When (and How Much) Can a Bishop Tax a Parish?

Q1: We found out totally by accident that when we donate money to our parish for any purpose, the diocesan bishop takes more than 10% of it as a tax for diocesan expenses. Even when the parish takes up a collection for foreign missions, or for relief efforts after an earthquake or massive flooding or something like that, the bishop takes a cut. We were never openly told that he does this. Is it legal? –Daniel

Q2: I thought a lot about your article about withholding financial aid from churches … and not to “punish” a parish or priests just because of the bishop.  I’m feeling more and more called to avoid giving money to [my bishop], but not sure how to do that when parish contributions are “taxed” at 16% or something like that.  One person I met recently suggested that you can pay a parish’s bills directly (e.g., pay the electric bill) … ?  –Kelli

A: In “Contributing Financially to the Support of the Parish: A Precept of the Church,” which is the article that Kelli references, we saw that while Catholics are expected to contribute to the financial upkeep of their parishes if they are able, many Catholics are now refusing to donate because they were (and in some regions of the world, still are!) locked out of their churches and abandoned by the clergy “because of the virus.”  The questions posed here are different, but are nevertheless still related to that topic: when the faithful do support their parishes financially, does the diocesan bishop have the right to impose a tax and “take a cut,” as Daniel phrases it?  And if parishioners object to their money being used (or arguably misused, in some cases) by the diocesan chancery, is there a legitimate way to ensure that their entire contribution stays in the hands of the parish priest, to be used for the needs of the parish?  Let’s take a look at what canon law says on the subject.

To begin with, it’s important to remember how the universal Church is structured.  With a few exceptions (some of which were addressed in “Why Don’t We Marry Validly Before a Ukrainian Catholic Priest? Eastern Churches, Part I”), the planet is divided territorially into dioceses (c. 368), and those dioceses in turn are divided—again, as a rule territorially—into parishes (c. 515.1; see also “Parish Registration” and “Is Every Catholic Church a Parish?” for additional discussion about how this works).  In short, you can say that for the most part, parishes are subsections of dioceses, which are subsections of the worldwide Catholic Church.

To many readers, this may seem so obvious that it doesn’t merit mentioning—but it’s important to remember that since parishes are parts of dioceses, these two entities aren’t supposed to be feuding with each other, much less competing for funds!  Everyone involved is by definition on the same side, which is God’s side.  That naturally means everyone should be working together.

With all that in mind, let’s look first at Daniel’s question.  He has learned that contributions to his parish—and to all the other parishes of his diocese, for that matter—are being taxed by the bishop.  Does the bishop have the authority to do this?

The answer can be found in a couple of different canons.  Canon 1263 tells us that in general, a diocesan bishop can impose a “moderate tax” for the needs of the diocese on parishes and other juridic persons in the diocese (see “When Can Parish Buildings be Rented Out for Secular Use?” for more on what a juridic person is).  This canon notes that the tax is to be proportionate to their income—as opposed to (let’s say) taxing every entity the same amount, regardless of its size or income.

Additionally, diocesan bishops have the right to order that in all the churches of the diocese, special collections be taken up for specific causes, as per canon 1266.  A bishop could ask the faithful to contribute money to help build a new diocesan high school, for example; or perhaps after a hurricane or earthquake has left many people homeless, a bishop may have a collection taken up for disaster relief.  Collections like these aren’t necessarily for the needs of the diocese—although they might be—and they are separate from the routine tax imposed on diocesan parishes for regular diocesan expenses, that was just discussed above.

What sort of “regular expenses” would a diocese have?  Most lay Catholics probably never have occasion to deal directly with offices within the diocesan chancery, so it’s easy to understand that they may have no idea what goes on in there, or why so much money is needed.  The bishop himself has an office, of course; and he likely needs a secretary, who has to be paid.  The Marriage Tribunal is an important part of every chancery (cf. cc. 1420 ff.), and its trained employees likewise need to be compensated appropriately.  And there’s ordinarily an office which deals with religious education matters at every level, to ensure that proper catechetical texts are being used throughout the diocese, and that students are learning aspects of the Catholic faith that are appropriate to their age—a task which is the bishop’s responsibility (see “Who is Responsible for Children’s Religious Education?” for a more thorough discussion of this).

Since every diocese has to have staff who handle financial matters (and note also that canon law requires that every diocese have a Finance Committee, cc. 492 ff.), there’s normally some sort of office within the chancery that deals with accounting/bookkeeping.  And as was discussed at greater length in “Canon Law and False Abuse Allegations, Part I,” every diocese throughout the world is required by law to keep locked archives (c. 486.2), containing written records of both purely temporal affairs of the diocese (such as major financial transactions, for example), and spiritual matters (like the consecration of a new parish church)—and these are under the custody of the Chancellor of the diocese, in accord with canon 482.  The existence and care of the diocesan archives were addressed in a different context in “Canon Law and False Abuse Allegations, Part I.”

Many other kinds of offices exist in dioceses located in some parts of the world but not in others: dioceses in particular countries might need to maintain an office that routinely deals with civil officials who are routinely hostile to the Church, for example.  Or dioceses located in regions where Catholics are in the minority might have staff to liaison with representatives of other Christian denominations, or non-Christian faiths.

Dioceses which operate their own seminaries obviously have to obtain funding to cover this significant expense too.  Canon 264 asserts that a bishop can impose a tax in the diocese to provide for the needs of the seminary.  Note that this tax is in addition to the general tax discussed in canon 1263.

In short, a typical diocese has a legitimate need for money to cover its operating expenses—and that money has to come from somewhere.  Daniel may have a point, that often the faithful aren’t directly told that a percentage of their contributions to their parishes automatically goes to the diocesan chancery on a regular basis; but to be fair, this tax isn’t exactly a secret either.  If Daniel or any other layperson were to ask, presumably either the parish priest or the chancery staff would willingly explain how it works.

So now Daniel has the answer to his question.  But Kelli takes the issue a step further, voicing concerns (some of which have been eliminated here for brevity’s sake) which appear to be shared by millions of Catholics: if the faithful object to the way their diocesan bishop has been using their money, is there anything they can do about it?  Can they somehow continue to support their parish financially, without a cut of their contribution being sent to the bishop?

Before addressing Kelli’s suggested approach, it’s important to note that in general, it is not for the lay faithful to micromanage the diocese’s finances or to second-guess every single diocesan expense.  Just because we might personally think that an individual expenditure could have been made more cheaply, doesn’t automatically give us authority to criticize the bishop.  In many cases we simply don’t know the full picture—but he (or his staff) does, and the purchase doesn’t necessarily represent an abuse in reality.  Therefore we should, as a rule, defer to his judgment.

That said, however, in the past few years there have been plenty of extreme, well documented situations revealing undeniable and excessive uses of or demands for funds by diocesan bishops, to which the lay faithful reasonably object.  In many cases, these concerns have arisen thanks to relatively recent revelations about bishops covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests (discussed at length in “Sex-Abuse Scandals and Papal Responsibility” and “Sex-Abuse Scandals, Transparency, and the Right to a Good Reputation”).  In those cases where such allegations have been proven true, it’s only logical for the faithful of the diocese in question to be furious—because we should all be angry at injustice, particularly when it’s committed against innocent children.  Now that so many of these egregious actions and/or negligences by various diocesan bishops are coming into the light, scores of victims are suing and winning large financial settlements—which are ultimately paid not by the bishop who was actually responsible, but by the lay faithful.  Thus nobody should be surprised, when Catholics who are aghast at these bishops’ conduct are loathe to donate to their parishes, only to see a percentage of their donation used to bail these same bishops out!  After all, if a poor parish is already struggling to come up with enough money for a new roof, or to repair a leaking furnace before winter, why should a portion of its parishioners’ contributions be handed over to pay for their bishop’s mishandling of such grave matters?

Along different but comparable lines, countless Catholics around the world are still in anguish after their bishops illegally cancelled Masses and forbade priests to administer the sacraments, “because of the virus.”  (This outrage was discussed at length in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” as well as “Can Priests Cancel Public Masses, and Say a Private Mass Instead?” and “The Virus and the Bishops: Twisting Canon 223 to Further an Agenda,” among others.)  And when these bishops condescended to permit parishes to reopen to minister to the desperate lay-faithful, many of them added insult to injury, and illegally forbade the distribution of Communion on the tongue (addressed in “Can We be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” and “Episcopal Conferences and Communion on the Tongue”).  It goes without saying that when Catholics have been abandoned in this way by their bishops, who are responsible for their spiritual welfare, they aren’t exactly anxious to respond by handing over a percentage of their own hard-earned money.  Again, this is simply a matter of justice.

And around the world, there are all sorts of cases of diocesan bishops mismanaging the money which has been entrusted to them for the operation of their dioceses.  Sometimes the funds are spent on themselves, as we saw in “Canon Law and Bishops of Bling.”  No reasonable Catholic wants any part of his parish contributions to be used to pay for his bishop’s lavish personal lifestyle!  In other cases, bishops have spent diocesan money in objectionable ways, like deliberately hiring seminary professors who are known for their heterodox theological positions, or paying chancery staff exorbitant salaries, or building grand new chancery offices which are unnecessary while parish church structures are crumbling and in dire need of repair.  When the Catholic laity find out about such misuse of their donations, it’s quite natural that they don’t want to donate any more.

Kelli is absolutely right that when there have been abuses at the diocesan level, but not at one’s parish, it is not just for the faithful to “punish the parish” and its clergy by refusing to contribute to the Church altogether!  So in short, when a Catholic sincerely concludes that he will gladly contribute to the financial needs of his own parish, but doesn’t want a cent to be handed over for misuse by the bishop (as in Kelli’s case), can he do that?

Speaking pragmatically, there’s simply no way to earmark the percentage of your parish contribution that will be sent to the diocese in taxes—by insisting, for example, that it is only used for salaries of these employees and not those, or is not paid out as part of a sex-abuse court settlement.  If you donate to your parish, you can safely assume that a portion of your money will end up in the hands of diocesan officials, and you (rightly) cannot control what they do with it.  Depending on where you live and your parish’s circumstances, however, you may be able to genuinely contribute to your parish in various ways, without actually giving any money directly—thereby avoiding payment of a percentage of it in diocesan taxes.

One possibility, of course, is to perform work for your parish free of charge.  If you happen to be (for example) a landscaper, a plumber, or an electrician, there are inevitably going to be occasions where you can perform professional repairs or provide care to the various buildings or grounds belonging to your parish; and since the parish would otherwise have had to pay someone to do this work, you are thus eliminating a bill without giving the parish a cent.  There are lots of other, more simple tasks that always need to be done yet don’t necessarily require a lot of expertise, that parishioners could “contribute” in lieu of money: mowing the lawn or cleaning the rectory come to mind.  It’s hard to see how this very real contribution could be taxed by the diocese.

Kelli proposes another option.  A parishioner might ask the parish priest for the electric bill, or the insurance bill, the florist’s, etc., and pay it himself.  Again, this takes care of a parish bill which needs to be paid, and yet you aren’t donating any money directly to the parish.  If a bill is too large for one person or family to handle—a mortgage, for example, or a major building repair—a group of people might arrange to chip in and pay it together.  Obviously this requires some level of organization and cooperation among parishioners, but it is hardly impossible.

Perhaps instead of money, in some parts of the world parishioners can give the parish gift-cards to the local supermarket, the hardware store, or any other business from which the parish is known to regularly purchase supplies.  (Again, some degree of collaboration among parishioners would be helpful, or else your parish might receive thousands of dollars’ worth of grocery gift-cards in one week!)  You could also speak to the pastor himself, and see whether there is any particular item that the parish has to buy: maybe the parish needs a new lawn-mower, or a crate-full of special light bulbs that fit the chandeliers in church—and if the priest provides you with the details, you could just go out and buy it yourself.  Or if the parish owns a car, perhaps you could fill the tank with gasoline.

There are probably thousands of different ways to support your parish like this, which don’t involve directly donating money.  So if you are among those many Catholics out there who are so angry with their bishops’ (mis)handling of diocesan affairs that they wish to refrain from making any further contributions, that does not automatically mean you need to avoid supporting your own parish at the same time.

And remember, as we saw in “Tithing and Excommunication,” that regardless of our own financial situation, or our dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in our dioceses, all of us can and should be praying for our clergy, and for the bishop above all.  Without getting judgmental, it’s surely safe to say that he needs every prayer he can get, as someone who holds a tremendous amount of responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of a large number of souls.

So to sum up: a bishop has the right to impose a “moderate” tax on parishes in the diocese, in order to cover expenses related to diocesan operations, many of which are not optional.  But in those truly outrageous situations where abuse of funds at the diocesan level has been amply documented, it’s entirely understandable that Catholics would want to cut off their donations!  Still, as we’ve just seen, it’s possible to support one’s parish in many ways, without necessarily seeing one’s contribution taxed and a percentage sent to the chancery.  Before deciding angrily that you’ll “never give another cent to the diocese,” it might be prudent to prayerfully recall that this decision could end by punishing your own parish and its innocent parish clergy—and seek first to continue to financially support the parish in some creative way.

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