A publication of Sacred Heart University
When Silence Becomes A Betrayal
The Catholic Imagination and the Challenge of Apathy

Voting with Their Pocketbooks

My mother recently told me, “This is the first year I didn’t donate to our bishop’s annual appeal. I donate to the parish, of course, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” Like many Catholics, she is upset about everything going on in the church around the sexual abuse scandal fallout: the drip, drip, drip of new revelations of old and new crimes, and the lack of decisive action by the bishops to hold themselves accountable. Despite the charitable works that bishops’ annual appeals support, Catholics can’t help but feel that their donations to dioceses are abetting the bishops in paying out for lawsuits that really should fall on their shoulders, not ours.

My mom reflects a national trend. In March of this year, Washington Post columnist Mark Thiessen made a splash by advising fellow Catholics “don’t give them a dime” for these reasons. “A Pew Research Center survey released this past summer indicated that 26 percent of U.S. Catholics reported giving less money as a result of the recent reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by priests and bishops,” according to America magazine. This article quotes Father Jay Mello, a pastor of two parishes in Massachusetts, about his parishioners “vocal” reluctance to donate to diocesan collections. “They don’t trust the bishops and feel this is the only way they can send the message.”

While the immediate and specifically Catholic trend occurs within a longer downward slide in religious giving, which has to do with fewer Americans attending churches of all types, I am intrigued by the people who stay but give less, as well as those who fall away from regular attendance and active engagement in their parish out a sense of discontent. This latter phenomenon is another way that Catholics are sending a message the only way they can.

When someone you know who is member of an organization is frustrated about its direction, you usually advise them to first stay and try work for change from within. We tell our kids to try to improve a club, team or friend group that is frustrating them. Sure, sometimes one needs to drop out and find a new group, but that should be a last resort.

The sad thing is that the structures of the church offer them very few avenues for effecting positive change. The reason as many stay is that there is a difference between their local parish—where they have friends, where they can be involved, where they can feel listened to, where the rituals are meaningful to them—compared to the larger structures of the church, over which they have no meaningful say. The decline in donations and the things that Catholics are saying about the bishops and the institutional church are troubling signs. Are the bishops and the pastors listening? They want to and think they are trying, but I am not confident they know how to or know what to do next.

Consider when parishes hold open forums or when parishioners organize their own meetings to discuss crisis moments, such as proposed parish closures. Finally, a large group of Catholics is talking about their hopes and fears for the church, about their frustrations and willingness to see changes! But we Catholics don’t seem to know how to have dialogues in which everyone gets engaged except when a financial crisis is upon us. How much better it would have be if honest, passionate and messy conversations had been happening in parishes over many years.

Both the leaders and the laity lack ingrained habits of association, to use an image from that great observer of American civil society, Alexis de Tocqueville. This deficit is virtually baked into Catholicism, because of the hierarchical structure and the primary emphasis on attaining the sacraments. As we have often heard, “the church is not a democracy.” But we have sold ourselves way short, because we tend to assume that making the leaders accountable to its people and involving the laity in the pastoral planning of the church would mean shifting the paternalistic model of Catholicism all the way to the other side, to a low-church Protestant model.

But there exist dynamic options in between those poles, and they exist within Catholic history and the scope of its practices and laws. For instance, if the priests in the United States voted for their first archbishop, John Carroll, cannot some version of such practices occur today? Why can’t parishioners play a role in the selection of their new pastor? There’s much the institutional church can and should do.

But parishes need not wait on the bishops. There are two promising activities to explore. First, some form of parish renewal action along the lines of small-church groups and faith-sharing groups are valuable for engaging and reengaging Catholics. Catholics need ways to get reintroduced to the joy of the risen Christ, which sustains their hope for making change. Happily, my sense is that many U.S. parishes are participating in such programs. Second, the revitalization and full use of the existing model of pastoral (parish) councils is strongly needed. This will be the topic of my next column.

All signs point to this conclusion by scholars who study what it takes for a Catholic parish to be excellent: “A parish is successful or excels to the extent that it is energized by and thrives on the dynamism of dialogue” (Bradford Hinze, Practices of Dialogue in the Roman Catholic Church, 2006, p. 20). If Catholics are holding back their money, their attendance and their full engagement in their local church, the church must invite them to talk about it and must be ready to do something about it.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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