Contributing Financially to the Support of the Parish: A Precept of the Church

Q1:  Wondering if you would comment on this article?  The author urged Catholics in America not to give a cent to our parishes so long as they are closed because of coronavirus.  He also says more generally that we shouldn’t donate to any Catholic charity that is operated by the bishops, because they have betrayed the faithful by abandoning us.
He links to one of your posts, but he does not suggest that this was your idea….  I thought we Catholics were obliged to support the Church financially if we are able…. –Russell

Q2:  I looked through your archive but did not see anything on the precepts of the Church.  How many are there nowadays?  When I was growing up there were six.  The Catechism at 2042-3 lists five….  Then they throw in at the end of 2043 the obligation to contribute to the material support of the Church; though it is not numbered in the CCC, it was always one of the traditional precepts.  Some lists also include the obligation to be married in accordance with the laws of the Church.  That was always one of the traditional six precepts.  Other lists I found on the web include the obligation to participate in the evangelization of peoples.  Can you help sort this out? –Father S.

A: Whether it is immediately obvious or not, these two questions are related.  That’s because the requirement that Catholics contribute to the financial support of the Church is not only found in canon law—it’s also one of the precepts of the Church.

As was discussed in “Tithing and Excommunication,” canon 222.1 tells us,

The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for the works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the decent support of ministers.

This canon is also cited as a source in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2043, footnote 87, which Father S. mentions in his question), in the Catechism’s discussion of the precepts of the Church.  What are the precepts of the Church, anyway, and how do they fit into the Church’s body of law today?  And what obligation do the faithful have to contribute financially to the Church, when (as Russell puts it) the bishops “have betrayed the faithful by abandoning us”?  Let’s take a look.

Many of us learned the fairly short list of the “precepts of the Church” when we were children—but as Father S. correctly observes, we didn’t all necessarily learn the same list.  Speaking very broadly, the list of precepts usually included these:

As you can see, all of these requirements are found in the current Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983.  So if we’ve already got laws about these things in the code, why is there also a separate list of precepts?  The answer is surprisingly simple: the precepts were gradually established over time, starting in the early centuries of the Church—while the Code of Canon Law is only a few decades old.

Relatively few Catholics realize that while the Church is nearly 2,000 years old, it didn’t codify its laws until 1917, when the first Code of Canon Law was promulgated by Pope Benedict XV.  The code was compiled in response to a request made by Catholic bishops at the First Vatican Council, which ended in 1870.  The current code is only the second legal code that we’ve ever had, and it was revised and reorganized in accord with a directive from the bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

This does not mean that before the promulgation of the first code in the early 20th century, the Church had no laws—far from it!  Various ecclesiastical authorities, like popes, bishops, and ecumenical and local councils have all been establishing new rules or reiterating old ones for centuries.  Over time, the Catholic Church’s body of law came to consist of mountains of documents, some recent, others medieval, and still others of ancient origin.  Jurists had to keep constant track of which laws were still in force, which had subsequently been modified, and which had been abrogated completely—an arduous job.  In the Middle Ages, scholars began to compile the Church’s laws in books of their own, sometimes helpfully arranging them by subject-matter.  But as well written as some of these books were, there was nothing “official” about them.

When Vatican jurists finally completed the monumental task of organizing all of the Church’s laws which were still in effect into a single volume, it made life simpler for everyone!  True, there is still a lot of legal material which by its nature is not contained in the code—liturgical law, for example, is for the most part found elsewhere, as was discussed in “Can You be Refused Holy Communion if You Kneel?”  But it is infinitely easier to deal with law when at least most of it has been codified in a single source.

Long before canon law was ever compiled in one volume, various Catholic clerics and other scholars came up with a short list of rules which all Catholics are required to follow—and those are the precepts of the Church to which Father S. refers in his question.  Nowadays, they are all, without exception, addressed in the code, sometimes in great detail; but centuries ago, there was no code that anybody could consult, which meant that the list of precepts was all the more handy for both the average parish priest and the average lay-Catholic to understand and remember.  Here’s a text from 1885, for example, containing a list of the Church’s precepts starting on page 181.  Since various Catholic scholars over the years had come up with their own, unofficial lists, this resulted in the variations which Father S. mentions.  An abbreviated but helpful summary of the development of the lists of precepts can be found here, in the “History” section.

Now that we’ve seen why the obligation to provide financial support to the Church is found both in the Code of Canon Law and the precepts of the Church, we can focus more specifically on Russell’s question.  What are Catholics actually supposed to do, considering that in so many parts of the world, our clergy closed the churches “because of the virus,” and often refused to administer the sacraments, even to the dying?

Back in pre-coronavirus days, when charity, common sense, and canon law hadn’t been abruptly thrown out the window by countless priests and bishops around the globe, the reason for this requirement was easily understandable: the Catholic clergy dedicate their lives to ministering to the spiritual needs of the faithful, so it stands to reason that the laity respond by taking care of their material needs.  This is simply a matter of justice, one of the four cardinal virtues (CCC 1807), the traditional, standard definition of which is “having what is one’s due—neither more nor less.”

But now in much of the world we have been faced with the utterly unprecedented (see “Did the Spanish Flu of 1918 Create a Precedent for Closing Churches and Cancelling Masses Today?” for more on this) cancellation of Masses “for your good,” and the refusal of many financial support, contribute, donate, precepts of the Churchclergy to administer the sacraments altogether, “because of the virus.”  In other words, Catholic priests and bishops in many cases haven’t been ministering to the faithful at all—so it’s only natural for the lay-faithful to question why they should be expected to contribute to the clergy’s material needs.

If you were hoping to find a clear, black-and-white resolution of this issue in the Code of Canon Law, you’ll be disappointed—because, as was just noted, the current state of affairs is without historical precedent.  There are no laws or guidelines for these sorts of situations in the Church, situations which just a few months ago nobody would ever have dreamed of.  It is thus necessary to extrapolate, which takes us into the realm of the judgment-call.

First and foremost, if you’re among the millions and millions of people around the globe who lost their jobs (or were forced to shut down their businesses) as a result of the draconian lockdowns imposed in so many countries, you are hardly expected to contribute financially to anything!  As has been discussed before in this space (see “Stressed-Out Shepherds and Ungrateful Parishioners,” as well as “Do Catholic Parents Have to Raise Their Children as Catholics?”), the Church long ago embraced the ancient Roman maxim, “nobody can be obliged to do the impossible.”  You can’t donate money that you haven’t got, so consider yourself exempt from any obligation to support the Church monetarily.

The article cited by Russell tells us that the author, who is Catholic, intended to withhold all financial support from his parish, so long as it was closed and he was unable to attend Mass and receive the sacraments—the implication being that once it reopened, his donations would resume as well.  Other Catholics have gone even farther and declared that they will never give the Church another penny, because its clergy turned their backs on the lay faithful during this time—an offense which they find impossible to pardon.  Still others have announced that they will be sending financial contributions not to their own parishes, but to other dioceses, where Catholic bishops have made sure that Mass and the sacraments were available.  There are other variations on the same basic theme, which is not irrational: if you refuse to help us, then don’t expect us to help you!

In general, it’s pretty hard to rebut this argument in terms of logic.  But if you wish to take this position, here’s a word to the wise: be sure you’ve got your facts straight first.  There are, in fact, lay Catholics out there who are complaining about willful abandonment by their clergy, when in reality the situation in their own parishes was altogether different.

For example, in some parts of the world (like right here in Italy), the civil authorities were willing and even eager to arrest both priests and laity—in violation of the constitution, of course— for having the audacity to be present in church together for Mass or the sacraments.  Sometimes the police even parked themselves right outside the front doors of the parish, keeping a watchful eye on the whereabouts and actions of the priest.  In this sort of situation, even the most solicitous, pastorally minded priest in the world would be hard pressed to do much to help his parishioners!  The ancient Roman maxim cited above can be applied here too: no parish priest could be expected to do the impossible.  If your pastor couldn’t take a step outside without getting arrested—and there was no back door or other option—then it would obviously be unjust to fault him for not ministering to the people of the parish as usual.  Along similar lines, there have been numerous reports of priests trying to reach their critically ill parishioners in hospitals, and being barred from entering by medical personnel, despite their pleas.  The blame for this horrific outrage lies squarely with the hospital staff, not with the Catholic clergy who genuinely tried their best.

Another, related scenario appears to be shockingly common: quite a few lay Catholics around the world seem to have heard that “the bishop ordered all parish churches to be closed and no priests are to administer the sacraments,” and took it for granted that their priest was therefore unwilling to assist them.  But did they ask the parish clergy for help directly?

A courageous priest here in Italy, who risked arrest multiple times every single day in order to celebrate Mass for as many of his parishioners as possible, told me personally that he would have gladly brought the sacraments to more of them, told them where and when to meet for Mass, etc. … but a huge number of people never phoned the parish or made any effort to connect with the priest, and he didn’t know who/where they were or how to contact them.  Apparently they simply assumed that he wouldn’t/couldn’t help them, without ever bothering to check.

And in one of Italy’s largest cities, the parish priests quietly established a policy among themselves that they would willingly hear confessions and give Holy Communion to any Catholic who could manage to evade the police and get to them—but relatively few of the faithful appear to have even tried.  Needless to say, these priests couldn’t publicly trumpet their availability, since the police would have turned up in a flash!  They were in fact ministering to their parishioners as best they could, and it would be very wrong to criticize them now for “abandoning the faithful.”

Unfortunately, there are always some lay Catholics out there who just can’t be trusted to maintain discretion in grave circumstances.  We’ve all known gossipy busybodies who are incapable of keeping a secret; so imagine the response, when such persons asked their pastors whether Mass was being celebrated for the faithful secretly, in those parts of the world where doing so could get everyone arrested (or lead the priest to be punished unjustly by his bishop).  It makes sense that priests would be loathe to share such sensitive information with these oblivious parishioners, who would then likely pick up the phone and brag smugly to all and sundry, “Guess what!  I’ve been to Mass today, have you?”  See question #2 in “Stressed-Out Shepherds and Ungrateful Parishioners” for a sad example of this sort of attitude.

And finally, there are parishes out there where one priest might have refused to minister to the faithful, while another priest was secretly doing precisely that.  If you had the misfortune to deal only with the first priest but not with the second, you may have formed an understandable, but incomplete idea of what was really happening at your parish during the lockdown.  Declaring that “We refuse to contribute because our parish clergy wouldn’t help us” is, in such a case, oversimplistic.  (And yes, it is a fact that in some Catholic parishes the priests fiercely butted heads with each other, regarding the way to help—or not—the people of the parish while churches were/are shut down.)

By now the point should be clear.  If, in your personal judgment, you feel it is appropriate to withhold financial contributions from your parish, because the priests turned their backs on the faithful when they needed their assistance, that is entirely up to you—but be absolutely sure to get the full story before making this decision.  And as was discussed in the abovementioned “Tithing and Excommunication,” the Church recognizes that there are many ways to contribute to your parish in a non-monetary sense, with prayer being at the top of the list.  Maybe you don’t want to donate financially to a parish and/or diocese where the clergy locked you out of your parish church for months; but there is absolutely no reason why we can’t all pray for our priests and bishops, who always need our prayers even in the best of circumstances.

On Palm Sunday, this Catholic journalist reported on a parish priest and diocesan bishop who went to bat for the faithful of the parish, persistently negotiating with dictatorial civil authorities in order to ensure that the people could indeed attend Mass that day.  His words (here, starting at about 1:45 minutes) probably echo the thoughts of many lay Catholics around the world:

I think we all, as faithful Catholics, need to jump on board, support our priests, encourage this sort of thing to set the precedent—so never again, when something like this happens, never again will we tolerate having our churches shuttered, closed down and losing the sacraments at a time like this. So all the gratitude and thanks in the world to the courageous priests and bishops around the country who are doing the right thing, who are allowing this sort of thing to happen.

And I think there’s going to be a really interesting discussion that’s going to take place after the coronavirus pandemic sort of begins to lift a little bit.  We can all take stock and re-evaluate what’s happening, how politicians reacted to it, how bishops reacted to it and especially how our priests reacted to it.

I don’t think Catholics are going to forget soon the priests and bishops who locked them out of their church permanently … during this difficult time; nor will they ever forget the priests and bishops who did not lock them out, who did the best they possibly could to keep the life of the Church alive in the Catholic community, at a very difficult time. 

The centuries-old precept of the Church that requires us to contribute financially to the support of the Church and her ministers, and the obligation of diocesan bishops and parish clergy to do all in their power to assist in our spiritual wellbeing, go hand in hand.  It’s totally understandable if parishioners don’t “forget soon the priests and bishops who locked them out of their church permanently … during this difficult time,” and now intend to withhold monetary donations in response.  At the same time, it makes complete sense that those Catholics who were helped by heroic priests, who disregarded illegal civil (or episcopal) orders to the contrary, are now ready to move heaven and earth to assist those priests in turn.  Regardless, the one thing that all of us can do is to pray for the Church, and particularly for our clergy.  By doing so we will be contributing to the support of our parishes in a particularly vital way, one that is desperately needed in the Church right now.

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