Financial and sexual scandals lead to decline in giving
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The Italian Bishops Conference is set to suffer a major financial hit this year. Their internal polling predicts one of the lowest years in its history of giving to the Church via the mandatory charity tax. Called the Eight per Thousand, it's an Italian law established in 1984 by which taxpayers give a compulsory percentage of their annual income tax return either to an organized religion or to a government-run charity.
The money given to the Catholic Church is managed by the Italian Bishops Conference, which every year determines how to direct the funds for three purposes: clergy maintenance, worship needs or charity operations (both in Italy and in the Third World). Updated reports on these contributions are offered on two dedicatedwebsites. In 2016 the largest part of the funds was used for worship needs and pastoral care.
The low allegiance to the Eight per Thousand is the way some Italian Catholics are expressing their dissatisfaction with the current moral and spiritual leadership of the Church.
In 1990, 76 percent of Italian taxpayers contributed to the Church through the Eight per Thousand, with a steady increase that reached 90 percent in 2005. An analysis of the figures shows that the number of contributions reached a peak in 2010, "during the Benedict XVI years," as noted by political and cultural magazine Formiche (and also by vaticanista Sandro Magister in this 2016 article): "To understand if a 'Francis effect' will be visible, we still have to wait a few weeks." That's because it takes the Italian government three years to compute the individual choices of taxpayers, and the last official data is from 2013, the beginning of Pope Francis' pontificate.
Although the Church hierarchy is scratching its collective head over the low numbers, lay Catholics are making clear their refusal to give is owing to frustration with leadership.
Catholic writer Constanza Miriano wrote on her blog, "If I must economically support someone who tells me that Marco Pannella is a spiritual reference, I'll give my Eight per Thousand directly to the Radical Party."
Pannella was the atheist leader of Italy's Radical Party, and promoted abortion, LGBT rights, and even pedophilia. He was recently eulogized by Abp. Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, as "a man of great spirituality."
"If I must give money to phony environmentalists, I choose to give it to Greenpeace," continued Miriano in her accusations against the bishops. "If I must pay the salary of those who haven't fought, haven't said a word to stop the legalization of homosexual civil unions, if I must give money to those who've stopped saying the truth about man and woman to defend homosexual 'rights' instead, then I'll give my money directly to Arcigay [a gay activist group], not to the Catholic Church."
Even though the number of taxpayers willing to support the Church has diminished, the total sum allocated to the Church has gone up (around 1 billion euros annually for the last 12 years) owing to an increase in revenue from income tax collection. But the predictions are still bleak, especially because of another considerable reduction: that of the voluntary deductible donations specifically for the maintenance of the clergy, which has dropped by 60 percent in 20 years.
"Both the number of donations and the total sum have progressively diminished," declared Abp. Nunzio Galantino, secretary-general of the Italian Bishops Conference. "Perhaps this is a sign of an enduring crisis that will inevitably lead us to cut down on many things, including charity."
Monsignor Giuseppe Baturi, undersecretary of the Italian Bishops Conference, believes voluntary donations have dropped "not so much because of economic problems, but mostly because the cause of solidarity to the clergy is not attractive anymore."
For Baturi, this could result in a damaging change in mentality: "If the community around the priest is not concerned with his livelihood, but that's left to a central entity, we risk that the priest might end up seeing his role as merely that of a service provider."
In an interview to Quotidiano Nazionale, Fr. Ivan Maffeis, spokesman for the Italian Bishops Conference, stated: "In the last 10 years, the Church reached really low levels of credibility because of bad money management. The last surveys were made during the same months in which the newspapers were filled with financial scandals involving the clergy."
Matteo Calabresi, the economist responsible for the Italian Bishops Conference's Department of Promotion of Economical Support of the Catholic Church, went further. "A few years ago, adherence to the Eight per Thousand was essentially a token of 'belonging,'" he remarked. "Today it is about 'judgment,' an annual referendum on the perception every individual has regarding the works of the Church."
"Those who choose the Church for their compulsory contribution want to know how the Church is using the funds, how much a priest earns," he continued.
Bishop Domenico Sigalini of Palestrina doesn't see this as a problem of trust. He reckons that the pedophilia scandals and the more recent financial scandals have helped the defamatory campaign against the Church, allied with the ideological battle of lobbies that want to abrogate the Eight per Thousand. The bishop also cites Matteo Salvini, from the Northern League, a Euroskeptical party growing in popularity for its controlled immigration stance.
Salvini is critical of the clergy, constantly reminding them of the fact that they're supported by taxpayers. But Salvini's most recent statements regarding the Eight per Thousand occurred last year, a severe response to the proposal of former Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, who in an interview declared that Islam should receive taxpayer funds as well as the Catholic Church.
Even though the Italian Bishops Conference heavily focused on economic transparency at the last National Convention of Diocesan Institutes for the maintenance of the clergy, held in mid-March, it's becoming clearer the low allegiance to the Eight per Thousand is the way some Italian Catholics are expressing their dissatisfaction with the current moral and spiritual leadership of the Church.
The association of Catholics Libertà e Persona had already declared in January 2016 they wouldn't give their share of the Eight per Thousand "to the Bishops Conference of Nunzio Galantino." Galantino is famous for his dubious statements and support of politicians who engage in causes against Catholic teaching, but the members of Libertà e Persona only announced their drastic decision when the prelate refused to receive pro-life activists.
It's time for the bishops to promote a true spiritual renewal.
"Immediately after his nomination as secretary-general, he began his personal war, with harsh declarations regarding those who are fighting for the protection of children still in the womb," said a spokesman for Libertà e Persona.
Catholic blog Messa in Latino has recently published an article on the matter, commenting that:
the diversion of the 8/1000 to other recipients is a consequence of the abandonment of religious and sacramental practices. The phenomenon cannot be superficially blamed on the scandals, even though they are undoubtedly a cancer to the ecclesiastical community. It's time for the bishops to promote a true spiritual renewal, with an appropriate self-reflection on the status of the Italian Catholic Church, currently identified by the public opinion as a spineless subsection of Caritas. An urgent spiritual renewal must take place, putting "godly things" first: once the doctrine and the liturgy are sound, the rest of the body of the Church will follow.