It’s not easy to generalize about American Catholics. There are more than 65 million of us, and a more diverse slice of America is hard to imagine. Catholics are now well-represented in every part of the country and at all points along the socio-economic scale, from the very top to the very bottom. Yet one generalization about Catholics in America does seem to be sustained by the research data: Catholics are among the worst givers in the country.
Sociologist Andrew Greeley, who has studied patterns of Catholic giving for decades, suggests that 20 percent of the U.S. Catholic population provides 80 percent of the Church’s resources. Veteran Catholic pastors vary this slightly by talking about the “one-third/one-third/one-third rule.” One-third of the registered members of a parish give constantly and generously, one-third give occasionally, and one-third give essentially nothing.
Diocesan figures gathered by the International Catholic Stewardship Council are revealing: The small rural diocese of Wichita, Kansas, reports the highest per-household rate of weekly church contributions, at slightly over $20 per household per week, a figure that would make tithing Protestants and synagogue-supporting Jews scratch their heads in wonderment. Things are far worse, though, in major Catholic urban centers like Chicago (about $6.80 per week per household) and Los Angeles (about $3.65 per week per household).
Figures for that mainstay of Catholic fundraising, the annual diocesan appeal, do not paint a much rosier picture: 21 percent of Chicago’s Catholic households participate in the annual diocesan fundraising drive (contributing an average gift of $118); Los Angeles does slightly better in terms of the average gift ($133), but has only 16 percent participation. Even those dioceses that report higher-than-average percentages of participation (i.e., in the high 30s to middle 40s) also report average gifts well below $200 per household. Catholic officials regularly boast of the success of the annual national collection to provide retirement funds for those aging sisters who once staffed the kind of Catholic schools where Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman fought their cinematic turf battles. Yet the 2003 collection only raised $28 million, which is a bit more than $1 per adult Catholic in the United States.
Why this parsimony? Catholic pulpits are rarely used to talk about money, in the sense of inculcating regular patterns of stewardship, nor is tithing preached as a spiritual discipline in U.S. Catholicism. When the Church asks, Catholics are, in the main, inclined to give (if at levels considerably less than their Protestant and Jewish fellow-citizens). One medium-sized U.S. metropolitan diocese, for example, will raise far, far more than its original goal of $135 million in a five-year capital campaign that began in 2004, but the percentage of Catholics participating in that campaign looks to remain stuck in the usual “one-third” grooves. The question of how to instill a greater sense of responsible generosity in U.S. Catholics has thus become a significant issue for the twenty-first century Church, whose vast network of parishes, schools, social welfare and health care institutions can no longer rely on the inexpensive labor of priests, brothers, and sisters. (Indeed, one may well argue that, historically, the largest gifts in American Catholic philanthropy have been the giving up of sons and daughters to Church work. But the decline of religious vocations is a story for another day.)
New Wave Giving
Low levels of giving to Church appeals is not the only problem of Catholic philanthropy. Many U.S. Catholics have “made it.” Almost 30 years ago, sociologist Andrew Greeley stunned just about everyone (including his fellow-Catholics) by reporting that Irish Catholics were second only to Jews in levels of educational and economic attainment among American ethnic groups. And the Irish weren’t alone among their high-achieving Catholic brethren. Thus, in a predictably American way, Catholic wealth in recent decades has begun flowing to foundations dedicated to Catholic causes. As Dr. Francis Butler, president of FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities), has noted, Catholics “are forming community foundations and setting up trusts rather than just turning over their money to their dioceses. This is the wave of the future for Catholics.”
And while the Catholic Church’s bishops and priests will have some role in shaping the giving of Catholic foundations (of which Butler estimates there to be about 1,000, with the number certain to rise), the new Catholic philanthropy will be largely designed and operated by lay people, who will mostly work outside the formal structures of the Church. Some churchmen (and indeed some laymen) will likely find this uncomfortable. Yet this is just what the reforming Second Vatican Council had in mind when, in the 1965 “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” the bishops challenged lay Catholics to sanctify the world. Sanctity, the Council insisted, was not a matter for the sanctuary alone. Every baptized lay Catholic ought to strive for holiness and virtue, precisely in and through responsible activism in “the world.”
So there is no theological problem with a new Catholic philanthropy led primarily by lay Catholics. But the lay Catholic philanthropists will soon learn what their Protestant, Jewish, and secular fellow-philanthropists have learned: Giving money away intelligently and effectively is no easy business. Like every other serious group of philanthropists in the United States, Catholic philanthropists must strive to be both strategic and responsible. That, in turn, suggests certain imperatives that ought to shape the new Catholic philanthropy in the early twenty-first century.
Perhaps the first imperative is to understand how change is actually leveraged in complex societies like the United States. Catholics are, traditionally, great institution-builders and sustainers (just look at the bulging endowments of Notre Dame and Boston College). The challenge for the new Catholic philanthropy will be to look beyond bricks, mortar, and established institutions to grasp the truth of Irving Kristol’s famous observation that the world is changed, not by big universities and not by the mainstream media, but by think tanks and small magazines.
Kristol’s bon mot was, in turn, the product of convictions that Catholics should find congenial:
- that politics is, in the final analysis, a by-product of culture;
- that cultures are shaped by what people honor, cherish, and worship;
- that social change is a matter of ideas, which have consequences.
Like other Americans concerned about family and civic life, many Catholics now sense that they’re combatants in a culture war. What the new Catholic philanthropy must grasp is that the culture war is, at bottom, a war of ideas, which has to be fought by idea warriors deployed in those places where elite opinion is molded and shaped.
Leveraging cultural change by changing the debate on an issue has been done before, and indeed not so long ago. Every Catholic philanthropist should ponder the brute fact that welfare reform would never have overcome opposition, passed Congress, become law, and improved millions of lives if the scholarly debate on welfare had not first been fundamentally changed by a small journal, the Public Interest, of which most people have never heard and which never had a circulation over 10,000. Yet that is where the arguments for welfare reform were vigorously made year after year until Congress eventually “ended welfare as we know it.”
As Catholic philanthropists look to shape public policy on issues of war and peace, biotechnology, welfare policy, health care reform, the life issues, and the family, they must learn to look beyond established Catholic institutions and toward leaner, more effective, more focused, and usually smaller institutions (like think tanks, research institutes, and activist organizations) which have been the real catalysts of change in American public life over the past generation. Catholics who want to support authentically Catholic intellectual work, journalism, and social activism need no longer look exclusively to Catholic institutions. Catholics are now everywhere, and frequently have more effect by operating outside the often-sclerotic bureaucracy of the Church.
The second imperative of the new Catholic philanthropy must be to resist the temptations of tribalism and nostalgia. To take the most obvious example: Philanthropically inclined Catholics often feel nostalgic loyalty to many Catholic institutions of higher education that simply are not what they were when the philanthropists were in school. Many of these colleges and universities have become thoroughly secularized, and Catholic donors who assume that giving to them is one way to support the spread of Catholic teaching are in for a rude shock at some prominent Catholic schools, where the Church’s teaching is regarded, at best, as one option on a menu of possibilities. Thus, on the principle of caveat donor, the new Catholic philanthropy cannot assume that everything that now wears or once wore the label “Catholic” is in fact an institution that thinks or lives in a distinctively Catholic way. By the same token, the new Catholic philanthropy can consciously use its giving to shape change in Catholic institutions of higher education by providing the resources needed to support those reformers who are working to reclaim Catholic colleges for the great tradition of Catholic liberal education.
A similar hard look is needed when the new Catholic philanthropy engages with the Church’s own charitable institutions. Here, too, dramatic change has taken place in recent decades, not always for the better. Are Catholic social welfare charities too closely tied to, and dependent upon, government? Are Catholic charities suffering from the inefficiencies that usually accompany bureaucratization and centralization? How can Catholic charities and social welfare agencies better implement Pope John Paul II’s strategy of empowering the poor, laid out in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus? These are some of the questions, perhaps rude questions, but necessary questions that new Catholic philanthropists should be pressing on the Catholic institutions that seek their support.
The new Catholic philanthropy would be better equipped to meet these imperatives, which admittedly cut across the grain of some traditional Catholic sensibilities, if the new Catholic philanthropists knew each other better. Thus Catholic philanthropists might well consider forming alliances with like-minded donors to achieve common strategic goals like the reform of Catholic higher education or Catholic welfare agencies, or the advancement of a culture of life in critical public policies. These alliances need not be formal or highly structured (indeed, the opposite is probably better). But if the experience of Jewish philanthropy is any model, informal donor alliances can be highly effective in getting resources to the institutions and individuals who are actually achieving the results the donors want to support.
It is a given that Catholic philanthropy in America will come into its own, financially, in the twenty-first century. Whether that philanthropy succeeds will depend on whether Catholic philanthropists are not afraid to follow Pope John Paul II’s example and go beyond their conventional role.
George Weigel is the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. He holds the Olin Chair in Religion and American Democracy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.