Action Alert!

Appealing to the better angels of pastors

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 01, 2019

Years ago, a priest friend of mine was assigned as a parochial vicar to a very liberal dissident parish. A parishioner threatened to reduce his contributions in response to his orthodox preaching. The priest pointed to the air conditioning unit and said, “Before the electrical bill is paid, this parish pays my salary.”

But that door swings both ways. For better or for worse, in liberal and in conservative parishes, withholding funds in protest usually ends up hurting the laity more than the clergy. It’s time to consider a new approach in a time when bishops and priests are reluctant to exercise their offices in defense of the Catholic faith.

Pastors know that the most generous parishioners are usually indiscriminate contributors to their parishes and the second collections. They may routinely give more to the priests’ retirement fund where there is little doubt as to how the money will be spent. But they will also consistently contribute to the morally questionable second collections such as the Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services. (Both funds are reported to be entangled with pro-contraception and even pro-abortion agencies.)

As one major contributor told a priest friend of mine, “Father, when I surrender this check to you, I have relieved my conscience on my duty to support the Church. Now this money is on your conscience.” Would that priests and bishops have the same sensitive sense of duty as this benefactor!

Pastors also know that any attempt to discourage funding of suspect second collections is usually met with an overall reduction in contributions. So it’s a pastorally tricky business. Every pastor comes up with his own strategy in threading that needle. Some priests, for example, use the passive-aggressive approach of simply placing a basket at the entrance of the church for questionable second-collection causes. In any case, discriminating orthodox Catholics often feel frustrated. They think their only weapon to effect change is to withhold donations. And that can be counter-productive.

But there may be a useful alternative to withholding funds.

A little-known legal requirement involves donations designated as “restricted.” Restricted contributions are donations received by an organization in which the donor designates the use to a particular purpose. When a donor restricts a gift for a purpose, a segregated restricted fund must be established. Restrictions on contributions cause a paper chase for the not-for-profit entity (like a church) and consume the time of CPA auditors who review proper accounting procedures. In short, making a contribution with donor-defined restrictions is a serious legal and labor-intensive accounting matter.

Hence there are opportunities for the laity to leverage the policies of their pastors and bishops by formally restricting donations for a purpose, or subjecting the use to certain conditions. Failing to meet the terms of the restrictions would necessitate holding the funds in reserve or even returning the funds to the benefactor. For example, funds received for a church renovation project must be used on the renovations. Excess funds must be returned to the donors, or donors must be asked to release the funds for unrestricted purposes.

So here is the plan. Instead of withholding funds from parishes and dioceses when the pastors fall short of their Catholic duties, donate funds with strings of restrictions attached. It is praiseworthy to pray for the holy intentions of Pope Francis when reciting the Rosary. Priests, bishops, and their staffs might return the favor by carefully considering the wishes of the People of God when managing designated donations.

For example, when making contributions, restrict the donation by certified mail with a note that reads something like this: “This $10,000 donation is to be used by Catholic Charities to feed the poor after the Bishop publicly denies Communion to the nominally Catholic pro-abortion governor.” (Link the check to the letter by noting on the memo line, “Restricted—see accompanying letter.”)

Creative major contributors could establish a foundation that offers significant donations to bishops who suffer the ignominy of public disapproval for standing up to pro-abortion politicians. Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield knows whether he endured a reduction in contributions after warning pro-abortion Catholic Senator Dick Durbin not to present himself for Communion. But his diocese should be financially rewarded for his orthodoxy. (Of course, the good bishop would probably respond he was only living up to the demands of his office. Precisely.)

In the early stages, it may be prudent to avoid restrictions that would tie up a diocesan accounting office. Perhaps it would be better to begin by sending a letter “in conscience” to one’s pastor or bishop. The plea for orthodoxy could be accompanied by a check and a promise to contribute even more next time if the pastor or bishop lives up to the demands of his office. Specific restrictions on donations might wait for another time down the road.

Some Catholics may object that placing restrictions on donations amounts to vulgar bribery. But such “bribery” of ecclesiastics should always be respectful, and done for the cause of orthodoxy. Clerics beholden to Mammon are as old as Judas and Tetzel (“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”). We live in desperate times, and the laity lack effective measures for getting the attention of their pastors.

Others may observe that money is fungible and “accounting tricks” are futile. Of course it is true that money is “fungible,” but the accounts required to control restricted donations are not. Such critics also underestimate the seriousness with which accountants—and outside CPA auditors—take their responsibilities and the power they have over the books. It is difficult to “release” funds from legal restrictions fraudulently without drawing the attention of outside auditors. A bishop is beholden to the auditors to ensure “transparency” in financial reporting.

Requiring the bureaucracy to revisit the books month after month, and reconsider the unused restricted funds, will not be a panacea. But the accounts, like Edgar Allan Poe’s beating telltale heart, will continue to remind chancery personnel of chronic unfinished business in matters of the faith—a component that is often missing in the bureaucracy.

Legally restricting donations for purposes of defending the Catholic faith may prove to be a significant weapon in the lay arsenal in the years to come.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: charles.pullin6847 - Feb. 03, 2019 5:40 PM ET USA

    Father, in the secular non-profit world, your advice is sensible. Restricted funds are indeed audited and, in my experience, donor intent is honored. That is not necessarily the case in the church. Some bishops choose to honor donor restrictions and others don't. Bishops have the right to set their own accounting standards and rules so there is no effective restriction. Worse, some bishops promise not to use capital campaign funds for abuse victims and then do it anyway. Who to believe?

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Feb. 02, 2019 3:52 PM ET USA

    Designated donations don't always work. In my former parish, some choir members designated funds for the music program. When the funds didn't show up there, the Choir Director (his day job was a CPA) asked what happened at a staff meeting and the Pastor said they went into the general fund. The CPA informed him that was illegal under civil and canon law. I never heard the final outcome.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Feb. 02, 2019 12:45 PM ET USA

    Very good idea, Father; I whole heartedly support the concept. On the other hand, let’s be honest recognizing this would not have stopped or changed the abuse problem. We can hypothesize all day long. To repeat, I believe your suggestion to be good and worthy of further development. The abuse situation requires something else. More fundamentally, I believe we need to get back to teaching & living our faith. This doesn’t stop sin either but it does make it more problematic to proliferate.

  • Posted by: Foundas - Feb. 01, 2019 7:39 PM ET USA

    I have done this and have received the money back, in this case, from the bishop. The only draw back is that in the case of a bishop, they can pull money from a parish whenever they want to and this is valid according to Canon Law. If our parishes don't meet their quotas for the bishop to spend he just pulls the money from them whether they like it or not. We are a corporation (to protect from abuse suits) and the bishop still has carte blanc assess to funds.

  • Posted by: msrsm19887530 - Feb. 01, 2019 7:35 PM ET USA

    An excellent suggestion and certainly a more responsible than simply not giving at all. Another option would be to contribute to a different diocese whose bishop is orthodox and unafraid to to challenge immorality by, for instance, imposing canonical sanctions of pro-abortion "Catholic" politicians. Catholic Culture, can you publish an article identifying and commending the half dozen best bishops in the country, those who we might wish to support if our local bishop does not merit it?