I thought about going to Mass today because I’ve recently completed my COVID vaccination series but decided against it due to living in the worst outbreak hotspot currently in my country…something about not wanting to inadvertently act as a plague vector though not being able to attend Mass in over a year. Side note: Unlike many folks, I actually enjoy attending Mass and before COVID was among the Catholic minority attending weekly Mass and the even smaller minority attending daily Mass. I opted to write a blog article instead. Hopefully I chose wisely.
This Sunday, the first after Easter, always features the “doubting Thomas” gospel. I’ve written twice before in 2011 and in 2013 about how countless clergy over the centuries spin this narrative towards painting the fearful herd sitting in a locked room, avoiding the dreaded “other” (in this case the Jews) as being more virtuous than Thomas, who was out actually imitating Christ without fear of his fellow humans. My experience is today’s clergy’s behavior increasingly parallels that of the petrified pious pack featured in today’s gospel reading. So perhaps clergy’s message spinning is their self-exoneration reflex for the power they wield, largely due to fanning flames of fear - of God’s created world and humans.
However, rather than exclusively comment on the gospel reading, let's also look at the second reading, Acts 4:32-35 which reads thusly:
The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
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.
This passage counts among those that most influence my daily lived faith. I sometimes quote from it without offering the citation. Specifically, I’ll say something like, “…they had everything in common…there was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them…and the proceeds were distributed to each according to need.” The more pious the Catholic and/or the more Republican the hearer, the more likely the other person incorrectly guesses Karl Marx rather than St. Luke as the quote’s source.
Let's look at the gospel and Acts passages together now. By painting the nervous, judgmental and withdrawn crowd as the most virtuous, and having the present-day apostles subsequently imitate that isolation and apprehension, it makes for an en masse perversion of living that passage from Acts. Church leaders’ power is derived from fearmongering rather than from fearlessly bearing witness to the resurrected Christ via care for the needs of all people. They mostly fear for their self-preservation.
Lots of folks donate to their church as their way of living this passage from Acts, believing the clergy will funnel their donations to help other humans. A group called Charity Navigator rates the health and transparency of charitable organizations. They do not rate churches, but we can look at their assessment criteria to help us evaluate churches as effective charities, as perhaps, effectively living Acts chapter 4.
Based upon Acts 4, the gospels, and also by reputation, we should be able to categorize churches as human services charities. According to Charity Navigator’s rating table on finances, human services charities getting the highest rating direct 92% or more towards human services programs and spend only 0-3% of income on administrative overhead.
But what do church leaders, fearful about self-preservation, actually do with that donated money? In many parishes, most if not all of that donated money goes to the church institution itself – self-preservation: salaries, buildings, schools, etc… Though the parish may have something like a St. Vincent de Paul society offering food, clothing or financial support, those organizations are not funded by the parish. For example, a few years ago, I was an officer of a local St. Vincent de Paul chapter and people approaching the local parish seeking financial assistance were invariably sent to us. However, exactly $0 in funding was sent to us from the parish coffers.
My current parish does actually give to charity, towards “distributing to each according to need.” Based on my experience being a Catholic for more than half a century, this parish is in the minority. But, since it is an example, let’s examine their annual report. It spends 2.2% not on overhead but on human services. It spends the vast majority on itself, its administration, its buildings, etc… Were churches rated by Charity Navigator as human services organizations, they might find themselves as the topic of an advisory bulletin issued by the organization, warning people that their money does not get used as assumed.
This is not unique to Catholic parishes. Look at the skew of monies your congregation spends on the organization itself versus on caring for other humans, regardless of your faith tradition or denomination. If monies are primarily spent perpetuating the organization itself, then people’s donations are funding a spiritual country club, designed for members to feel better about themselves rather than to see that “there was no needy person among them.”
Donating to a church offers a lazy outlet to pat oneself on the back while claiming imitation of Christ, when in fact, it pretty much moves money from a person’s left pocket to their right pocket. It’s all about benefiting the donor through institutional self-preservation.
Worshiping Jesus by attending church or praise services is much easier than imitating Jesus because Jesus wasn’t about self-preservation. Imitation involves completely letting go of one’s money to feed, house, clothe and provide dignity to people regardless of how they came to be in their financial situation. It requires examining and fixing systems that consistently produce disparate outcomes based upon skin color, religious affiliation or gender. How are you imitating Jesus to ensure there is no needy person in your midst?
What do you think? Should I have foregone writing today and made myself a possible plague vector or did I choose ok?