Should Catholics reconsider their financial habits?

Katelyn Vandenhandel, 13, passes a collection basket during Ash Wednesday Mass. To implement the teaching of Pope Francis’ new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” use your resources to support those in need. Photo: CNS, Sam Lucero, The Compass

I enjoyed Mathew de Sousa’s recent article in The Catholic Weekly about crowdfunding for the film project The Chosen.

It brought up a lot of issues for me about Catholics and money and how we use it.

There’s nothing shameful in talking about this, and there’s good biblical precedents for it.

Think of the parable about the man building a tower who has to do the accounting first, and the parable of the talents.

Back in 2018 in The Age, the Catholic Church in Australia was accused—and that’s the right word—of having a net worth of around $30 billion. In Victoria alone, it was said to be worth around $9 billion.

This may be true, but it’s not all sitting in a single bank account under the name “Catholic Church” (at least, I really hope not). It’s spread across our different dioceses, and a lot of it is tied up in real estate.

Back in the day, dioceses bought land and developed it, and now it’s gone up in value. But today we have tiny Mass attendances and huge property portfolios.

So, it’s good to ask ourselves as Catholics just how much money and assets our local church has, and how they’re using it.

For example, let’s say your local diocese has an annual appeal to support their welfare agencies.

Normally we chip in because we know there are homeless people, struggling sole parents and others who need these services.

But this year, let’s say the diocese is asking for money to buy a small office block in the inner city that they’re going to renovate and turn into a food bank.

How do you feel about that?

I would ask the following questions:

1) Don’t we already own something we can convert to a food bank? I know you might be getting good rents right now, but what is more important?

2) Why does it have to be in that location – what research did you do into this? Who’s going to use the food bank the most? For example, parking is difficult in an inner-city location.

3) Can’t we sell something we already own and use the money to buy the new property, instead of asking for charitable donations from people struggling to pay their own mortgages?

Does asking these questions make me a bad Catholic? Nope. Does asking them make me sound hopelessly naïve? Probably.

Catholics use money
Photo credit: Katt Yukawa

Australian theologian Dr Tracey Rowland also wrote recently about this. Tracey is more patient than I and has served for many years on Catholic women’s issues groups.

Flying all over Australia, she kept meeting the same type of Catholic women with the same axes to grind. Most of these axes—like women’s ordination—fall well outside the church’s remit.

She said, “The idea of paying the airfares for a dozen people to fly in and out of dioceses to hear the same complaints from the same predictable types of people always seemed to me to be a waste of the church’s resources.”

“The money spent on airfares, hotel accommodation and the salaries of secretaries could have been spent on medical research into infertility, or breast and ovarian cancers, or on parish-based child-care facilities or accommodation for families in crisis.”

“There were any number of ways the money could have been used to assist real Catholic women, but instead it was spent on a bureaucratic project whose major purpose was to generate meetings and write reports on the meetings for bishops to read and digest.”

I’d make only one correction, to change “read and digest” to “file and ignore”, because I don’t believe anyone reads these reports. (I do, but I read them so that you don’t have to.)

During the recent Plenary Council of happy memory, I used to ask at regular intervals how much it was costing the church. My question was stubbornly ignored and to this day has remained unanswered.

Now that we’re talking yet again—via the Synod on Synodality—about the need for transparency in the church, I’d love to re-open that conversation. We can start with diocesan finances.

How about annual public financial reporting from every diocese in Australia? If we don’t ask to see annual statements, it’s no wonder that we never do.

We all know that things cost lots of money to run, but it would be good to see exactly how much. Maybe we might suggest some simple economies?

Or maybe we’d be so impressed with the careful stewardship that we’d increase our Sunday collection gift.

What do you think?

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