Friday, February 24, 2012

Render Unto Rome by Jason Berry

Following up on the last post, religiously affiliated organizations are often on the front lines of providing relief services to those in extreme poverty.  I mentioned that unfortunately there is no guarantee that private organizations are using their funds appropriately.  Indeed, oversight of private organizations is often a real problem in many contexts.  Somewhat related to this point, there is a fascinating, new book I want to recommend: Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church by Jason Berry. 

This book particularly intrigued me because of my own experience with the denomination profiled.  I’ve mentioned before in this blog that for most of my Christian walk, I was a Roman Catholic.  To be sure, I was not a once-a-year-on-Easter Catholic.  I was a devout, active parishioner for well over a decade.  My husband and I met in the Catholic Church.  Many of our “dates” were going to mass and/or taking part in other activities at our church.  We were married in a wedding mass, the liturgy for which we planned in great detail and with much enthusiasm.  Every member of our nuclear family was baptized in the Catholic Church.  My husband and I were very involved in a variety of ministries over the years; they were so numerous that I don’t think I could even list them all at this point. 

Before I say anything about this book by Jason Berry, I want to be very clear that I do not have an anti-Catholic bias or even any hard feelings against the Church.  Our family did not leave the Catholic Church because of a big disagreement over theology or policy. Instead, we simply grew to feel more spiritually at home elsewhere.  I mention this explicitly because sometimes when former Catholics engage in constructive criticism of the Church, they are characterized as being bitter and having an ax to grind.  Nothing could be farther from the truth for me.  The Catholic Church was my initial gateway to Christianity, and it was my spiritual home for most of my adult life.  As a result, I have tremendous gratitude towards the institution, and much love for my brothers and sisters in that denomination. 

Reading Jason Berry’s book, I realized that when I was a member of the Catholic Church, I had not asked tough questions about budgetary matters and I had had too passively accepted vague information I was given about finances.  This happened repeatedly in multiple parishes over many years, not just in one or two churches in an off year or two.  I now recognize and regret my passivity.  I won’t make excuses for it, but will endeavor to do better in the future even though I now have become a member of a different denomination.

Indeed, Jason Berry’s book is an in-depth examination of a lack of financial transparency in the Catholic Church, but similar issues exist in other churches.  Like most nonprofits, church finances are often run by volunteer laypeople and full-time staff (typically clergy).  There may not be enough financial savvy of those doing the books.  Volunteers are important and such a blessing.  But when busy people with primary responsibilities elsewhere are merely doing church financial review and planning on the side, things can easily get overlooked.

Further, I think that as Americans, we’re often not comfortable talking about finances in the base case.  In a church setting, we may feel particularly uncomfortable.  In my experience and observation, many Christians feel like it might be insulting or simply bad form to ask questions or request more detail on church finances.  Many of us have been taught to tithe.  There is a sense of religious obligation to give to the church.  As a result, we often feel that it might be contrary to that obligation to ask what happens to the money once we give it to the church.  That shouldn’t be the case.

It is not disloyal to ask questions about church finances.  No one should feel attacked if congregants seek more information on financial topics.  God provides us with whatever material goods we have.  It is up to us to be good stewards of those gifts.  We need to be good stewards of our personal and familial gifts.  But we are called to fellowship in churches; we must also be good stewards of the collective gifts God brings to our faith communities.

1 Peter 4:10

[E]ach according as he has received a gift, ministering it to one another, as good stewards of [the] various grace of God.

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