Nearly a quarter of the people in the United States identify themselves as Catholics—some 60 million souls—and despite most families’ humble, immigrant beginnings, Catholics long ago moved to near the top of the American economic mainstream. American Catholic households on the average now earn over $50,000 a year, more than both their Protestant brethren and American households as a whole.
Still, as the title of this book suggests, Catholics do not give either to their Church or to other charitable causes at nearly the level that might be expected, given their affluence. This despite clear Church teachings that emphasize both denominational and individual responsibility for the poor.
How bad is it? Catholic households give barely more than 1 percent of their income to their Church—about half of what most mainline Protestant families give, and far below what Jewish, Mormon, and more evangelical Protestant households contribute.
In 1987, Rev. Andrew Greeley and Bishop William McManus published what was to become a groundbreaking book called Catholic Contributions Sociology and Policy. Greeley found that not only was the giving of Catholics significantly lower than that of Protestants, but that it had declined at a precipitous rate over the past 30 years.
According to his research, in the 1960s Catholics gave at about the same rate as mainline Protestants (roughly 2.2 percent for both groups), but by the late 1980s Protestants’ level of giving had remained roughly the same, while that for Catholics had been cut in half.
Since Greeley’s work there has been a great effort to find out more about giving among Catholics and other denominations. Zech, a professor of economics at Villanova University, was part of a group of four researchers who were commissioned in 1992 by the Lilly Endowment to conduct what was called The American Congregational Giving Study.
That study compared the giving of five different denominations—Assemblies of God, Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. In 1996, Zech co-authored a book, Money Matters: Personal Giving in American Churches, which described the results of the study. Why Catholics Don’t Give uses the results of the Congregational Giving Study and other recent work to focus particularly on Catholic giving.
Zech makes a strenuous, and laudable, effort to avoid the trade talk of sociologists and economists. You don’t need to know a whole lot about t-tests or multiple regression to grasp Zech’s explanations of recent giving studies. This is a book that a pastor, parish finance chair, or interested parishioner can read, understand, and put to use.
Why Catholics Don’t Give provides a good review of the literature that has been written on the subject of Catholic giving over the past decade, and the author gives due credit to his colleagues for their contributions and their theories about what’s wrong with Catholic giving.
Greeley believed that the root cause was alienation of parishioners from the hierarchy over a variety of issues, particularly birth control. Most later research has questioned the extent to which such alienation is a factor.
For his part, Zech seems more interested in the practical challenge of identifying promising fundraising strategies. To that end, he offers seven specific suggestions:
- Ask people to pledge a specific annual gift to the parish;
- Involve parishioners more in the parish decision-making process;
- Maintain medium-sized parishes of no more than 2,500 members;
- Support parish-based parochial schools;
- Emphasize Church traditions and the sacraments and the Church’s role in changing unjust social structures;
- Remind people that the Church needs their contributions; and
- Meet the special needs of parishioners—including young adults and seniors.
For all that, Why Catholics Don’t Give leaves some important questions unanswered, including data on the extent to which Catholics give to non-Church charities, how Catholic giving has changed in the past 40 years, and such questions as whether the recent emphasis of dioceses and parishes on stewardship had any measureable impact on improving giving during the 1990s.
Still, Zech has taken us a step closer to understanding the problems and potential of Catholic giving. One of the criticisms of earlier work in this area has been that it has offered broad descriptions of the problem but few concrete solutions.
Indeed, when the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its Pastoral Letter, Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response, in 1992, some in the Church were disappointed. While it offered an excellent, detailed philosophy of stewardship, it contained no practical recommendations for people in the dioceses and parishes to increase support.
No such criticism can be leveled at Zech’s work. His seven suggestions go a long way toward offering some practical ideas of how Catholics might be encouraged to both give more generously and participate more actively in the Church.
Gregory Gannon is director of development for the Catholic archdiocese of Washington, D.C.