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American Catholics and the power of the purse
American Catholics unhappy with the policies of Catholic Church in the United States often feel powerless. Despite growing lay participation in Church ministries, groups like parish councils, budget boards of education, and finance committees have no real power. They are only advisory bodies. The pastor has final decision-making authority at the parish level, subject only to the higher authority of the bishop.
The laypeople occupying the pews on Sunday morning cannot overrule the pastor or the bishop. Each diocese may resemble an absolute monarchy or a totalitarian dictatorship, depending on the bishop’s attitude and leadership style. Nevertheless, we lay Catholics can exercise more control if we work together and remember our unique heritage. We are not just Catholics—we are American Catholics. Two hundred thirty-nine years ago, we began a long and bloody war to free ourselves from Great Britain.
Yet, even if the British had won the war, we could still have become independent by using our economic power. In 1776 Great Britain had about three times as many people as we did. However, we had two things the British urgently needed— raw materials for their industries and a market for their products. When we refused to trade with them, Parliament generally met our demands to avoid opposition from British merchants.
Essentially, we won concessions by withholding economic resources. American Catholics can obtain more control of the American Church with a similar strategy. We can limit the Church’s economic power simply by manipulating the cash flow. The American Church is financially secure. It has large cash reserves, healthy investment portfolios, real estate and other valuable items.
Much of this accumulated wealth would be difficult to convert into liquid assets. A Catholic diocese derives most of its operating capital from Sunday collections. Every parish must share this money with the diocese by paying periodic assessments. Since these assessments are compulsory, they are like taxes.
We do have an obligation to support the Church, but we don’t have to give that money directly to the pastor or the bishop. Laypeople in any parish or diocese could establish a nonprofit corporation to hold the cash and release it to the pastor or the bishop in designated amounts for a specific purpose. An elected board of directors could approve or deny each request.
This procedure isn’t as extreme as it seems. Every public school administrator, mayor, governor, and corporation CEO must follow it. I am a retired public school administrator. Except in dire emergencies, I couldn’t purchase anything until the school board authorized it by majority vote.
Our Catholic clergy may dislike this idea, because it limits their power. Yet, how much power should they really have? Most of them understand lot more about theology than about leadership. I was not only a public school educator. I worked in Catholic schools for fifteen years. I learned from firsthand experience that clergymen make better pastors than managers.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The seminaries prepare them to be spiritual leaders, not organizational leaders. Yet, the success of many parish and diocesan ministries depends on organizational factors. Why should parishioners give complete control of their weekly contributions to people who may be financially clueless?
Yes, the parishes and the diocese do have financial advisors, but they are appointed, not elected. Yes, Church finances are more transparent than they used to be, but the transparency usually occurs after the money is spent, not before. The parish and the diocese have well-qualified accountants to report how the money is used, but do they have equally qualified controllers to approve the budgets and oversee expenses as they occur? Not often!
Stewardship is more than sharing time, talent and treasure. Entrusting our personal resources to the clergy doesn’t exempt us from responsibility for how they are used. When the resource is money, should we give it to those who may use it to protect child molesters instead of our children?
Mark Heinig, Jr.
1708 Hogan Drive
Kokomo, IN 46902
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Heinig, Jr.
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