Sunday, November 18, 2018

Religious Fundraising: A Sunday Screed

     My parish, St. Louis de Montfort of Sound Beach, has begun a campaign to get parishioners to “increase your commitment to the parish.” This, of course, means “give us more money.” In response, I’ve asked a question that’s not often asked, and even less often receives a substantive answer:

“What do you need the money for?”

     The only justification our pastor, Monsignor Christopher Heller, has offered so far is “to continue to grow the parish.” But what does that mean? Does he expect to build a larger church? That seems unlikely, inasmuch as the parish held a capital campaign to raise $1.2 million to refurbish the existing church only a few years ago. Have the living expenses of the parish’s priests risen appreciably? It doesn’t seem so. Then what about rising taxation, which has afflicted so many Long Islanders? Uh, no, church donations and property aren’t taxed. Well, then does some ongoing activity appropriate to a Catholic parish need better funding? Or is there some activity the parish ought to undertake as part of the Great Commission, but can’t for lack of funds?

     At a time when there are two separate collections on every other Sunday, when many parishioners are scrimping to afford oil and gas for the heating season, and when other parishioners are still struggling to recover from the depredations of the Obama years, asking us to “increase your commitment to the parish” should come with specific reasons it would be the Christian thing to do. “Growing the parish” doesn’t cut it; it’s too vague, and too easily applied to any undertaking whatsoever, including undertakings inappropriate to a Christian ministry.

     These days Christian religious institutions are constantly panning for dollars. The devotion and generosity of many Christians is such that they never ask “What do you need the money for?” And those who do ask don’t often receive adequately specific, verifiable answers.

     One premise must be established to make the exploration of this subject worthwhile:

Some activities are appropriate to a Christian ministry,
And some are not.

     Obviously, the promulgation of the Gospels, the administration of the Sacraments, counseling for the troubled, religious education for youngsters, and judiciously administered charity for the benefit of the truly needy are all appropriate. Christ Himself exhorted us to do these things. But there are an awful lot of things I wouldn’t want to see my parish fund. Political lobbying comes to mind at once. Yet many American clerics, including some of the very highest, have immersed themselves in politics, to the detriment of their duties as ministers of God.

     As usual, C. S. Lewis had something to say about that:

     At the other church we have Fr. Spike. The humans are often puzzled to understand the range of his opinions—why he is one day almost a Communist and the next not far from some kind of theocratic Fascism—one day a scholastic, and the next prepared to deny human reason altogether—one day immersed in politics, and, the day after, declaring that all states of this world are equally "under judgment." [The Screwtape Letters]

     (If why involvement in politics is inappropriate to a Christian parish is unclear to you, please reflect on the nature of the Christian faith, and on why Christ Himself told us to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22:21])

     But parishes that are over-funded for their core missions inevitably get involved in activities in which a Christian ministry has no place.

     There’s a word that denotes the sale of holy things: simony. Simony was a common practice in the medieval Church. Ecclesiastical positions were often for sale, as benefices whose holders would derive a profit from them. That practice, and the associated practice of selling indulgences, were important fuels for the Protestant Schism.

     Funding drives aren’t simony. But a funding drive that divorces the money from the reasons the money is needed – if it is needed – comes very close. If there’s anything about which Christians should be in no doubt, it’s that Christian ministries and institutions are not commercial enterprises, aimed at profit.

     The Church Temporal drifts away from the Church Mystical, and from the missions set forth for it by its divine Founder, when it pursues worldly gain. The question “What do you need the money for?” must be asked — and Christians who ask it must demand specific and verifiable answers before they reach for their checkbooks.

No comments: