Despite rising incomes, Roman Catholics are far less willing to dig into their pockets to support their churches than members of other religious denominations, according to a recent report.
Catholic families contribute $386 annually to their church, compared with $1,696 for families in the Assemblies of God, the denomination that had the highest level of giving, according to a series of studies by Catholic University in Washington.
Annual family contributions for the other three denominations included in the report were $1,154 for Southern Baptists, $1,085 for Presbyterians and $746 for Evangelical Lutherans.
The studies surveyed 125 congregations or parishes from each of the five groups selected because they represent a cross section of religious life in the United States.
The Catholic University studies, which will soon be released as a book, closely parallel several opinion polls in recent years showing that Catholics have become less generous in their donations to churches.
The low level of Catholic giving, several Catholic scholars and officials said, is a byproduct of the alienation many Catholics feel from their local parishes. Many parishes, these observers said, do a poor job of involving their lay members in church life and in decisions about how to spend money. Parishioners, consequently, do not feel very motivated to give.
“A typical parish is still pretty much dominated by the pastor, and people are still in a relatively passive role,” said Francis Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, an umbrella organization of 38 foundations based in Washington. “But today in order for people to be engaged they are asking for more information, and the church has to catch up to the new reality.”
Catholic churches need to make a stronger connection between money and spirituality, said Francis Schultz, a national consultant to parishes on finances and director of stewardship for the Diocese of St. Augustine in Florida.
“We have not asked people to give in the right way,” Schultz said. “We need to make it part of our faith, our spirituality in action.”
As a result of poor financial support, many of the nation’s 188 dioceses from New York to Detroit to San Francisco are in dire economic health. Some have been forced to close parishes and schools. The Archdiocese of Boston faces a growing deficit of $3.4 million.
“While many Catholics are generous in giving of themselves and their resources to the church, others do not respond to the needs in proportion to what they possess,” stated a pastoral letter on stewardship released by U.S. bishops in 1992. “The result now is a lack of resources, which seriously hampers the church’s ability to carry out its mission and obstructs people’s growth as disciples.”
Family income is not enough to explain the disparities in giving, according to Catholic University’s research. Of the different denominations surveyed, Catholics were second to Presbyterians in average family income. In contrast, the Assemblies of God, which recorded the highest level of giving, had the lowest average family income, $39,210.
While they are more affluent today than Protestants, the nation’s 59 million Catholics contribute about 1 percent of their incomes to the church, half their rate of giving in the 1960s, according to Mary Oates, an economics professor at Regis College in Weston whose latest book is titled “The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition in America.”
Protestants, on the other hand, contribute about 2 percent of their incomes, and their donations increase as income rises.
In the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, the biblical notion of tithing, or giving 10 percent of one’s income to the church, is a core principle of faith.
People who give a tithe view it “as a safeguard against being in bad standing with God,” said Dean Hoge, a religion professor at Catholic University and lead researcher on the school’s study on church giving.
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