CHURCH SUPPORT IN THE LIFE OF THE AMERICAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
In last Sunday’s “Pastor’s Note” I quoted from the 1791 First Synod of Baltimore wherein the few Catholic bishops of the fledging Republic of the United States of America addressed the need for the lay faithful to be “frequently reminded” of their duty to support the Church with their offerings because otherwise there would be no church for them.
It is a very interesting study to see how this problem played itself out over the decades of the 1800s, particular from the 1790s through the time of the Civil War. There were so many problems facing the Catholic Church in the United States, but the difficulty of raising the donations necessary to maintain a visible church structure was ever-present.
From synodal documents and instructions from Rome, it can be seen just how desperate some pastors were for adequate funds that they resorted to behavior which had to be censured by church authority. For example:
It is reported, and we have learned it with great sorrow, that there are some priests in certain localities who during the Mass itself descend from the altar and go around in the church asking alms of the faithful. We reprobate, and command the extirpation of this most disgraceful abuse, which is injurious to the Church and its sacred rites, and which provokes the derision and contempt of nonCatholics. Concerning this matter we lay the burden on the conscience of each of the bishops. (II Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1866)
Other practices which had to be condemned and corrected included: unauthorized extra Collections, hosting fundraisers such as fairs and picnics where all the bad-behaviors of worldly partying occurred, the solicitation of Mass stipends through commercial newspaper advertisements. If pastors charged “pewrent” (which was an acceptable practice at the time), they had to make sure they reserved a substantial number of free seats for the poor who could not pay. Some pastors, however, took it upon themselves to eliminate the free pews or reduce their number without the bishop’s knowledge. Pope Pius IX’s personal authority had to be invoked (twice) to suppress the custom which had grown up in American churches of collecting money at church entrances when Mass was being celebrated.
Authorized means of raising money from the lay faithful in 1800s America consisted of pew-rent, collections during Mass, seat-money, and house-to-house collections.
In sum, the dilemma of raising enough funds to support the Church from the gifts of the faithful was never quite resolved by the Church’s Chief Pastors. On the one hand, they affirmed that the faithful ought to be frequently reminded of their duty to support the Church—that this was of Divine Command and not a mere human construct—and to have this duty clearly explained to them. But on the other hand, the clergy were strictly admonished to avoid even the appearance of acting out of greed for money or of selling-the-Sacraments, or of turning the contributions into exactions rather than freewill gifts to God. To this end, ecclesiastical punishments were attached to what we might term as, the abuse of the right-to-ask.