Brendan Hoban on the Financial Cost of Covid to Churches
The financial cost of a year of empty churches
Western People 13th April 2021
We’re warned that, after COVID, we won’t be returning to ‘normal’. That there won’t be ‘a normal’. That everything or almost everything will be different. And that life will never be quite the same again.
One obvious change is that there will be a huge bill to be paid. The government had no choice but to come up with the money: billions extra for the health service, PUP payments for whose jobs disappeared overnight, grants to vital industries struggling, support for key businesses and all the rest of the money that suddenly appeared overnight. Or, more accurately, that the government had to borrow, luckily at a time when interest rates on the international financial markets were extremely low.
But the simplest of economic principles (as well as the wisdom of the infamous Celtic Tiger days) remind us that eventually debts have to be paid, that interest rates go up as well as coming down. That when the smoke eventually clears – and with COVID we’re unsure when that’s going to happen – there will be a financial day of reckoning when the bills have to be paid.
The shape of the post-COVID future is of compelling interest to everyone and institutions, great and small, are trying to predict the challenges they face and how best to face them.
In particular, the Irish Catholic Church was badly placed to cope with the fall-out from Covid: its authority damaged by scandals; congregations declining; vocations disappearing; its reluctance to respond to the challenges of modernity; and other indicators of decline.
In a process of gradual and, it seems, progressive diminishment, what was predicted for the church in Ireland in ten years’ time has, according to some commentators, suddenly arrived courtesy of the COVID pandemic and, as an institution curiously reluctant to change, it is in particular difficulty.
The problems facing the Catholic Church have been well documented, though little has been said about the unmentioned and for some the unmentionable five-letter-word, M-O-N-E-Y, that’s hovering in the background. No one, least of all, church personnel, wants to name it.
The truth is of course that money is a key issue for the Catholic Church, which in the words of a former Vatican Bank president, archbishop Paul Marcinkus, isn’t ‘run on Hail Marys’. The truth is too that the Catholic Church, even though it has amassed a huge property portfolio, depends effectively on Catholics in parishes voluntarily contributing week after week. Just as selling Croke Park is no solution if the GAA is in financial difficulty, there is no way for the Church to cash in its resources without going out of business.
The difficult truth at present is that the customary Catholic Church’s system of financing itself has not operated for over a year. This is the traditional pattern of parish collections for (i) the upkeep of the parish itself and (ii) the resourcing of diocesan and national affairs. Expenses under (i) include the maintenance of parish buildings – insurance, heating, lighting, priests’ salaries, etc. Expenses under (ii) include the diocesan office including salaries, payments for national bodies, etc.
All of the above are financed by collections in churches.
Now that most contributing Catholics have been absent from churches for most of a year, a key question is: will they return in the same numbers? The answer seems to be: probably not – for a number of reasons.
One is that broken habits are hard to revive and many have discovered that not going to weekend Mass can quickly be adopted as a pattern. Another is that live-streaming of Masses (via the now extensive ‘webcam’) has become very popular and the feeling is that post-pandemic many will continue to opt for it, especially the elderly with underlying health conditions who will be encouraged by their families to watch Mass from the comfort of their homes – especially if they’ve a webcam in their own parish church. Other factors are that the traditional sense of obligation no longer matters much to many Catholics now.
The prospect now is that while, pre-COVID, a significant percentage of people had become what someone called FWB Catholics, those already opting for attending church just for funerals, weddings or baptisms (and who rarely paid a collection), many of those who attended weekly Mass (and paid their collections) will now attend occasionally, possibly very irregularly. The effect of this may mean that most parishioners will now join the ranks of the FWB and weekend Masses will be attended by a diminished cohort of Catholics, many of whom will naturally resent having to fund the parish on their own.
While it’s generally agreed that the web-cam experience of Mass without a congregation is an inadequate and hollow experience, a practical codicil – unmentioned and for many unmentionable – is that the smaller the congregation, the smaller the collection. A year of empty churches can mean a year without collections.
That, of course, may not be entirely true because the experience of parishes in terms of income has varied. Some parishes have appealed directly to parishioners and in some cases the response has been extraordinarily generous, especially for those who conscientiously returned their envelopes. However, this has not always been the case, as those who threw a weekly contribution on the plate reverted to the ‘out of sight and out of mind’ scenario – as we do.
Another factor was that some parishes were more prepared for a year without collections, having significant ‘rainy day’ funds at their disposal. And a particular difficulty was for those caught in the midst of exceptional fund-raising, as with the refurbishment of churches. And the same variables applied to dioceses – some managing for the moment, others with the coffers emptying or empty.
At present no one wants to talk about money, but that’s a subject that the Catholic Church won’t be able to avoid – for long.