How will the Church survive with no money?
Western People September 1st 2020
Not too many people know this but Dominick Bellew, bishop of Killala, from 1780 to 1813, lost his life when the horses pulling his carriage bolted at Killucan, near Mullingar. Bellew was thrown from the carriage, and seriously injured though he survived ‘the melancholy accident’ for three days. He died on June 6, 1813.
Bellew was returning from a bishops’ meeting in Dublin where an aspect of ‘the Veto question’ was being discussed. This was the controversy that had arisen when the government offered a series of relief measures for Catholics in exchange for a government veto on the appointment of Catholic bishops. Among the measures being considered in exchange for the veto was the state payment of clergy.
It was an enticing prospect. The Catholic Church in Ireland had few resources. The vast majority of the people were miserably poor; chapels were few and generally inadequate to need; priests too were few and, despite the foundation of Maynooth in 1795, for decades later were badly educated; and dioceses like Killala, one of the poorest in Ireland, had few Catholic gentry to compensate for the poverty of the vast majority of their parishioners.
Then priests’ incomes varied from diocese to diocese – generally from around £100 a year for a PP and £50 for a curate – but, in the west of Ireland, they were significantly lower than that.
The government proposal, though under discussion for a few years, was eventually rejected.
Since then Catholic priests have remained directly dependent on the people for their income as has the provision of a parish infrastructure (chapels, priests’ houses, etc). It’s why collections are a main-stay of parish life, the life-blood of local parishes. Without them Catholic life, as we have it, would disappear.
Part of the extraordinary change ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has placed a huge question-mark over the financial viability of the Catholic Church, as we’ve known it. At present, because gatherings of people are strictly regulated by government edict, only a tiny percentage of Catholics can attend weekly Mass, the location for most collections. An even lesser percentage actually attend as fear of contracting the virus has dissuaded many of those who usually attended – and contributed. The result is that the income of the Catholic Church is now in free-fall, and will be (it appears) for some time.
There’s a strange belief hanging around for years that the Catholic Church has plenty of money. This is a persistent fallacy, beloved of critics of the Church, even though it’s glaringly obvious that without church collections there’s no other form of income available. The Catholic Church is as rich as its adherents are generous – no more and no less.
This will become even more obvious to every parish for the duration of the pandemic and already, even after just six months, some parishes are in financial difficulty, especially those who have no savings to call on or who happen to be caught in the middle of a parish building programme.
The big change will come when, like any other institution, the Church loses its paying ‘customers’ – certainly for the unspecified duration of the pandemic, but possibly forever if many of those no longer attending drift permanently from parish life. The fear now is that, while religious practice had declined significantly over recent years (for a variety of reasons), the pandemic may well be what sends that decline spiralling out of control.
In such circumstances, the reality is that, like any other institution, the Church will have to cut its cloth according to its measure: churches will close; priest numbers (even if we could attract vocations) will continue to decline because we won’t be able to pay them; the public profile of the Church may diminish to the point of virtual invisibility.
Before the pandemic and its implications for church attendance (and finances), a minority of parishioners paid their collections. Not all who attended Mass used the envelopes. Not all who didn’t use the envelopes contributed even the nominal few coins. And those who never came made no contribution. Those latter semi-detached Catholics surfed on the generosity of those who funded heat, light, insurance, etc so that churches remained open for their occasional appearances at baptisms, weddings and funerals.
It may seem, with a pandemic gathering itself for a second surge, that talking about collecting money appears almost disrespectful to those struggling with the virus, those grieving the loss of loved ones and those living in constant fear of a personal visitation from COVID-19.
But just as the bills to fund the response to the COVID pandemic are adding up and will have to be paid back, the implications of post-COVID life have to be faced by practically every institution of note in Irish life – political, sporting, economic and religious.
The Catholic Church is no different. With the Catholic Church being effectively funded by older Catholics – as evident in the declining collections of recent years – it has been clear for some time that a financial crisis was looming.
The pandemic, in many aspects of Catholic life, has brought into sight a range of difficult decisions, that heretofore were casually placed on the back boiler by the ‘It’ll-do-in-my-time’ brigade.
We are now left with leading questions for Catholics: what will the Catholic Church in Ireland be like after the pandemic? And what do we need to do now to prepare for it?
But remembering Bishop Dominick Bellew, I suspect there’s one avenue we can close off at the outset. There’s no offer from the Irish government to pick up the tab for this one, even if Rome gave them a veto on the appointment of bishops!
That boat has sailed and it’s no harm.