The Church and the care of the peopleMy good friend Sharon Cobb believes as I do that our churches, synagogues, temples, and other houses of worship hold the answer to the welfare state. Churches should make it their priority to care for the poor and needy of our society because that is really the prime mission of the Church in the world aside from saving souls. Sharon would like to insure that churches fulfill that mission by requiring churches and houses of worship to give a certain percentage of their income to those in need or risk losing their tax-exempt status.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what Sharon is trying to get at, and she isn't the first person to make such a proposal. While I agree with the idea in principle that churches ought to give much of their money away in service to others, there is a key component to the equation that can cause the ecclesiastical safety net to unravel if it isn't doing its part-the people in the pews.
Before a church can begin to extend its reach to benefit the entire community, it has to take care of its internal affairs. Priests or ministers can't be expected to work for nothing-not when the layfolk expect them to be there when they are most needed. After paying the pastor, a church then must pay its secretarial staff and other full-time employees. Unfortunately, the local utility companies are not going to extend free electric, water, and gas service to churches-and at my parish the utility bills run into the thousands of dollars a month.
Then there are the needs and desires of the laity, nearly all of which are worthwhile and part of the Church's mission. In addition to holding Sunday Mass, at my church daily Mass is offered at 8:30am all other days of the week except Wednesday, when Mass is said at 7pm. At most Protestant churches there are at least three services a week (Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening). The services that the Church offers the laity are many and wide-ranging (I will speak from a Catholic perspective because of firsthand experience, but those of you who attend other churches will doubtless be able to identify with at least some of these programs or similar activities in your ecclesial community).
For most of the year, the Church offers classes for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA)-instruction for those who are seeking to be baptized into the Catholic faith, or who are joining the Catholic Church from another Christian community. At my parish, Nicole and I assist with teaching RCIA on most Mondays. There are a few weeks where we can't make it, but most of the time we are there to help. The coffee is always hot and there are always goodies on which to munch. The Church provides videos as well as teaching and learning materials for these important classes.
The parish goes to great pains to insure that in the absence of a Catholic school in Morristown, young children are suitably educated in the faith through the Parish School of Religion. Through PSR/CCD classes, kids are prepared for their First Communion, First Confession, and their Confirmation. Beyond that, the Parish School of Religion serves as a place where children can come for religious education throughout their developing years. When we lived in Cincinnati, Nicole and I taught in the PSR for third and fourth graders for a year at St. Catharine of Siena Church. This was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, but also among the most frustrating. Why? I quickly became exasperated at the number of parents who dropped their children off for us to teach them, but I never saw them at Mass on Sunday or at Vespers during the week. It didn't take long for us to figure out that we were a babysitting service for some of these parents, but we were doing an important work nonetheless-we might have been the only Christian example some of the kids were getting all week. We don't teach in the School of Religion at St. Patrick, our current parish, but I have no doubt that there are parents who use religious instruction as a babysitter there (Note to heathen parents: Y'all ought to be ashamed of yourselves!).
The Church also has programs to benefit seniors, and the sick and shut-ins of the parish, and always has great activities for teens. There is a place and a program for just about everyone to participate in. All paid for by the huge money tree growing in the front yard of the parish church...uh, right.
Everything the Church does takes money, and there is very little that doesn't cost quite a bit at that. What amazes me is just how much the Church does to care for its members that those members take for granted as things the Church does-no one seems to realize the time, effort, and money that goes into these services. People assume that these things are "free" because the Church does them. If the flock partakes, the flock needs to pony up.
I hear you now, you're saying "David, I don't have lots of money-our family has modest means, we are barely getting by." When I was in college I had no spare money. I gave to the Church when I could afford to, which wasn't often (I was always sure to give my Peter's Pence every year-I still do), but I knew that I was utilizing the Church for both my spiritual as well as temporal well-being. I also understood that I needed to give back for what I had been given. My solution was to find an organization within the Church who made it their mission to give back to the Church and to the community, and one that I didn't need to have lots of money to join. My thinking was that if there were a group that pooled their resources and focused on fundraising as well as giving, I would be able to participate and to give through that group. I ended up joining the Knights of Columbus because I made a commitment to find a way to give no matter how little I might have personally, and I remain an active Knight to this day.
I would recommend the Knights to any Catholic man, but there are many groups and organizations within the Church for people of all ages, genders, and conditions that allow them to give back to the best of their ability and which pool their resources to allow for maximum giving. If you don't have a lot of the green stuff, joining such a group or society is a way that you can give to the Church's greater work without feeling like you have to break the bank to do it.
That brings us back to the larger point of whether churches should be penalized if they don't give to those who need it. Ideally, this would be doable because churches would be rolling in money. I have a feeling if churches were rolling in money (not just a few churches) they would give a lot more to those in need than so many of them already do. For churches to be able to do their job in caring for the poor, the laity have to care for the Church. In our day and age, the laity don't give because they think the Church runs for nothing and the government will feed the poor.