CNN to ponder faith and money

I’m in New York this week, with part of the agenda being to tape a panel discussion for an upcoming CNN special on “Faith and Money.” The program is hosted by Christine Romans, and is scheduled to air on Dec. 19. (Coincidentally, that’s the last day of Hanukkah this year.)

I don't identify money management as a self-standing trend in The Future Church, but it's hard to imagine much of a future for any religious enterprise if it's broke. As the saying goes, the love of money may be the root of all evil ... but you sure do miss the money when it's gone.

tThe CNN program covers a vast range of topics, from the economics of Mega-churches (a segment driven by an interview with Joel Osteen) to the effect of church money on American politics. I was part of a panel devoted to trying to gauge the impact of the economic crisis on religious groups around the country.

tWithout stealing the show’s thunder, I can briefly summarize three points I tried to make:

tFirst, religion may be the only industry in America whose bottom line actually suffers when demand goes up, and that’s exactly the current situation. Demand for charitable help is spiking, with record numbers of people asking for assistance with food, medicine, emergency shelter, and rent and mortgage payments. At the same time, revenue for many religious groups is down. In the Catholic world, parishes are reporting slight drop-offs in weekly collections (one estimate pegs the national average at five percent), while income from major foundations and investments is down on the order of 20 to 35 percent. As a result, many religious groups are now between a rock and a hard place.

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tIt’s worth bearing in mind that there’s been no TARP program and no bail-out for non-profit groups in America, despite the fact that they’re our last line of defense when times get tough. When the public safety net breaks down, and when families can’t provide care, it’s non-profit groups, especially faith-based groups, that step into the gap, and many right now are struggling. (The not-for-profit sector, by the way, also represents 11 percent of all jobs in America.) All this, perhaps, represents an extra reason for Americans to try to be generous in their support of non-profit and faith-based charities.

tSecond, impressions of vast wealth in the Catholic church, perhaps especially the Vatican, are more myth than reality. As I’ve pointed out many times, the annual budget of the Vatican is about $300 million, while the University of Notre Dame by itself has a budget of over $1 billion. That means Notre Dame could fund the Vatican three times ever year and still have money left over for new football uniforms!

tAs a result, there are no bags of cash sitting in the basement of the Apostolic Palace in Rome that could be shipped off to the United States (or anywhere else) to help local churches out when money is tight.

tThird, dollars are cents are perhaps the single clearest example of how external impressions of Catholicism as highly centralized and rigidly controlled break down. The Catholic church isn’t Wal-Mart, where even the temperature level in individual stores is controlled by a central computer in Arkansas. Not only are the financial decisions of individual dioceses made autonomously, but most often that’s the case parish-to-parish. Even within parishes, sometimes the most elementary financial controls are missing.

If that weren’t the case, it’s hard to imagine how two priests in Florida could have been recently busted for skimming almost $9 million in parish money to fund trips to Las Vegas, or how the District Attorney in Buffalo, New York, could have prosecuted six embezzlement cases in Catholic parishes since 2005 alone, with the grand total exceeding $2 million.

tRight now, however, two forces may be pushing the Catholic church toward greater coordination of its financial life.

tOne is the desire to get a handle on misappropriation. A Villanova study recently found that 85 percent of parishes that responded to a questionnaire reported some problem with embezzlement in the last five years, and that reality is leading a number of pastors and bishops to try to strengthen controls.

tThe other is the opportunity cost produced by a lack of coordination. The National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management recently calculated that if you add up all the Catholic parishes and dioceses in America, they have a total purchasing power of some $105 billion – nearly twice that of Home Depot. By coordinating its buying activity, the church could theoretically achieve some impressive economies of scale.

tIf nothing else, I hope that whets the appetite for the Dec. 19 CNN special, which considers not just the Catholic situation but the entire gamut of American religion and its relationship with the “almighty dollar.”

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