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Financial pressures on priests to avoid controversy

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 28, 2014

In an interesting piece that appears today on The Catholic Thing, Father Mark Pilon makes an interesting point about the collapse of catechesis in Germany. The same point might apply in the US and other countries as well.

As you will recall, the German bishops have announced that most Catholics in their country reject Church teachings on issues of sexuality. In making that announcement, the German bishops left the very clear impression that Church teachings should therefore change. My colleague Jeff Mirus responded that perhaps, instead of calling for changes in teaching, the German pastors should be sure that the faithful in their care have actually heard what the Church teaches. Father Pilon makes a similar argument, but then moves on to an important observation.

In Germany, the Catholic Church derives an enormous amount of income from the “church tax.” If a German identifies himself as Catholic, a portion of his taxes go to the Church. The government facilitates that transfer. If a Catholic taxpayer decides to drop his affiliation with the Church, the government no longer applies the “church tax.” Father Pilon connects the dots: “In short, the German clergy may have a real financial interest in keeping the flock happy so they continue to pay that tax and not drop out.”

By the way, the German government also pays hefty salaries to Catholic bishops and priests, Father Pilon reminds us. So there is a second incentive for German pastors to keep the public happy; a campaign of resentment could imperil those government salaries.

”Granted, there may be no direct link between the silence of the Shepherds and the fact that their salaries depend upon the taxes paid by their sheep,” Father Pilon writes. “But given human nature, it’s not so easily disregarded either.”

In the US there is no “church tax,” and it is unthinkable that the government should pay clerical salaries. Still a parish priest may think—in fact several priests have told me that they do think—that if they over-emphasis the Church teachings on controversial issues, parishioners will drift away. Maybe they will seek out another parish, or maybe—a greater tragedy—they will forsake the Catholic Church. But in any case they won’t be making their weekly contributions. A pastor struggling to meet expenses cannot take that possibility lightly.

In light of these pressures, it’s ironic that the media will label a Catholic priest as “courageous” if he challenges the Church’s teachings. That’s backwards. The courageous priests are the ones who preach the whole truth, even though they realize they have something to lose. Priests who dispute the Church’s teachings, and go with the flow of a secular culture, have nothing to lose (since disciplinary action is vanishingly unlikely), and a good deal to gain.

Saluting priests for their “courage” in courting popularity makes as much sense as praising engineers for their ingenuity in making water run downhill.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: billmccann7994 - Mar. 04, 2014 2:45 AM ET USA

    Jesus Christ never opted to marginalize the truth. The old saying, "Right is right if nobody is right!" still holds today. In the end is death, judgment -- heaven or hell. I was never taught that Jesus would listen to your "better idea." Jesus said that luke warmness wouldn't cut it. It's just as true today as it was 2000 years ago.

  • Posted by: FredC - Mar. 01, 2014 12:20 PM ET USA

    In the Arlington, VA, diocese, liberal Catholics do move from a "conservative" parish to a "liberal" parish. Conservative Catholics do the reverse, although many stay and oppose the policies of the liberal parish. The differences in the parishes is due to the differences in the subject matter of the preaching, even for the same Gospel readings.

  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Mar. 01, 2014 11:38 AM ET USA

    If there was ever an argument for the proverbial separation of church and state, it is this.

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