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Catholic reformers launch investigation of church financial practices

NCR Staff

The leading umbrella group for European Catholic reformers decided in January to launch a yearlong study of the church’s financial practices. The effort is intended to create pressure for greater accountability by church leaders and increase lay involvement in decision-making.

The group also is pressuring for the socially responsible use of the wealth of the Catholic church in Europe.

The variety of funding mechanisms across the continent makes estimates difficult. However, study organizers believe the annual income of the Catholic church in Europe runs into the “tens of billions” of dollars. Their focus will be on how that money -- as well as the church’s savings, endowments, real estate and other sources of wealth -- are collected, accounted for, disbursed and invested.

The decision came during the ninth annual assembly of the European Network in Schaan, Liechtenstein, Jan. 7-10. Thirty reform groups from 12 countries were represented, plus observers from four American organizations (NCR, Jan. 8).

Interest in church finances was first galvanized two years ago by news that the Cologne archdiocese in Germany -- rumored to be among the richest in the world -- had deposited money in a bank in Liechtenstein infamous for its stringent banking secrecy laws.

“Why should Cologne shift all of its money there if the purpose is not to hide how it is used?” Simon Bryden-Brook, secretary of the European Network and a member of Catholics for a Changing Church in England, said in a telephone interview.

“The church should not be taking monstrous interest from unsavory activities,” he said. Given the secrecy laws, “there is no way” to determine how the money is being used.

The difficulties involved in taking concrete action around financial issues, however, quickly became apparent during the network’s meeting in Liechtenstein, a tiny nation of 31,000 that borders Switzerland and Austria. Network organizers had planned to stage a protest outside the Liechtenstein Global Trust Bank, where the funds from Cologne were deposited. The bank is wholly owned by the country’s Catholic crown prince, Hans-Adam II.

The protest had to be scrubbed after a local reform group, the Union for an Open Church, argued for a less confrontational approach. Privately, several delegates said that since banking and tourism are the major industries in Liechtenstein, it would have been extremely awkward for the host organization to take part. Many of the organization’s 1,000 members work for the banks.

In the end the reformers agreed to send a letter to the bank urging it to “more adequately reflect Catholic social teaching in its policies.” The Union for an Open Church joined the other signatories to the letter.

The letter also asked bank officials to read a speech delivered at the European Network meeting by Missionaries of Africa Fr. Gregor Böckerman. Sometimes described as the “Daniel Berrigan of Europe,” Böckerman is a highly vocal critic of capitalism and the wealth of the church. The speech concerned the incompatibility of global capitalism with Christianity.

Bryden-Brook said the European Network’s concern with the Cologne archdiocese and its Liechtenstein deposits builds upon complaints already voiced inside Germany. He pointed to a January 1998 letter written to Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne by a group called “Vowed Persons for Peace,” led by a priest in Munich, Dominican Fr. Volker Glassner. The letter advocates socially responsible use of the Cologne archdiocese’s funds.

In a March 26, 1998, response from the archdiocese, obtained by NCR, Meisner’s financial director asserts that the archdiocese tries to ensure that its money is invested in “ethically neutral areas.” He argues, however, that it is utopian to imagine that the church could really influence today’s vast capital markets through the way it manages its investments. He also asserts that the church has a responsibility to meet its pension and payroll obligations and thus to ensure a steady flow of income.

Rather than investing in socially beneficial ventures -- “whose aims we certainly applaud” -- the financial director said the archdiocese had decided “to support these projects through clearly effective and unmediated financial contributions.”

“They seem to be willing to be involved in dialogue,” Bryden-Brook said of the March 26 letter. “That speaks well of them. On the other hand, they also seem to be saying that they’ve got to make money however they can, and that runs up against some very difficult gospel imperatives.”

During the past year, European Network members collected preliminary data on church finances in member nations. They hope to present a finished study at their next meeting, set for Dresden, Germany, in January of 2000. Based on its findings, the group may issue model investment guidelines or procedures for accountability, Bryden-Brook said.

Mary Louise Hartman, who represented the U.S.-based Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church at the Schaan meeting, said there had been no conversation among American delegates about a similar study of church finances here.

“Really, for something to get started, there would probably have to be some kind of a scandal,” she said.

Prior to their Jan. 7-10 meeting, four representatives of the European Network met with Fr. Aldo Giordano, secretary general of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences. Giordano presented the group with a candle, which burned throughout their meeting as a symbol of their communion with the Catholic bishops of Europe.

A news release issued by the network after the meeting spoke of the group’s desire to take part in the European synod set for Sept. 26 through Oct. 17, “not just as spectators but as collaborators in the mission of the church.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999