Stipends and Sacraments

Q1: I’m going to be a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding… she and her fiancé met with the pastor to discuss the wedding preparations, and he insisted they have to pay the parish a hefty sum in order to get married there.  They were horrified, because it feels like the priest is blackmailing them, if they don’t pay it, they can’t get married!  Can a priest actually charge fees for marrying people?  –Caitlin

Q2: My elderly mother mailed a check to [some missionary priests] and asked them to celebrate a Mass for my late father.  They returned the check and told her that the “suggested offering” for a Mass is more than she wrote the check for.  I don’t see why, if it’s just an “offering,” and the amount is “suggested,” they refused to take what she sent them.  What if somebody wants to request a Mass but really can’t afford the suggested offering, aren’t they required to say the Mass anyway? –David

A: The connection between these two questions should be obvious.  Both involve the issue of financial remuneration in exchange for spiritual benefits, which in certain circumstances (as here) can become a touchy subject!  Let’s take a look at the whole rationale behind the notion of “paying” for the celebration of a Mass or for conferring a sacrament, and then see what canon law has to say about it.

First of all, in the eyes of many people it may seem crass for clerics to expect to receive monetary compensation for their ministerial activities.  But at the same time, we all know that priests need sufficient income to cover their living expenses, just like the rest of us!  Canon 281.1 notes that the clergy deserve appropriate remuneration, since they have dedicated their lives to spiritual ministry.  And as we saw in “Can Priests Hold Public Office?” clerics are not, as a rule, supposed to be engaged in trade or business outside of their ministerial assignment (cf. cc. 285 and 286).  Consequently, if priests weren’t compensated by the faithful in exchange for their spiritual ministrations, from what other source could they possibly derive their income?

In a typical first-world country today, parish priests receive a set salary.  In some poorer nations, however, priests still depend on the stipends they receive for celebrating Masses, in order to support themselves.  But regardless of each priest’s actual need, canon 945.1 observes that every priest is allowed to accept a stipend for the celebration—or the concelebration—of a Mass.  (See “Mass Intentions and Stipends” for a scenario involving the concelebration of one Mass by multiple priests.)

At the same time, there is another, spiritual component to the notion that the laity should give an amount of their own money in exchange for the sacramental ministry of a priest.  Making an offering for (let’s say) a wedding generally involves a financial sacrifice, much like almsgiving does—and as such it can be a meritorious act in itself.  Additionally, the expense incurred also reminds us of the importance of the ministerial act that we are requesting.  As human beings, we naturally tend to attach less value to things that we receive for free!

Thus there is no intrinsic problem with the Church establishing a standard amount that is requested for the celebration of a Mass, or for a wedding, a baptism or other types of sacramental ministry by the clergy.  But who sets the standards?

The answer is found in canons 952.1 (which deals with Mass stipends) and 1264 n. 2 (addressing fees for administering the sacraments).  Both note that the provincial bishops’ meeting has the responsibility for determining the offerings.  As was discussed in “Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals,” Catholic dioceses all around the world are grouped into provinces, with one diocese—the archdiocese—at the head of each province.  Since the dioceses of a province are in the same geographic region, and (more often than not) are located in the same country, it’s entirely logical that they should be able to agree on a monetary figure that constitutes a suitable stipend for the celebration of a Mass, as well as offerings for baptisms, weddings and other ministerial activities.

So does the money always go into the pocket of the priest himself?  In the case of a Mass stipend, the answer is yes.  We may walk into our parish office to request the celebration of a Mass for a particular intention, and hand the stipend to the parish secretary, but as canon 945.1 (mentioned above) notes, ultimately that stipend is supposed to go to the priest who actually celebrates that Mass.

But when an offering is made for the celebration of a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral, the final destination of the money can vary.  In some parts of the world, the requested offering for a wedding or funeral Mass might include payment for the services of the parish organist, and/or a gift for each of the altar servers.  When the bishops of a province determine the standard offering, they might factor the costs of heating and lighting the church during the ceremony into the equation.  A certain portion of the money may be destined for the priest who performs the ceremony, while another portion might go to the parish—individual bishops will determine exactly how the offering is to be divided up (c. 531).  Keep in mind that circumstances and customs can vary widely from one region of the world to the next!  But in general, it is not safe to assume that the sum total of the “standard offering” required by a parish will end up going to the priest.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that lay Catholics frequently fail to appreciate the distinction between making a donation to the parish, and giving a monetary gift to a priest who ministers to them.  Priests themselves, however, are well aware of the need to separate the two!  It’s not uncommon for a member of the faithful to walk up to a priest—sometimes after a baptism or a funeral, sometimes for no specific reason at all—and try to hand him money.  It’s important for the donor to explain to that priest whether the money is intended as a gift for him personally, or it’s meant to be an offering to the parish.

That’s because if the donor fails to specify the purpose of the donation, the priest is supposed to put it into the parish fund.  Canon 1267.1 provides a general rule regarding such donations: any offering given to the head of a Catholic entity such as a parish, a shrine, a Catholic school or hospital, etc., is presumed to be made to the entity itself, unless the contrary is clear.  Let’s say that the pastor of St. Anthony’s Church, in a third-world country, is walking around with holes in his shoes, because he can’t afford new ones.  Seeing this, one of his parishioners takes compassion on him and offers him some money, saying something like, “Hello, Father, I wonder if I may give you this…”  But if the parishioner doesn’t clearly explain that the money is for him personally, the pastor is obliged to assume that it’s a gift to the parish, and deposit it in the parish funds.

This is also true of other priests who may assist the pastor of the parish, if they are given donations after performing some ministry at the parish: if the donor fails to state clearly that the money is intended for the priest himself, it must be put into the parish fund (c. 531).

But what happens if the Catholic faithful want to get married, or have their baby baptized, and genuinely can’t pay the sum established by the bishops of their province?  Canon 848 explains that needy members of the faithful are not to be deprived of the sacraments because of poverty.  In an authentic case of need, the priest is both legally and morally obliged to minister to the faithful even when they are unable to afford the standard offering.

That being said, it is difficult for an engaged couple to plead poverty as an excuse to evade paying the standard offering to their parish, while they are simultaneously spending thousands on lavish clothes, flowers, and a post-wedding reception!  Under such circumstances, a pastor could understandably be skeptical, and reasonably insist that the couple give the established offering to their church.  In fact, on the pastoral level, a priest might view the couple’s reluctance to give to God as evidence of misplaced priorities, and take the opportunity to discuss further with them the need to remember that marriage is a sacrament, and not merely a secular celebration.  Such insistence on the payment of the standard offering would hardly constitute “blackmail,” as it might help to impress upon the couple the spiritual aspects of getting married, which obviously outweigh the material ones!  It’s impossible to tell from Caitlin’s question, but her engaged friend might be in this or a comparable situation.

The law is similar regarding Mass stipends: if a Catholic wishes to request that a Mass be celebrated for a particular intention, and cannot afford the established sum, there is no reason why a lesser sum cannot be accepted (c. 952.1).  But note the careful wording of this canon: no priest is actually required to accept an amount that is lower than the established stipend.  Those priests who rely on their Mass stipends for their living expenses may themselves be unable to afford to accept less!  If the missionary priests to whom David’s mother sent her request for a Mass fit this definition, it is entirely suitable for them to return her money and politely point out the standard amount.

Superficially, it’s easy for critics to decry the payment of money in return for the spiritual goods of the Church!  But by now it should be clear that there are good, practical reasons why the Church requests offerings for Masses and other types of sacramental ministry.  The spiritual wellbeing of the faithful obviously is of far greater importance than money—but at the same time, on a concrete level, the Church couldn’t function for long without it.

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