Monday, February 28, 2011

Should "fathers" be financially dependent upon their “children”?

Church leaders instruct the laity to call ordained clergy, “father”, and to see them as the “head of household”.  The “head of household” concept puzzles me for this reason.  Financially supporting dependents typically constitutes a major part of being the “head of household”.  However, the current relationship between providers and dependents is inverted in the church.  Church “fathers” depend completely upon their “children” for financial support rather than the reverse.  Is it fitting for clergy to call themselves “fathers” when they are financially dependent upon their “children”?

I don’t know that this was always the case.  According to the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christian community held all possessions in common.  “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32).  The apostles re-distributed wealth according to need to ensure that “There was no needy person among them” (Acts 4:34)  This passage indicates how this was possible, “…for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles and they were distributed to each according to need ” (Acts 4:34-35). 

The early apostles seemed to follow Jesus’ instruction contained in MT 10:21 quite literally, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."  Thus, it appears that the early apostles sold their possessions to support the community’s needy and set an example for the other disciples to do likewise. 

Though today’s church does provide some financial assistance to the needy, looking at parish and diocesan budgets, it seems to be a minor emphasis.  For example, my diocese has over $17 Million in property assets, including two bishop mansions.  How does this align with the gospels’ instructions about selling property to feed the poor?  This is especially puzzling given that my diocese is situated in one of the worst economically impacted areas in the United States.  Given the number of needy people, can we as a church justify holding this much property that is not used to house the homeless?

Furthermore, my diocese has over $26 Million in an investment pool run by a Catholic political lobbyist organization that also manages church employee benefits.  The lobbyist organization’s financial accounting information was not readily available so it is unclear how much of the diocese’s holdings fund employee benefits versus lobbyist activities.  However, diocesan employees, lay and ordained, do receive benefits including health insurance.  This puts them on better financial footing than much of the population they serve.  Yet, this same political action organization that holds $26 Million in diocesan funds lobbied vigorously against healthcare reform that might extend health insurance to the poor. 

In the last fiscal year, my diocese received over $2 Million in interest income from investments and over $4 Million from the annual laity-funded Diocesan Services Appeal.  In this same fiscal year, diocesan assets increased by $1.9 Million.  Yet, my diocese spent just a little over $1 Million on Catholic Charities.  Since net assets increased, it would seem that proceeds laid at the apostles’ feet in my diocese accumulate rather than get re-distributed to the poor.

The holdings of my parish and diocese pale in comparison to those of the Vatican.

Jesus instructed his followers to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, not to him.  The original apostles acted as clearinghouses re-distributing wealth to the needy.  How did apostolic communities morph from ones that sold possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor into ones that accumulate financial holdings and re-distribute to the poor only a proportionally small amount?

How did we as a church allow our church “fathers” to depart so far from these teachings and practices?  If the apostles resumed the role of re-distributing goods, are we prepared to follow suit?  Or, is it easier to not challenge church leaders’ accumulation of “stuff” lest someone challenge us in ours?

1 comment:

  1. Best post yet! This is a challenge we all face - I know I have been challenged with Jesus' instructions in MT 10:21 many times over the past few years. I am almost entirely certain I live more modestly than the majority of my church leaders though, so I find it difficult to believe I will more closely follow Christ by looking to their example.

    Dear church leaders: Please help me understand how I can better sell what I have, give to the poor and follow Christ. Please also consider whether you are setting a good example for your young sheep.