June 9, 2005
Three dioceses in the United States have been in the news: Tuscon, Arizona; Spokane, Washington; and Portland, Oregon. Each has filed for bankruptcy. A first in the history of the Church in America. A brute fact of life that local Churches do not have an unlimited source of income. At times, they simply cannot pay their bills. They incur debts as health insurance costs rise. They face legal disputes that end in costly settlements.
The Church is in the world. She accomplishes her mission not just by word, but also by deed. The word of charity that she preaches, she translates into deeds of social concern, outreach to the poor, education, and health care. Each requires money.
Catholic theology is incarnational. It does not flee the world. It recognizes every person as created in the image of God. As such, each individual is called to enjoy communion. This happens in the real world that is material. Activities that lead to and foster interpersonal communion engage our spiritual, intellectual, and affective capacities. All the while, they include our body. To be human is to be part of this physical world rubbing shoulders with others. “Implicit in the Catholic theology of the
imago Dei is the profound truth that the material world creates the conditions for the engagement of human persons with one another” (
Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, 26, International Theological Commission, 2002). And to be engaged with one another in this material world effectively requires responsible stewardship of the goods of this world.
From the very beginning, the public ministry of Jesus required financial backing. The women who followed him assisted him out of their means (Lk 8:1-3). The early Christians after Pentecost combined their resources for the good of the entire community (Acts 2:42-47). Paul was a fierce evangelizer and profound theologian. But he was also a realist. He did not shrink from the obligation of funding the needs of the nascent Christian communities.
Priests and bishops are stewards of the mysteries placed in their hands. The most profound mystery is the mystery of the Church herself. The Church is people with needs that are deeply spiritual and physical. Like Paul, clergy today cannot walk away from the needs of their communities that require money. Faithful to the preaching of the Word and to the proper and devout celebration of the sacraments, priests and bishops are also called to financial responsibility. Administration of the temporal goods of the Church is not what priests or bishops enjoy. But it is part of our spiritual mission. In Romans 12:7, Paul even lists administration as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. A necessary gift.
As Bishop of this particular Church, I am committed to working with laypeople, priests and deacons in administrating the temporal goods of our diocese. Together we need to face responsibly the financial challenges we have. We have begun to introduce greater mutual accountability in the way the diocese and the parishes own and resolve these challenges. We have 111 parishes. Our pastors work hard and long. Our laity is generous and co-operative. Twenty-two of our parishes at the present already owe the diocese more than 10 million dollars. Ordinary expenses that they have been unable to pay, the diocese has been paying for them on a regular basis. It takes no great genius to realize that this debt which continues to increase because of rising salaries and benefits can only impact the entire diocese negatively.
A group of very competent pastors from urban and suburban parishes has already visited these parishes and reviewed their challenges. The diocese is making recommendations and offering help to move these communities to a greater financial stability. Where there is a need and the mission of the Church is in question, then, together we look for ways to help, especially in our mandate to care for the poor.
Catholic schools present a very real challenge to the wise stewardship of our resources. We are committed to Catholic education. It is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. However, we need not maintain the same structures to offer that gift with better stewardship. Parents choose which Catholic school they prefer their children to attend. When too few parents choose a particular school, we honor their choice of Catholic education by offering them the choice of a more vibrant school. We are about serving others, not conserving buildings. We endeavor to use our resources wisely.
In a meeting with our priests and parish financial staff, we reaffirmed the diocesan procedures for the way money is collected, accounted for and used. Every parish, like the diocese itself, is required to have a functioning financial council. The co-operation of laypeople and priests in matters of finances is imperative for a few reasons. First, laypeople have expertise and ability with finances. Second, they have a right to know how their contributions are being used. Third, a willing collaboration on financial matters builds mutual trust and respect. In this way, the idea of communion between persons becomes a reality and the Church grows in love.
Paul organized a collection from the Greek churches of Achaia and Macedonia for the benefit of the impoverished churches of Judea. He did not shy away from the speaking about this collection. To some, it may seem somewhat strange to realize how much space he gives in his letters to this mundane matter. He refers to it in Romans 15, 1 Corinthians 16, and 2 Corinthians 8-9. The collection was not peripheral to his work. He knew that we cannot say we believe in a God whose love became incarnate in Jesus unless we ourselves love in ways tangible to others. British Prime Minister and Statesman Winston Churchill once said “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” We truly make our life Christian by our giving. And we have a right to expect good stewardship of the gifts we offer for the Church’s mission.