Using (And Misusing) Donations to the Church

Q1: Suppose a parishioner donates an article, such as a crucifix, for the church’s main Crucifix, and it is accepted for that use and purpose.  Does canon 1300, or any other canon, say anything about whether another pastor can decide on his own to relocate the crucifix outside of the church?  Thanks in advance. –Father F.

Q2: My husband and I got into a lively argument with some of our fellow parishioners, after the revelations about misuse of the Peter’s Pence collection.  We took it for granted that no reasonable Catholic would ever give another cent to this collection which is ostensibly intended “for the poor,” when in reality the Vatican turned around and bought London real estate with our donations….  [But] to our utter amazement, other parishioners accused us of “not trusting in God” and indicated that it is our duty as Catholics to support the Pope’s projects financially no matter what.  Could you comment? –Alexa

A: In “Canon Law and Donations to the Church,” we took a look at the Church’s basic rules about accepting and using gifts from the faithful.  In a nutshell, when money or goods are donated to the Church for a particular purpose, the intention of the donor is to be respected and the money or goods are not to be used for other purposes (c. 1300).  If someone offers to give the Church something which it genuinely cannot use, the donation is to be declined with thanks—it is not to be accepted and then sold, or otherwise used for a purpose contrary to the wishes of the donor.

But what happens when a gift is initially accepted and used as the donor intended … but over the course of time, that gift can no longer be used by the Church for its originally intended purpose?  This sort of thing actually happens all the time.  Imagine that in years gone by, a parishioner donated to the diocese a building located next door to his parish church, to be used as the parish school.  The school was in operation for decades; but now the demographics of the parish have changed dramatically, there aren’t enough children in the parish to justify the operation of its own school, and the parish can’t afford to keep it going.  What is the parish legally required to do in this case?

Readers may be surprised to hear that this scenario is not addressed by the Code of Canon Law.  But that’s not necessarily an oversight on the part of the legislator; rather, it is generally possible to sort these situations out simply by being mindful of the virtue of justice, and applying good old common sense.  Let’s try this with the imaginary case just mentioned, and then we can do the same with the real-life situation described by Father F.

In the fictitious scenario described above, someone gave the Church a building next to a parish church, to be used as a parish school.  The building was accepted for this use, and it was in fact used as a school—exactly as the donor intended.  The Church was, therefore, following the law perfectly in this case.

But after many years of using the building for its intended purpose, circumstances have changed—circumstances which are beyond the control of the parish or the diocese.  Perhaps the parish church was originally located in a residential neighborhood, but as time went on, people moved away and the area now consists largely of office buildings and shops.  The parishioners who remain are mostly elderly, so the parish now has very few children compared to years gone by.  This cannot be construed as the Church’s “fault,” and in any case, the parish would continue to operate the school if it were feasible.

In these sorts of circumstances, we can see that the donation was used in accord with the donor’s wishes, for as long as possible.  If the school is closed now, and the building is sold, demolished, or used by the parish for other purposes, it would be hard to argue that the gift was not used as the donor intended.

And let’s face it: what is the alternative in this case?  Does anyone really want to suggest that because the Church accepted the gift of this building many years ago, it is constrained to continue using it as a school when there are virtually no students, depleting parish finances in the process?  This is where common sense comes into play.  The donor (who presumably is long gone by now) saw his donated building put to its intended use for a long time.  There’s no way to argue that the Church was wrong to accept it, and/or failed to use it as the donor wished.

But now let’s take the same imaginary scenario and change the facts a little bit.  Let’s say that a parishioner donated the building to the parish in 2016, to be used as a parish school, and the building was accepted as such.  After some building renovations and much planning, the school opened in the fall of 2018.  But after two years, the parish priest concluded that the school has been losing too much money and should be closed.  The bishop agrees, and the diocese plans to tear the building down and sell the land to developers, who want to build condominiums on the site.  Meanwhile, the parishioner who donated the building in the first place is still a member of the parish, and is watching these events unfold.  How should we assess the legality of this situation?

It should be evident that the donor would be entirely justified if he were outraged!  After all, he gave the building to the Church for what is, by its very nature, a long-term purpose.  It could be that while the school is not profitable at the moment, that might change in a few years—if the pastor of the parish is patient enough to wait it out, and also creative enough to look for ways to minimize the school’s financial losses.  The donor might be able to argue easily that there is no reason, yet, to close the school for which the building was donated in the first place.  And he certainly can make the case that if the land is to be sold to developers for condominium construction, he could have done that himself (and realized the full profit for himself) back in 2016!  As a simple matter of justice, it would make a lot more sense if the Church at least offered to give the building back to the donor, instead of seeking to realize a tidy profit from its sale.

True, it would be important to look at the precise wording of the legal documents pertaining to the donation of the building to the parish, to see what the terms of their agreement were under civil law.  But the donor would have a very strong case under canon law to argue that his gift is not being used in accord with his originally stated intent.  Once again, a lot of this should be common sense.

Bearing all this in mind, let’s now look at Father F’s question.  It sounds like a parishioner donated a crucifix to be used at the main altar of the church, and a previous pastor agreed to this.  And it also sounds like the crucifix has in fact been used for this very purpose.  But now, “another pastor” would like to relocate the crucifix outdoors, maybe in a garden grotto or suchlike.  Is this a violation of canon 1300?

By this point, it ought to be fairly clear that the answer is, “it depends.”  There are quite a lot of significant variables here that we know nothing about.  For one thing, when was the crucifix donated, and how long has it been used for its originally intended purpose?  For another, why exactly does the current pastor wish to move it?  And yet another factor to bear in mind is this: where is the donor now, and how does he/she feel about this?

It’s worth noting that while the current pastor (who may or may not be Father F. himself) wants to move the crucifix off the main altar, he doesn’t intend to throw it away, or stuff it in a closet, or sell it—which might reasonably provoke the ire of the donor or the donor’s family, if they’re still around.  No, he wants to move it outdoors, where parishioners will presumably (?) continue to see it, and pray before it.  In short, the current pastor doesn’t appear to intend to do anything unseemly with the crucifix; he “just” wants to change its location within the parish.  This is one more factor that needs to be included in any assessment of the overall situation.

But far different is the issue raised by Alexa, regarding revelations in 2019 about the worldwide Peter’s Pence collection.  Many millions of dollars/euros from this collection have been spent in ways that can’t possibly be construed as consistent with the collection’s stated purpose.

As the Vatican’s own website explains, the tradition that Catholics send donations to Rome to support the work of the Holy Father originated over a thousand years ago.  Today, the collection is understood by Catholics around the world as providing funds for the Pope’s charitable initiatives.  Here’s an interview with the Vatican’s Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, explaining how the money is to be used for “the Pope’s charitable outreach.”

There are probably a million different ways to spend money on legitimate “charitable outreach,” including many that we might never have thought of before.  We might sometimes disagree about the best/most efficient way(s) to use donations intended for charitable works; but in general, as we saw in “When (And How Much) Can a Bishop Tax a Parish?” it is not for the lay faithful to micromanage the Church’s finances or to second-guess every single expense.  It’s inevitable that some Catholics might question whether this or that particular charity is the best place to send these funds—but still, the odds are that most of us will nonetheless recognize a bona fide charitable expenditure when we see it.

That’s why Catholics around the world were horrified when it became known that hundreds of millions of euros from the Peter’s Pence collection was used to purchase an apartment building in a posh London neighborhood.  On top of that, more money from the Peter’s Pence collection was “invested” in production of the film Rocketman, detailing the life of rock-star Elton John (a film banned in some parts of the world because of its explicit homosexual scenes).  It now appears that for years, much/most of this money has been spent not in “charitable outreach,” but in a variety of investment schemes that have absolutely nothing to do with helping the poor—and in the process, netting millions of euros in commissions for the the Vatican’s financial advisors.

Making matters even worse (if that’s possible), Bishop Nunzio Galantino, president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA), at first claimed that money from Peter’s Pence was not in fact used for London building … but in an interview, he admitted that “he was unable to reveal what percentage of the funds used to buy the property came from Peter’s Pence as the money would have come from a ‘basket’ also containing other secretariat funds.”  It definitely sounds like the money which Catholics around the world have been donating for “charitable outreach” has actually been put into a general account along with money from other sources, and no effort has been made to ensure that the Peter’s Pence funds were used as the donors intended.

You don’t have to be a canon lawyer to appreciate the stark contrast between the requirements outlined in canon 1300, and the Vatican’s apparent praxis.  Donors are naturally outraged, since the misuse of their donations is a blatant violation of justice.  That’s why in the United States, a lone Catholic man initiated a lawsuit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (see “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what an Episcopal Conference is and does).  The lawsuit has now become a class-action, meaning that any U.S. Catholic who has donated to the Peter’s Pence collection can join the suit as an aggrieved party.  The lawsuit is targeting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, because it has encouraged Catholics to donate to the Peter’s Pence collection by claiming that it “supports the Pope’s philanthropy by giving the Holy Father the means to provide emergency assistance to those in need because of natural disaster, war, oppression, and disease.”  In response, the bishops’ lawyers claimed that Catholics should have known that their money could be used for other purposes (!), and argued that “A civil court … should not be able to tell a religious institution how to spend its money.”

Meanwhile, American Catholics are not alone in their assessment of the situation.  A court in the U.K.—in a totally different ruling about the freezing of funds in this mess—has declared that the misrepresentations made by the Vatican about its expenditures are “appalling.”  Even more telling is recent activity by the legal system within Vatican City State itself: ten Vatican employees have been indicted on charges of fraud, extortion, and embezzlement in the Peter’s Pence scandal.  (Bear in mind that the State of Vatican City is an independent country, with its own law enforcement and judicial systems—see “Canon Law and the Pope’s Butler” for a discussion of this in a different context.)

As the old adage says, “the wheels of justice turn slowly,” so we’ll have to wait and see how these civil courts end up ruling in their respective cases.  But in the meantime, the Peter’s Pence collection is still gathered annually around the world—and as Alexa tells us, there are Catholics out there who continue donating to it, even though they are fully aware of the past abuse of funds.

As was discussed at length in “Tithing and Excommunication,” canon 222 asserts that the Christian faithful are obliged to provide for the needs of the Church, so that the Church has available to it that which is necessary for divine worship, for works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the worthy support of its ministers.  It should go without saying that Catholics are certainly not obliged to make donations “for works of the apostolate and of charity” if they know this money has actually been used to buy luxury real estate and film homosexual sex-scenes for an Elton John movie (among plenty of other, comparable sorts of things).  And you honestly have to wonder how Catholics could deliberately choose to throw good money after bad, and somehow manage to construe this act as demonstrating “trust in God.”

The fact is, God gave the human person the ability to reason, and He did so because He expects us to use it.  We saw in “When Does Disobedience Constitute Schism?” that this sort of irrational mentality smacks more of cult-behavior than of Catholicism.  One of the main differences between a legitimate religion and a cult is that the leader of a cult generally demands absolute loyalty to himself as a person, forbidding members even to question, much less to criticize him/his actions.  Cult members, in turn, blindly obey every command of their leader, without question—no matter how absurd or even dangerous it may be.  (Remember the 1978 “Jonestown Massacre,” when hundreds of cult members willingly committed suicide because Jim Jones told them to?)  Reasonable Catholics have every right to object to the way the Vatican has been misusing their charitable donations to Peter’s Pence, and it is most definitely not “our duty as Catholics to support the Pope’s projects financially no matter what.”

That said, we can’t force Alexa’s fellow-parishioners not to donate to Peter’s Pence.  If they want to spend their money that way, that’s their business.  We can, however, use our own rational faculties and choose to give our money to charitable endeavors which are known to be legitimate, avoiding those which we know are not.

What’s the takeaway from all this?  In short, when the Church accepts money or goods for a specific purpose, it is bound to use them for that purpose.  Sometimes, it is true, the Church may genuinely be unable to use a gift given years ago for its originally intended purpose—and the law doesn’t give us precise instructions on what to do in such cases, because their circumstances may vary widely, and we are expected to use common sense.  When a donation is obviously not put to the use for which it was accepted, it’s entirely reasonable for a donor to object; and if the situation is not rectified, it’s likewise understandable if Catholics refrain from giving donations in future.  As already noted above, the Catholic Church is not a cult, and Catholics have every right to know if their gifts are being misused—and to make their feelings known, as a matter of justice.

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