There has been an interesting, mostly subterranean, conversation going on amongst the pewsitters ever since Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra-Goulburn devoted most of his Lent pastoral letter to a plea for parishioners to give more financially to support their clergy and the running of the Archdiocese.
I've refrained from comment up until now, but perhaps the time has come...
The particular context is plans to cut the number of masses on offer due to ever declining Mass attendance and an associated decline in financial contributions - some sixteen parishes and growing who do not put enough money in the collect plate to support a full-time priest - combined with a lack of financial reserves. But it is a debate that has implications for every diocese.
Almsgiving vs support of the clergy
Part of the issue for many is the timing and pitch. Catholics certainly have a duty to support their priests (and the training of new priests) financially, and a bishop is absolutely entitled to call us to that duty. He is absolutely entitled to say we are not giving enough, and need to give more.
But can that be classified as almsgiving? Personally, I wouldn't have thought so.
Almsgiving is supposed to be what we give over and above what we are required to give as a duty.
Moreover our duty to support the clergy doesn't end with Lent. But we do have a special obligation to give alms during Lent, over and above our normal practice. So conflating the two ideas is, potentially at least, confusing.
Maybe there are some diocesan projects that do legitimately qualify as proper areas for Lenten almsgiving. Funding the Archbishop's planned trips to the Asia-Pacific region now that he no longer has to go to Rome as frequently (!), as he mentioned in his Catholic Voice column a few months back, for example, comes to mind.
But funding the costs of seminary students? A good cause to be sure, and the exciting increase in their number is a good argument for us all putting more in the collection plate, but surely a cost that should be built into the ongoing running costs of the archdiocese rather than be treated as a special cause (although perhaps the issue is that the novelty of actually having seminarians has not yet worn off!)? Some of the other areas of recent apparent expansion in the size of the archdiocesan bureaucracy might similarly come under this rubric.
What makes people contribute?
There is another, more fundamental, problem though that needs to be addressed.
The archdiocese's financial situation - like that of many other places - reflects catholics voting with their feet and purses.
And the Archbishop has already flagged a plan to reduce the number of masses on offer in Canberra in response. Hardly an incentive to put up more money, although perhaps the idea is to actually avoid this contingency being necessary?
Still, for a long time the assumption has been that if we just keep quiet and don't emphasize orthodoxy and orthopraxis too much, people will keep coming to Church even though they may in practice reject most of the Church's teachings.
In fairness, perhaps the hope is that they will be thus quietly influenced for the better.
But all the evidence is that it isn't a strategy that is working.
So shouldn't we change it?
The most recent edition of Oriens Magazine argues that rebuilding can work, and points to the interesting parallel of the Ukraine, where a collapsing economy and demographic decline has not stopped church restoration in all senses of the word.
Similarly, the always interesting Michael Voris has some good points to make on this subject (and see also the follow-on piece):
Liturgical abuses and Mass attendance
Voris argues that a parallel church is growing up. I don't see much evidence for that in Australia. Instead most simply lapse.
I can understand why.
Take for example the large number of people who will come to Mass at Easter. The objective should be to persuade those twice a year visitors to come back next week.
But most will rightly run a million miles in the face of the annual Easter shenanigans.
I'm talking about parishes where everyone will wash each others hands and feet on Maundy Thursday, rather than the focus being on the service of the priest (yep already flagged in the bulletin of a parish near my own...).
Where Easter vigils will no doubt be at all the interesting hours of daylight instead of actually in the dark, let alone leading to Midnight.
Where the litany of the saints will include 'saints' such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi (I'm not joking, it does actually happen).
Where all sorts of creative promises will be concocted instead of the baptismal promises the Church actually specifies for the liturgy.
And then there is the music...
Now because I'm a committed Catholic, I do find somewhere I can keep going to Mass, even if it is rather from my ideal of what a parish community or liturgy should be.
But I know many people, both friends and relatives, who just say no thanks and stay at home. In some cases I get them to go once - only to find that their experience reinforces their initial views rather than changes it.
The people I'm talking about are not traditionalists. Indeed, though I've tried getting them to an EF, that really is a step too far in most cases. They are waverers who in theory they want to practice their faith - but in practice they just can't stomach the touchy feely/caring sharing but content-free version of the 'faith' served up in most parishes in Australia including Canberra-Goulburn.
As well as greater emphasis on orthopraxis, greater emphasis on orthodoxy as well might help.
Canberra-Goulburn's Auxiliary, Bishop Power, for example, continues to advocate publicly, on national radio, 'reopening' the forever closed debate on the possibility of ordaining women.
The archdiocesan website points one to interesting resources on Scripture by authors who hold similarly heretical views, such as Sr Joan Chittester (as well as many other dodgy ones!).
The archdiocese is home to leading dissenter, Paul Collins, whose current principal preoccuaption seems to be continuing his fight against the introduction of the new missal.
Several Australian bishops recently, Archbishop Coleridge included, have been reluctant to stand up and say that Catholics cannot support the Greens because of their advocacy of euthanasia, abortion, cloning, gay marriage and other evils.
Can you even begin to imagine any Australian bishop, even the most conservative amongst them, being brave enough to put out a pastoral letter including the forceful call to repentance from the sin of co-habitation like that of Archbishop Sheehan of Santa Fe highlighted by Fr Z today? Go have a read. I'd be pleasantly happy to be surprised on this front, but I just can't see it happening!
And I could go on with many other examples.
Retrench or rebuild?
So, do we, as Oriens asks, retrench or rebuild?
You know my answer.
Taking the hard path and trying to rebuild might have short term costs. It might indeed require some short-term retrenchment (though personally, I'd take a hard look at parts of the diocesan bureaucracy, and operations that are not generating good spiritual returns - such as our schools - before looking at cutting the number of Sunday masses).
But tough action would be an investment that will surely pay off in the longer term.
In the meantime, let those who can put a few more dollars in the plate...
And perhaps there is also some scope for creativity here for those who want to do more.
Like establishing a fund to support diocesan seminarians who commit to saying the EF mass occasionally once ordained.
Or a scheme to help clergy adopt a 'reform of the reform' approach in their parishes liturgy (even one such parish would be a good start).
A fund that could act as an insurance scheme in the (unlikely on the basis of experience around the world) event that the income of a priest declined as a result of preaching actual doctrine, or introducing a regular EF.
Now that is something many of us could get behind...