“Follow the money.” The line from All the President’s Men has become a maxim in the world of reporting. The idea is that everything can be attributed to financial motivations. A bit of an oversimplification, to be sure, but money can present incentives that act on us — consciously and unconsciously — and that does does tend to make the maxim one worth some consideration.
I know people who work in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, who are die-hard liberals on every issue except patent protection. They can present hours of arguments showing how intellectual property rights are a bedrock of modern civilization, and would be aghast at the suggestion that the dependence of their pay slips upon the status quo has any influence on their opinion in the matter.
In the Church today, the “Follow the money” mantra is usually tied to the latest Vatican financial scandal – the 9-figure London real estate debacle, for example – or to the opaque accounting methods used at the local diocesan chancery.
Still, following the money could help someone gain insight into the possible motivations of some of the bigger Church stories often in the news.
How the money rolls in …
The Church has always needed money, from the time Judas kept the purse for the twelve apostles. It just goes to show how money has been a problem for the Church from the very beginning.
When the Church came out of the catacombs in the fourth century, she experienced an over millennium-long tradition of royal patronage. With state funding came state influence. While the Church was at the forefront of charitable work and provision for the needy, she also played a role in preserving the social order.
The Church also received other privileges, including land and often direct political power. The Church sometimes imposed taxes and extracted rents from the peasant population, reinforcing her interest in the status quo.
In the modern world, the Church is funded in different ways in different countries, but each method presents its own perverse incentives for Church leaders.
This is an inexact science, since individual dioceses and ecclesial institutions often benefit from other sources of income, such as a generous bequest, a well-managed stock portfolio, even an oil well or two.
The weekly collection
The collection basket is the basic means of income for the local Church in the English-speaking world. Parishioners are encouraged to give generously of their own free will.
This keeps the state out of Church finances, and lets the faithful have a sense of ownership of their faith.
This model requires bums in seats, and a willingness to tell people what they want to hear. There is more than one bishop that makes sure liberal priests go to liberal parishes and conservative priests to conservative parishes.
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Polls show that Catholics in the U.S. who attend Mass once a week tend to be more likely to vote Republican than those that attend less than once a month. The people in the pews – as opposed to anyone who identifies as Catholic – are probably more likely to open their wallets if their leaders emphasize life issues than social justice concerns.
Voluntary tax contribution
In Italy, the local Church is supported by the otto per mille, where taxpayers choose what religious organization – or the state – gets 0.8 percent of their income.
In such a situation, the Catholic Church is competing against the Italian state (generally considered to be inefficient and corrupt, about 10 percent choose it) and other recognized religions. People are not required to give the money to their own religion, mind, so non-Catholic religions often receive support from practicing Catholics, usually due to their emphasis on charitable activities.
In such a situation, the smart play is to emphasize your charitable activities, and let the taxpayer know you will put their money to good use. The Italian bishops do just that, as anyone who has watched TV in Italy will attest: The work the Church does in the developing world is highlighted in television advertisements, not doctrinal briefs.
The Church tax
In Germany, and a few other smaller countries, citizens are required to pay a tax that goes to their own Church. Taxpayers’ religious affiliations are kept on file in the tax office. The tax is collected regardless of whether the religiously-affiliated taxpayer actively practices his or her religion. People can formally renounce their religion, however, to avoid paying the tax. Unlike in Italy, the “Church tax” in Germany is not then given to the state, but stays in the taxpayer’s pocket.
This renunciation is a bureaucratic affair, and most baptized Catholics pay their tax even if they haven’t set foot in a church in decades.
Given that less than 15 percent of Catholics in Germany attend Mass weekly, and the majority only attend for special occasions, the financial incentives become skewed. Instead of making sure the people in the pews are happy, the most important thing is to keep the people not in the pews complacent: never angry enough to jump through the hoops necessary to formally renounce their faith and stop paying the tax.
As German society secularizes and many Church teachings start to seem outdated – e.g. the all-male priesthood, same-sex relationships, intercommunion – you would want to show these secularized, non-practicing Catholics that the Church is actually more progressive than the Catechism suggests.
This is made difficult because, no matter how progressive Church leaders are, the nominal Catholics don’t see it. They’re not in Church. Their only knowledge about the Church is what they see on the news, and that is more likely to be what the pope says, not the local bishop. So, even if you impose the most progressive practices in the nominal – but taxpaying – Catholic person’s local parish, it means nothing to the person, unless the pope himself says it is okay.
The money trail
This is not to say that different national Churches act differently according to purely financial concerns. Even if bishops and priests didn’t care deeply about the issues affecting the Church today — and many of them do — modern game theory has proven that several issues — honor, pride, ethics, and yes, even religious belief — will override pure financial self-interest in decision making. Still, following the money trail can often lead you into interesting — if not entirely surprising — places.