Population Shifts Pose Problems, Opportunities for Church Finance

By Zech, Charles E. | National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

Population Shifts Pose Problems, Opportunities for Church Finance


Zech, Charles E., National Catholic Reporter


The U.S. Catholic church possesses an enormous amount of wealth. This wealth exists in three forms: holdings of financial assets (like stocks and bonds); holding of physical assets, like land, buildings and artwork; and human assets in the form of our clergy, vowed religious and lay workers, both volunteer and paid.

It is impossible to place an accurate value on this wealth, for a couple of reasons. First, the U.S. Catholic church is decentralized, so there is no office keeping tabs on church wealth. Second, it is difficult to assess the market value of most of this wealth. This is especially true in the case of physical assets. Many of the buildings (for example, churches) have far more value in their current use than if they were to be put on the market and sold for some commercial use. Other assets, like artwork, are literally priceless. Likewise, much of the church's labor force possesses skills that are far more valuable to the church than they would be to a private sector employer.

In spite of its wealth, the U.S. Catholic church faces some serious financial threats that have been on the horizon since well before the clergy abuse scandal. The first comes from the fact that while the church is rich in assets, it is relatively poor in terms of annual revenues. It has been well documented that the typical Catholic household contributes only about half as much to its church as does the typical Protestant household (a little over 1 percent of annual income for Catholics versus a bit over 2 percent for Protestants). What does this mean? It means that if the typical Catholic household contributed at the same rate as does the typical Protestant household (not tithing, just 2 percent of income), the U.S. Catholic church would raise another $7 billion a year. This works out to about $400,000 per year that an average-sized parish is shortchanged.

A related threat is the underfunded deferred maintenance problem that the church is facing. Because of relatively low Catholic giving, many dioceses and parishes have not been able to keep up with the routine maintenance needed to keep their property in suitable condition. Roofs haven't been repaired, parking lots haven't been repaved, heating systems haven't been maintained. This is especially true of many of our poorer inner-city parishes.

A third threat is related to the second. Because of population shifts (from the city to the suburbs, from the north and east to the south and west) many of the churches and schools are now located in areas more sparsely populated by Catholics with their facilities underutilized, while those areas that have experienced a growth in Catholic population find their facilities overburdened and in need of expansion.

The final threat comes in the form of the reduction in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Historically, low Catholic giving was countered by low labor expenses carried on the backs of undercompensated priests and nuns. Today, a good number of their tasks are now performed by the laity. Many of these are volunteers, but an increasing number are professionally trained, and in justice deserve a level of compensation that reflects their training and responsibilities. Because of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), we would likely have seen an increase in lay involvement, but the decline in religious vocations has made the church even more dependent on lay labor.

So, in spite of its enormous wealth, the U.S. Catholic church faces many challenges in meeting its responsibilities. These responsibilities involve supporting a variety of ministries, including worship, teaching, evangelization, service and developing Christian community. One particularly vexing responsibility is that associated with the necessity to restructure how these ministries are delivered in light of the decline in religious vocations and population movements. In other words, decisions on parish and school closings and mergers. …

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