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A corporate alternative to collection baskets


Recent pew gossip holds that church contributions are down ever since the sexual abuse bomb exploded, leaving coins scattered all over the place. I really can’t say, although I have researched the problem for at least five minutes, largely by chatting with some knowledgeable church mice.

I learned that the “good guys” -- the ones who baptized the kids with care, who presided at marriages with even more care, who worked the curb after Mass, returned phone calls, and who buried the dead -- did not see their parishes suffering financially.

I learned that collections were down where episcopal aloofness and arrogance were up.

Nine months after Boston became the epicenter of the sexual abuse crisis, and the scandal ricocheted around the country, some people are still withholding contributions. But they appear to be largely from the collection baskets of charities tied to the bishops’ palliums, and not from the pockets of the lunch bucket Catholics who still give generously to their parishes.

I found a few parishes where the numbers were down as much as 20 percent, but in each case there were other circumstances. Back in Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law has ordered his pastors not to accept money from the Voice of the Faithful, a lay group formed only in February but already boasting over 22,000 members. The group doesn’t want to withhold funds from the church. It only wants to insure that money given for one purpose isn’t used for another -- a practice dating to well before “Going My Way” when Barry Fitzgerald gave 50 cents each to Bing Crosby and Frank McHugh so that they could play a round of golf. The fictional and terminally cute Fitzgerald took the dough from the Ladies’ Altar and Rosary Society. The practice of cooking the books to hide such transactions has grown immensely since the 1930s. One estimate, made not many years ago by the state’s attorney in Chicago, held that 25 percent of all bingo money ascended into other wallets.

God knows, the nation’s economy is in the dumpster. My modest pension, accumulated at three universities where I labored in dignified fundraising for nearly 20 years, has sunk to a few holy cards. Diocesan portfolios, still largely under an episcopal seal, have also shrunk. However, some of the wisdom I accumulated among those eccentric and learned development solons at universities suggests that contributions are down for a number of other reasons apart from those connected with the crimes of some priests and the cover-up of the crimes by virtually all of the bishops.

Parishioners aren’t getting raises at work. Some have been laid off. The loose change is drying up.

Meanwhile, parishes are doing their damndest to stay alive by introducing electronic giving and credit card giving. Some are into automatic giving through checking account deductions. Others give through newly formed e-giving groups such as ParishPay, which permits donors to level out their annual giving so that they can ensure that their parishes get a steady stream of revenue, even on Sundays when the worshiper stays home because of a winter snowstorm or a Sunday at the beach. This way, they may be in mortal sin, but the parish can pay its winter heating bill or buy some light bulbs in the summer. It can bypass the seasonal giving wherein some 40 percent of the contributions come in December when the taxpayer is considering itemizing or feeling vaguely guilty at the sight of a tattered chasuble.

As an alternative, parishioners could just swipe their credit cards into a gadget installed next to the holy water font -- not unlike what one does at gas stations.

I have been wondering if we could borrow from the world of sports. We could carve up the Sunday liturgy and seek sponsors for the various elements just as sports advertisers do the kickoff, the half-time show and the like. Thus, we could announce that the processional hymn, “Drop kick me, Jesus, through the Goal Posts of Life,” is “brought to you by McClatchy’s Funeral Home where you can rest in peace during a dignified service.” The penitential rite could be underwritten by Dr. Luther Doofus, a psychologist and member of the parish, whose specialty is guilt. The chant style “Gloria” could be supported by your local monks’ bread distributor, and the opening prayer could have a modest sponsor such as Harvey’s Plumbing -- “A member of the parish who believes that Catholics should deal with their own kind.”

Just think: “Buy your next barrel of beer from Gus’ Bunghole Beer with 225 different brands.” Or “Get in spiritual shape here at St. Aleve’s, but restore your sagging butts at the St. Atlas’ Fitness Center -- ‘the Lourdes of Lard.’ ” Heck, we could find a corporate sponsor and lease the naming rights for the whole parish. Thus, the Fursey Bodkin Used Car Center of St. Citronella’s Parish could be painted over the tympanum in front of the church, and Fursey could have seat leases on the first 10 pews. Some schools are already doing this, giving exclusives to soda pop companies that sell their tooth-rotting liquid in the cafeteria.

So it goes, until the recessional hymn, which must be “Amazing Grace,” now sung at every liturgy, to remind us that we are all wretches.

It’s going to take time. A lot of priests are going to be lost to the clergy corps. Bishops will still have their free parking slots but they will die isolated from the very people they pledged to serve. But I think it will come back just as soon as the anointed clergy, especially their episcopal leaders, begin to act like New York City firefighters.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he works part-time, standing behind politicians and bishops at news conferences. You can stand behind him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002