Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Church and the care of the people

My 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.

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At Wednesday, December 05, 2007 11:22:00 AM, Blogger Fabian's straight talk said...

I concur Mr. O

At Thursday, December 06, 2007 5:49:00 AM, Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

The Catholic Church has been much better overall than any other denomination (I am aware of) in this country in terms of giving to the needy.

I know the Catholic Churches here put aside money each month to help people with their utilities and rent, and that's not just people in their congregation.

Father Charles Strobel is one of my heroes, and his Campus For Human Development/ Room In The Inn should be a model for all denominations to solve the homeless and hunger problem.

I just get so discouraged when I see a society that is much more about "me" than "we."

At Thursday, December 06, 2007 4:12:00 PM, Blogger Matt Daley said...


I agree...I also get sad when people care more about "me" than "we". However, the question here is this -- should we be free, as individuals, to make that choice for ourselves?

I think we should be. In the Garden of Eden, God endowed Adam and Eve with free will. He allowed them to choose their own path. Obviously, they made a wrong choice...but the point is that they had the opportunity to choose for themselves.

I don't believe that selflessness can be forced on people without negative consequences. While "we" is a great idea in principle, it must be arrived at by societal change that ultimately results in a "we" mentality. If the government foists that idea upon us because "it's the right thing to do", what other things will be foisted upon us under the same guise?

Remember that the road to hell is littered with good intentions. Good ideas in theory don't always make good ideas in practice.

I'll stop short of saying that "me" is human nature...that it can never be changed. I prefer to have more faith in my fellow man than that. However, it's clear to me that social forces need to be altered in order to achieve an optimal society. Trying to get us there before we're ready as a society is just a recipe for failure.

At Friday, December 07, 2007 1:18:00 AM, Blogger Dave Oatney said...

The thing to remember is that the Church, the Cathedral of the Incarnation, or the Diocese of Nashville does not merely provide for the needy on its own. It cannot function unless the laity insure that the resources are available for those kinds of programs.

A lot of people mistakenly believe that the Church is rolling in money-it isn't. Before a parish can begin community outreach, it must first tend to its own laity by providing the internal programs that the people have a right to expect and that (in a few cases) the laws of the Church require. If a parish is pastored by a priest of the diocese (as opposed to a priest of a religious order), that priest must be paid. So must all of the essential parish staff. All of the expenses incurred in the daily operation of the parish must be funded by the parish. Having seen the financial statements for my parish, I can tell you that the place costs a phenomenal amount of money to run.

Recently, Crisis magazine, a leading Catholic periodical, took a survey of all of our nation's Catholic dioceses and named the Diocese of Knoxville the best Catholic diocese in the nation. Not only are we one of the most fiscally responsible dioceses, we have more priests and seminarians per percentage of the Catholic population than any other diocese in the land. Unlike so many other dioceses (including Nashville) we have no priest shortage here. A number of our priests are serving the Diocese of Nashville because of the shortage there in a program our former bishop called "Holy Lend-Lease."

Each parish, however, has a different set of circumstances. Some can afford to give generously to those who need it (mine joins with other churches in Morristown and helps operate a food center called Daily Bread where anyone can walk in and have a meal, no questions asked). Other parishes barely have enough to cover their operating budget-that is especially true for the rural mission parishes that litter East Tennessee. A mandatory requirement that these churches give so much of their income away would break those churches, they would be in constant debt.

It is quite true that Catholic Social Services in some jurisdictions operates a system of social welfare that is equal or superior to that of the state. This is because unlike Protestant churches, we are under a much broader umbrella. Each parish is already required to contribute so much of its money to the diocese, which then distributes that money to the various works of the Church, including social welfare. Most Protestant churches in this country are totally autonomous by comparison, or very close. You will likely see that kind of efficiency in Protestant churches the day you con convince them to live under a religious hierarchy with defined powers (when Hell freezes over). Simply put, the Catholic Church's very nature and structure is what allows for us to do things the way we do them, and it is why I (as a Catholic) believe that is the way God intended for the Church to be governed. It is also one of the two great theological differences that separate Catholics from Protestants (the nature of the Eucharist is the other).

The Church can't function, though, unless the laity are part of that equation. Before we can even think about giving to the poor, we have to settle our internal business. So many of our own people do not realize how many services their parish churches provide and how much it costs to keep it all going.

At Friday, December 07, 2007 6:56:00 AM, Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

I absolutely believe people have the right to be selfish and never give as individuals. But...

if we refer to ourselves as Christians and Jews, then we have an obligation to help those less fortunate.

I do have a strong libertarian streak, and it's that streak that believes individuals should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as it doesn't harm another. That still doesn't keep me from being repulsed when people call themselves a Christian or a Jew and don't try to act like one.

At Friday, December 07, 2007 7:01:00 AM, Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

No doubt the Church, like most churches, have a governing board and a lot of expenses.

But I still believe Father Charles Strobel found the answer to (almost) eliminating homelessness and hunger during the winter months, and his program should be used as a nationwide model on curing these problems.

It can be done, and we need to do it.

At Friday, December 07, 2007 1:03:00 PM, Blogger Matt Daley said...


I'm 100% with you on that. I am a person of little means, and it saddens me that I can't give as I would like. Voluneerism and the donation of material goods is another positive way to help, but nothing would truly substitute for cash.

If people can help but choose not to, they are most certainly NOT following God's word.

And as far as that goes, I'll say this -- one may have free will here on Earth and should be granted the freedom among men to make these choice, but when a person's physical body dies and it's time for their soul to be judged, they'll have to answer for their Earthly deeds. And it's not very likely that those who would not share with their fellow man will be allowed to share in eernal paradise.

At Friday, December 07, 2007 11:45:00 PM, Blogger Dave Oatney said...

I agree...The way I understand it, part of what makes Father Strobel's program work now is that he has managed to get others in on the act.

The biggest challenge we face is convincing Protestant churches to come together and work with each other, then turn around and work with Catholics. If we can do that, we would be well on our way to a society where a massive public welfare state isn't needed.


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