Saturday, August 25, 2012

Declining religious belief

Religious belief among young Americans appears on the decline. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 67% of those under 30 "never doubt the existence of God." That represents a decline from 76% in 2009 and 83% in 2007 – a 15% decline in five years.

Possible explanations include fundamentalists turning off some people, atheist and agnostics becoming more vocal, and liberal attacks on religion (cf. “3 reasons young Americans are giving up on God,” posted June 14, 2012 at The Week).

Perhaps a more probable explanation is that decline is more apparent than real. Levels of belief in God during the mid-twentieth century in America were historically high. For example, evangelical concern about the dearth of religious belief and practice in late eighteenth century America led to the first Great Awakening. Rather than religious belief declining, maybe people are being more honest about what they believe. Researchers have long struggled with a “halo effect,” i.e., people responding to surveys frequently report higher levels of belief and religious participation than what is actually true.

If this latter explanation is the most significant, then the decline represents a positive development. Pretending that one believes in God, mistakenly claiming that one participates/attends religious programs and worship, erodes integrity and stymies genuine spiritual development.

Of course, the continuing scandals in religious institutions probably alienate many people from organized religion. These scandals routinely include sex and money, e.g., high profile TV preachers exposed for hiring prostitutes with funds from contributors.

The most notorious and longest lasting of these scandals have been the multiple cases of pedophilia by Roman Catholic priests. The Roman Catholic Church has settled various cases over the last 15 years for more than $3.3 billion (averaging more than $1 million per claimant) according to a recent report in The Economist (“Earthly Concerns,” pp. 19-23, August 18, 2012).

That report provides a scathing indictment of how the Roman Catholic Church manages its finances. The Roman Church routinely comingles funds, mixing operating, pension, endowment, and other accounts. Dioceses facing bankruptcy move funds offshore, beyond the reach of claimants and creditors. The Roman Church provides no public accounting of its funds; a corporation sole holds the monies of each diocese, over which the diocesan bishop has complete authority, subject only to the Vatican.

The Roman Catholic Church has 196 dioceses in the U.S., divided into 34 metropolitan provinces with 270 bishops and about 100 million members. There are approximately 18,000 parishes, 40,000 priests, and 17,000 married deacons.

Estimates for 2010, the latest year for which data is available, show that the Roman Church spent $171 billion. Healthcare institutions, colleges, and universities spent almost $150 billion of that sum. Only $11 billion went to parish ministry and a relatively paltry $4.7 billion to charity, though Catholic Charities is the nation’s largest charitable organization. Altogether, the Catholic Church has about 1 million employees in the U.S. By way of comparison, General Electric’s 2010 revenues were $150 billion and Wal-Mart employed 2 million that year.

The secrecy is counterproductive. The lack of transparency discourages donor support, a conclusion ample anecdotal evidence support. The lack of transparency also promotes a culture of deceit and tacitly suggests that laity, clergy, and members of religious orders lack the spiritual maturity and intellectual ability to comprehend ecclesiastical finances. The recent scandal over leaks from the Pope’s butler suggests that financial problems permeate the Roman Catholic Church.

Evil flourishes in the dark; light dispels the darkness and brings health. The Roman Catholic Church, of all institutions, should understand this basic spiritual concept that is so deeply rooted in the Christian faith.

Other Churches and their members, when tired of ecclesiastical politics and internal wrangling, should give thanks for their Church’s openness and transparency. No good reason exists for keeping Church finances – regardless of the denomination – a secret. Goodness and integrity blossom in the light.


Anonymous said...

Here, here. An excellent analysis of the consequences of the Catholic church's lean towards opacity in it's handling on finances. While to a lesser, definitely also a problem in TEC.

I think in some ways, the effect is more immediate in TEC, because the clergy is so directly employed by the congregation they serve, rather than being assigned by higher authority, and the funds that can be mis-used came straight from that same congregation to that same priest. Somehow, when it passes through more hands in the Catholic system, it doesn't seem so insidious. It's a very direct way for a priest to say they believe themselves above the accountability of the very parish that employs them.

One of the things I miss most from my pre-Episcopalian days is the almost extreme transparency of finances in some congregations of the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. It may have been tedious to sit through endless church meetings, but I knew clearly how my tithe was being used, and I had a voice in that process. Not always true in TEC.

George Clifford said...

Hayley, I agree: many Episcopal congregations could improve the transparency of their finances. On a positive note, TEC requires that someone other than the priest count the offerings, reducing the opportunity for misappropriation.