05Jun Brendan Hoban: The Church Has a Right to Protect its Assets

The Church Has a Right to Protect its Assets

Western People 1.6.2021

One of the unanswered questions now for anyone interested in the Catholic Church is: what are we going to do for money? The past year with no public Masses has meant few or no collections – the main funding stream for parishes and dioceses. (In effect, Catholics who attend church – and pay their collections – keep our churches open.)

That’s not to say that some parishioners have not been very generous – they have. But the truth is that the Church depends not just on the generosity of the few but on the contribution of the many. To adapt the Tesco legend, every little has helped over the years.

The truth is too that, just as St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York was famously built by the pennies (or dimes) of the poor Catholic Irish, the same is true of the devout poor in every parish. They’ve been the financial backbone that built the basic parish infrastructure – churches, presbyteries and, in the past (to a large degree) schools – and paid for running expenses including funding salaries of priests and essential parish personnel.

But now, unlike pubs, hairdressers, hotels and other businesses looking forward to the probability of enhanced prospects after the long lockdown, the Catholic Church wonders if our previous congregations will return to church in the same numbers.

The unspoken reality is that, as most of our declining collections are sourced from older parishioners, a worryingly diminishing resource, what or who will sustain the Catholic Church in the near enough future? Who or what will pay the maintenance costs on church buildings – insurance, heating, cleaning, etc? Where will the salaries of priests – if there are priests – come from?

There is no obvious source to fund the gaping financial hole that in the long-term is opening up in front of us. While some commentators, especially those who seek to embarrass the Catholic Church, point to the presumed riches of the Vatican, it’s obvious that they don’t understand that dioceses and parishes are independent units responsible for funding themselves.

In such a disturbing situation, it seems glaringly obvious that dioceses and parishes will need (in the short-term) to protect whatever resources they have for the long-term. Some dioceses have investments and if they have, they will need to manage them very carefully. Very few parishes have any investments but whatever they have they will need to do likewise.

But something strange is happening now. A weakened Church without the moral or community authority it once enjoyed is perceived as an easy touch for subsuming its last resources into other ‘good causes’.

So sporting organisations ear-mark a parish field as a suitable ground and seek to appropriate it for their own purposes. Community associations muscle in, demanding parish buildings at present unused.

Once what parishes or communities needed was fund-raised through every possible avenue – card-games, raffles, bingo, sponsorship, plays and so on. Now community groups seem peculiarly reluctant to go that demanding road and have turned to piggy-backing on the Catholic Church to provide from its diminishing resources what more well-to-do groups might be expected to provide for themselves.

Here’s a case in point ­– at national level. At present, for example, the Sisters of Charity have given a very valuable site – free, gratis and for nothing – in the grounds of St Vincent’s Hospital, to the state for a new National Maternity Hospital and despite their extraordinary generosity, instead of expressions of gracious gratitude, the Sisters are being accused of manipulation. It is a timely reminder to them and to others of how easily people can presume that the Catholic Church can be leaned on to give away valuable resources that they themselves may need in a very uncertain future.

As everyone knows the Catholic Church now is not in a good place with its authority diminished and its place in society ritually ridiculed and condemned. So it can be easily browbeaten into parting with property and other valuable assets it badly needs to help fund its own future and which it should be holding on to for dear life. Instead, it is being cajoled into parting with ‘the family silver’ and often seems reluctant to face down those who, it would seem, are effectively exploiting the present weakened and vulnerable position of the Church.

What’s particularly galling is to experience what it means to be so taken for granted that there isn’t even a pretence of gratitude. When, some years ago, Bishop Thomas Finnegan, on behalf of the diocese of Killala, presented a valuable site close to St Muredach’s Cathedral to the Ballina Swimming Pool, he wasn’t even invited to the opening. It took a personal intervention on the part of the late Anthony Kilcullen to register publicly how the site was sourced.

In later years, as PP in Ballina, I was asked to bless a family facility sited on land also gifted by the diocese and when an official publicly placed on record the diocese’s generosity it was the first those attending knew about it.

What’s obvious now is that the Catholic Church at national, diocesan and parish level needs to manage its present resources very carefully and to cast a wary eye on those who – for whatever good cause – seek to pressure church authorities to cede them.

There are three main reasons for this approach. One is that while once the Catholic Church could afford to help resource community causes, it’s now obvious this is no longer the case. A second reason is that we will need resources to train and pay lay leaders, when priests become even fewer. And a third reason is the obvious and clear responsibility the Church has to care for church personnel in their old age and, with the future so uncertain, this needs to be kept in focus.

Dioceses, parishes and religious orders need to focus on these primary responsibilities and need to face down those at present demanding that their ‘good causes’ justify the Catholic Church ceding its precious assets.

 

6 Responses

  1. Ben Flood

    I can appreciate Fr Brendan Hoban’s concerns over the turning over of Church assets to the community. However those same communities are largely made up of Catholics. These are assets of the community at large and those assets which are not required exclusively for religious purposes should be made available to the community. As Brendan said these assets were acquired using the assets (the pennies of the poor) of the community.

    Yes it’s true that the era of Christendom has faded in this country and that’s in no small part to the Church’s behaviour resulting in the turning away from the Church by the laity. Why should the remnant seek to claim those assets as theirs alone? I live in Sligo and the Church has a huge amount of property that could be said to be in access of what’s needed.

    Maybe we are heading for a Church of the people, for the people by the people – democratic, welcoming and Christian in its attitude and behaviour. Something our young people will want to be part of.
    All empires end.

  2. Sean O’Conaill

    “As everyone knows the Catholic Church now is not in a good place with its authority diminished and its place in society ritually ridiculed and condemned.”

    Somehow in this sentence the ‘Catholic Church’ seems to have become again a synonym for clergy here – with ‘society’ in opposition.

    Where are ‘the people of God’ in this scenario? Is it not to the latter that ‘church assets’ truly belong?

    Must synodality not be about, first of all, realising the church as more than just clergy and embracing some substantial part of society – before we can get to the agreed disposal of church assets? If the latter become solely devoted to the support of an embattled clergy, how could that resolve the critical problem of continuity?

    Disclosure: this lay person has assets that will be devoted to that last purpose, if co-responsibility is truly prioritised in the synodal process. Opposing ‘the Catholic Church’ to ‘society’ is not a promising beginning.

  3. Phil Greene

    Thank you Fr. Hoban for raising this issue – it is a long overdue conversation that should be held in every parish and revisited on a regular basis.

    How very sad that the bishop was treated in this awful manner, and I am sure every bishop/priest would have his own tale to tell in this respect. Indeed many “native” parishioners whose families paid for the churches and schools now find their own grandchildren etc. having to answer to the same type of groups who benefit so much from their initial sacrifices.

    That said (and yes of course there is a “but”, this post is really Church vs Lay after all!) I cannot help thinking that the church institution itself must accept some responsibility for this treatment.

    Real or misunderstood by either side – many see land/buildings as been given to the Parish rather than the Church, and that the church claimed it (sometimes dishonestly) as their own, so the people feel that they are only getting back what rightfully belongs to the Parish anyway.
    The issue of transparency is one that won’t go away until the Church institution is fully transparent with its parishioners. I do understand if you feel “been there, tried that” to no avail, but generally lay people feel that disclosure of day-to-day running expenses are only a reason to try to get more money from them. But what about full disclosure?
    Regarding local land/property. What property does the local/regional Church (institution) own? We never know! Is it in the name of the Church or the Parish?
    In terms of housing for priests – we see big houses or bungalows on their own grounds used by one person only. In these times, as well as in the past -the optics don’t look good.

    Also, what will happen to these houses when there are no longer any priests? – I do not know who owns these buildings, this is knowledge that is not widely shared with Parishioners and is a difficult question to ask a local priest as people recognise that he did not make the rules. If owned by the Church institution – will they revert to the Parish or remain as an asset on the Church’s books? If sold, will the proceeds be shared with the Parish to ensure maintenance costs of the local Church building are covered going forward?

    And, are maintenance costs for these houses covered by the Parish ? If so please note that I cannot ask someone else to maintain my house, thereby possibly increasing it’s value, and still retain ownership so why should the local Church feel they can do so (assuming that they do own them)?

    Regarding Rome- You say that people wrongly assume that Rome could provide, true- because of course we know no different, again full disclosure will ensure we know the full financial story. We do know, again and again, that nothing can change without Rome’s authorisation, so why can’t countries look to Rome for some financial help for their clergy too. Actually, Rome really is not helping the national Church’s cashflow with their public gross mismanagement of funds – indeed each country could possibly sue/ fine them for the damage done by them to their local collections – look to how any other financial institutions are treated or react when trying to regain integrity and trust to survive.

    Sorry to take up so much space, but thankful to you for raising a hugely important issue surrounding the perception of the church as an entire entity. This must be part of the Synodal discussions if the process is to be taken seriously.

    (Possibly need to clarify the “native” refers to many generations of the same family living in the one area. “Groups” refers to people who moved into the same area regardless of race, colour, etc. Thank you.)

  4. John Anthony Waters

    Parishes will have to live within their means as we all have to do. What
    about the many people who have been out of work due to the pandemic?
    Such property as the church owns came from the people, so what is the big
    deal about returning part of it?

    If the era of Christendom is fading in Ireland whose fault is that?
    The Catholic Church in Ireland has been freewheeling for years.
    Who in Ireland is preaching Christianity with anydegree of enthusiasm?
    We have lots of bishops, do they ever give a lead in this matter?
    It seems to me that they are content to lead in temporal
    matters alone. So it is no wonder that so few young people go to church.

  5. Paddy Ferry

    Phil@3, I wouldn’t shed too many tears for Bishop Thomas Finnegan if this is the same Thomas Finnegan whom Kevin Hegarty made “a final appeal” to during his travails when editing Intercom. The bishop agreed to mediate with the other bishops during an upcoming trip to Lourdes.

    When he returned from Lourdes he told Kevin that Our Lady told him at the Grotto that he, Kevin, should leave Intercom. Certainly infantile and that’s being charitable!! (The Best Catholics in the World. Chap. 16, Lost in the Thicket)

  6. Phil Greene

    Paddy @5 , thank you for that piece of the puzzle. I think this book you quote is essential rather than optional reading .. it’s now on my list:)

    Whilst the Synodal path is focussed only in a Pastoral direction all areas must be addressed for real change to happen. Another path could run along in parallel and both converge in time for the national bishops’ conference. I am such an idiot though, sometimes I think the Church will listen to us and actually take real action!

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