Punishing the Poor for the Abuse Scandals

Wolf sheeps clothing barlow

Francis Barlow [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


In the wake of the scandals that have been rocking the Catholic Church for the last month, many Catholics are wondering how to make their distress known and heard by the bishops and cardinals of the Church. There have been many different ideas that have been proposed: writing letters, praying and fasting, reinstating Ember Days. Another set of people have discussed withholding donations to the diocese in retaliation.

Yes, I used the word retaliation, and for a reason. I see this kind of action, not as a solution, but as a striking back at the diocese for past failures. Some people say that only by hurting the income of the diocese will we gain the attention of the bishops, who seem to be locked in their own sort of bubble, mostly unaware of the pain the laity is experiencing as we are bombarded with scandal after scandal.

Ed Peters has a great breakdown of this from a Canon Law (and practical) perspective here. While admitting that there is no Canon that requires Catholics to donate to a parish or diocese (even though helping the Church financially is one of the Five Precepts of the Church), Peters also reminds his readers that there are consequences to withholding financial support from the Church:

…Third, many arch/diocesan annual fund-raising campaigns are, technically speaking, designed to help parishes meet assessments (canonically, taxes) imposed by bishops (in my view, usually reasonably) on parishes per Canon 1263. Withholding one’s donations to annual arch/diocesan appeals therefore, again, hurts parishes first, though parish problems in meeting their annual assessments would be noticed at the arch/diocesan level.

Fourth, arch/dioceses facing financial shortfalls generally do what any large organization does in such situations, cut expenses, liquidate investments, and/or borrow money. Thus, the actual impact of withholding one’s donations to the arch/diocese, an impact often already diluted by the time it reaches the arch/diocesan level, is likely to be muted again by the usual financial expedients undertaken by other financially stressed organizations. By the way, intimations that arch/diocesan budgets get balanced at the expense of the poor, while such suggestions smack of emotional hostage-taking, do reflect the reality that many demands are made on arch/diocesan assets (see, e.g., Canon 1254 § 1) and that no undertaking would be immune from cuts. …

I saw many people on Twitter bring up the point that some diocese also require the parish to make up for the lack of donations in bishops’ appeals, which reminded me of the subscription fees for the diocesan newspaper. (If you don’t subscribe, the parish must make up the difference. Just pay the $20/year.)

Even if this isn’t the case, the point that Peters makes above (about organizations cutting expenses when the budget drops) is an important one. One way that dioceses can change their budget is to downsize their charitable works to match the donations made. Another way would be to fire or cut hours for people who are working for the diocese. Is this something we want to be responsible for? Feeding fewer poor people? Having people who are already sacrificing by working for the Church make even less money than they already are making? Not being able to assist the woman in a crisis pregnancy through a diocesan program because we didn’t financially support it?

Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen WDC

By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To me, this is a lot like giving money to the homeless man who is begging on the street corner. I used to have the attitude that if I gave People Like That money, they might not use it for the right things. What if he’s buying alcohol with it instead of food? I remember reading an article from the Bad Catholic blog ages ago (which I have just spent about 20 minutes looking for and failing to find) that discussed giving money to people who were begging. The comment Marc made was that Jesus said to care for the poor, and that the poor were Our Lord Himself in disguise. Giving money to them when possible was between us and God, and what the beggar did with it is between him and God. Before that article, I’d try to occasionally have gift cards for local fast food on me to give away. Since reading it, I have started just giving cash when it’s possible.

It’s up to me to give to the poor, and it’s up to that person to use his free will and decide what to do with it.

Each of our dioceses should have regulations in place for what to do with money donated to the diocese. Richmond has an annual Bishop’s Appeal, but has also set up particular trust funds that, when fully funded, will support ongoing needs of seminarian formation, retired religious, education across the diocese, and supporting parishes. If people stop supporting the diocese, these are the things that will be hurt.

I think we need to do something, including demand that the diocese shows us that they are taking responsibility. I think those responsible for covering up abuses and assaults need to be held accountable, including being turned over to the authorities when necessary. But I think that attempting to punish the hierarchy by withholding money will only serve to punish the Church and those She must help. Because, we must remember, the priests and bishops and cardinals and pope are not the Church. They are a part of the Church, just as we are. And they are, frankly, a small part of it. As Ed Peters says at the close of his article (which sums up my own feelings so well):

“[B]e careful about punishing the Spouse of Christ and her dependent children because some priests and even bishops, men presumably wedded to her as Jesus was wedded to her, abandoned her so shamelessly.”


©2018 Christine Johnson – All rights reserved

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