldwide church is funded by dioceses, the knock-on upward effect is that dwindling congregations and their resultant dwindling contributions are beginning to have an impact.
So far, generally among the list of the problems the Catholic Church is facing are the following: the abuse scandals and the fall-out from them; the virtual disappearance of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life in the developed world; the resistance to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council; the disconnect between significant Catholic teachings and their ‘reception’ by the people; the ever-declining congregations, with women now leaving in greater numbers; and some obvious others. But so far, no one has mentioned the elephant in the living room. Nobody has mentioned money.
Part of the problem is that it seems almost profane, possibly even blasphemous if not downright embarrassing, to bring up this subject when we have other more credible issues to worry about. Or maybe, it’s that if we could sort out some of the other issues, the unmentionable money issue might sort itself.
But, be that as it may, sooner or later, we’ve got to give some attention to this awkward elephant sitting in the corner of the living room for a few years now.
While congregations (and collections) have been declining for some years, this particular crisis was ushered in by the COVID outbreak and its legacy. The pandemic necessitated the closure of churches for long periods with an accompanying lack of collections. Some parishioners went out of their way to continue contributing (and some very generously) but on the basis of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ most others let their subscriptions lapse.
The legacy of the pandemic is that many of the elderly, often the most generous of parishioners, no longer attend church and more generally a significant cohort of pre-COVID attendees no longer come. The cumulative effect is that for the last few years only a percentage of the usual contributions arrived in parish accounts.
And while some parishes had – to mix a few metaphors – squirrelled away a handy nest-egg for a rainy day, most parishes hadn’t that luxury and some, in the middle of expensive projects (like major church refurbishments) are left with huge debts and very little incoming finance to meet them.
In a strange way, while parishes depend completely on the goodwill and generosity of parishioners, and while a significant percentage of parishioners – of both attendees and non-attendees at church – generally contributed little or nothing to the upkeep of parishes, enough parishioners contributed enough to keep most parishes in reasonably robust health. To such a degree that, up to now, there was no real worry about parishes not ‘making ends meet’.
Now we are in a different space – less income, same need.
Quite suddenly, a much smaller cohort of parishioners are being left to bear the brunt of the cost of sustaining parish services and the evidence is that they are becoming less and less tolerant of effectively subsidising their shameless neighbours – who expect all the services but contribute nothing to paying for them.
So what do we do?
Clearly, the finance committees of Parish Councils will need to have a root and branch investigation of income and expenditure to estimate the annual parish budget, where it might be trimmed and crucially by how much it’s missing the target and what can be done about it.
Usually, parishes are run on a shoe-string budget and there are not many areas that allow for cut-backs. Parish buildings have to be maintained, insured and heated. The salaries of parish personnel have to be met – usually in rural parishes, this means just the priest or priests and in some instances a parish secretary.
While generally the income of lay parish employees has remained at pre-COVID levels, incomes of priests have been cut by anything up to 25%.
But while cut-backs in most parishes won’t be easy to come by, trying to increase the annual income will be an even trickier business. Among the challenges will be trying to get those who no longer come to church to make a contribution. This will be difficult with the only comeback introducing an enhanced set of parish charges for funerals, weddings, baptisms, etc. on the basis that those who don’t contribute to the provision of services can hardly expect those who do to pay for them.
While this strategy makes sense, it creates a two-tier division of parish membership: those who return their envelopes (or paid up members of the parish) and those who don’t. Among the latter category are those who simply refuse to pay and those who may not be able to pay (for whatever reason) so the challenge is to be able to distinguish between the two.
But whatever emerges to sort out the dire financial emergency that now faces many parishes, it’s not going to be easy.