Is the Church rich? It depends

A Church of the poor? (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, pool)

The Pope has recently said some things about money and the Church, which are of interest. You can read a report of what his words here and also here.

What the Pope has to say is not interesting in itself, as this sort of thing has been said often before now; it is interesting, I suppose that it comes from the mouth of the Pope, whereas in the past it came from people who used the perception of clerical wealth as a way of justifying their attacks on the Church.

Is the Church rich? The answer depends on what you mean by Church and what you mean by rich. One needs to distinguish between the institution and the people who serve it. One needs to distinguish between rich, as in having reserves of cash, and rich in the sense of holding property, which may or may not be convertible into cash.

Several clerics are rich through inherited wealth. I don’t know if this is true, but I have heard of one priest, now deceased, who inherited the rights to his father’s literary works, and was as a result very well off. However, this priest lived modestly and gave nearly all of his income away. Canon law says that priests are not to indulge in commercial activity, but priests who have not taken a vow of poverty (that means diocesan priests) are allowed to own money and property. They clearly should not make a great show of wealth, but, I have to say, I have never come across any who did. Most live the sort of lives their parishioners live.

That said, the clergy are not particularly well reimbursed for their labours, though it is hard to generalise on this, as there is no standard means of reimbursement. Some priests get a diocesan salary, others depend on stole fees and the Christmas and Easter collections, which in small parishes won’t be very much. My impression is that most priests in parishes rely on the generosity of their parishioners, and some parishioners are very generous, but others might be quite unaware of the fact that, according to the commandments of the Church, they are obliged to support the clergy financially.

On thing is for certain: parishes in Africa depend for financial support on money raised in Europe and America. Not a single African parish I ever knew would have been able to support a priest, let alone a team of catechists.

Generally speaking, from where I stand, the picture is one of a Church that is neither strapped for cash, but at the same time not rolling in it. Things like church repairs, and other major projects, in England at least, require considerable fundraising; one cannot simply draw on money in the bank. The Churches and presbyteries may well be valuable, but they are not realisable assets.

Of course, there is one place where the Church is rich, but funnily enough the Pope did not mention this.

In Germany the Catholic Church is, thanks to the Church Tax, hugely wealthy. In the case of Germany, I would certainly agree with the Pope’s thesis that the richer you are the less effective you are as a Church. Indeed the case seems clear that the German Church is the richest on earth and the most moribund too, and that one causes the other. In Germany too, or so I noticed when visiting, the parish clergy are visibly comfortably off, better provided for than many of their parishioners. By contrast, in Kenya, where the Church has no money to speak of, the churches are overflowing with devout Catholics. In Germany they are empty.

Perhaps the Pope’s words on the richness of the clergy and their Pharaonic lifestyle are directed at preparing us for the abolition of the German Church Tax? After all, it only needs a motu proprio from Pope Francis to get rid of this iniquitous way of doing this. Reform on this matter is well overdue, and it is a reform that the Church needs to undertake, before it is imposed on us from outside.