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In my last post, I noted that nearly a third of American philanthropic dollars went to religious organizations in 2012. That’s still the largest piece of the $316-billion-dollar pie given to nonprofits that year, but as Quentin Frottrell pointed out in his reading of Giving USA’s 2012 report, it’s not as big as it once was:

Americans donated $316 billion to charitable causes in 2012, a 3.5% increase from 2011, a new report by the Giving USA Foundation found. But while charitable donations to education increased 7% to $41 billion, religious donations dropped slightly (by 0.2%) to $101.54 billion . . . [religious institutions] accounted for 32% of all charitable donations. But that’s down from around 38% a decade ago, according to Giving USA.

It’s important to understand what the category of “religious” donations includes to understand what the report tells us. The category includes donations to religious organizations and thus tells us nothing about the number of people who gave or the number of dollars given for faith-based reasons. What’s more, not every faith-based organization is included in the religion category: Neither a donation to a Catholic hospital nor one to a Jewish theological seminary is counted as a “religious” gift. While visiting orphans and widows might be religion pure and undefiled for St. James (James 1:27) those activities will, for the report’s purposes, probably fall in the categories of “human services.”

Only those organizations are included whose primary purpose or activity is religious. Although I suspect Giving USA didn’t rely too heavily on the Angelic Doctor while formulating their categories, we’ll assume that means something like paying due honor to God, through acts such as sacrifice, adoration, and the like. And doing so in a denominational setting.

With this definition, it’s easy to locate a cause for this decline: There has been, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a corresponding decline in the number of Americans who affiliate with a particular denomination and who attend services regularly. If you’re spiritual but not religious you’re unlikely to give to the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod’s World Mission and if you’re a Christmas and Easter Catholic who hasn’t simmered through an hour-long Mass in a church without air conditioning, you probably won’t feel compelled to write a check for parish upkeep.

It’s a tidy explanation, but I wonder, at least for my own experience in the Catholic Church (where members have lead the charge in low giving for years), if it fully captures the cause of the decline. Over the last few years I’ve heard several end-of-Mass announcements from pastors or parish council members detailing how the parishes financial troubles could be alleviated if we the parishioners gave anything close to the 10 percent Catholics are supposed to tithe. I wonder if even among those sitting in the pews every week if there might not be a tendency to not give, or to give but not to one’s church.

It’s easy to see why that might be. We might be less than pleased with the use our church makes of our money, and today we can easily find a charity that perfectly fits our own commitments and provides just the services we’d like to support while. Why write a check to pay the church flower fund—or legal bills—when you could help stop human trafficking? 

In “Unleashing Catholic Generosity,” a report from the Catholic Social and Pastoral Research Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, Brian Starks and Christian Smith suggest that low Catholic giving rates compared to other denominations may be due to lack of spiritual engagement with money. Catholics were less likely than other Christians to agree that “Part of my spiritual life involves using my money and possessions faithfully and generously in ways that please God” and that “My money ultimately belongs to God, not to me.”  And this lack of spiritual engagement with money may, in turn, be due to the way in which parishes talk about money.

In congregations across all denominations, congregants were more likely to tithe to their church and give to religious organizations when their church talked about giving in terms of “opportunities for spiritual growth and vision for the religious congregation’s mission” than in terms of “people’s responsibility to help pay the congregation’s bills.” And across all denominations, Catholics were least likely to report that their parish discussed vision in terms of spiritual growth and mission.

Starks and Smith conclude:

Rather than seeing their use of money and possessions as a part of their spiritual life, as a part of Christian formation and faithfulness, American Catholics tend to compartmentalize, to separate money from matters of faith, to think that money and material possession do not have much to do with spiritual or religious issues. Catholics who do engage with money as a spiritual matter and who see their money as ultimately God’s, however, are much more financially generous, reducing the Catholic giving gap almost entirely. . . .

If talk about money is not couched in spiritual terms that underscore their personal spiritual significance, but are only brought up in the context of the pressing need to pay the bills, then such discussions may serve to exacerbate the dualistic separation of money and spirituality that fails to inspire Catholic generosity.

 I wonder if there might not be a vicious cycle here—a giving blight now beginning to hit Protestant Churches as well—in which a decrease in giving due to lack of membership leads pastors and parishes to lay greater emphasis on the importance of paying the bills which, in turn, depresses giving. 

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