In J.F. Powers’ 1963 National Book Award winner Morte D’ Urban, the acceptance of lavish gifts sets the protagonist, Fr. Urban Roche, into a spiral of spiritual conflict. In this comic masterpiece, Fr. Urban, a priest in a fictitious religious order that is noted in history “for nothing at all,” is an ecclesiastical hot shot who enjoys lobster and champagne, all for the good of the order, of course. His vow of poverty is more of a theoretical goal rather than a lived reality. Fr. Urban says of his adherence to his vow “to the spirit, though, rather than the letter.” The acceptance of gifts, however, puts him in questionable ethical situations and leads him to live a lifestyle of a bachelor rather than a priest.
After accepting a tract of land so the order could build a golf course at their retreat house in order to attract “the right kind of people,” Fr. Urban is knocked out by an errant golf ball shot by his very own bishop. Only in his convalescence, and when he takes leadership of the order, does he realize how living the high life of luxury pulled him away from his true spiritual purpose as a priest and a leader.
Corruption in the Church around money and material goods is of course nothing new. In the mountain villages of northern Italy, there exists a dumpling-type delicacy called strangolapreti, translated in English as “strangle the priest.” Legend tells the tale of how hungry priests, coming to the Council of Trent (1538), ate so many dumplings that local cooks felt the need to replace the more expensive ingredient of meat with spinach.
Today, London real estate deals, rather than dumplings, are the latest manifestation of greed and corruption in the body of Christ. Now more than ever, a core code of ethics concerning money, material goods, and gifts needs to be instituted and consistently practiced, beginning in seminary and reinforced throughout professional ecclesiastical careers of both the lay and ordained.
Almost every professional organization in the United States has a code of ethics or recommended practices concerning gift giving and gift receiving. For clerics, the practice of receiving gifts is a common practice. Priests are leaders. When leaders accept gifts not congruent with the Church’s ethos of charity, poverty, and equality, then trust and confidence, the key components of leadership, are destroyed.
As a not-for-profit institution, remuneration for Church work is often notoriously low. This reality screams for policies and guidelines on gift giving and receiving to avoid the perception of corruption and undue influence on decision making. A perception that money and wealth buy influence over leaders must absolutely be avoided. To restore trust, professional policies for personal gift giving and receiving need to be discussed, created, and codified in parishes and dioceses throughout the United States.
Grandma’s pound cake, family suppers, books, gift cards, tickets for local events, a bottle of liquor, and all the other small gifts the faithful give their priests, deacons, catechists, and RCIA and youth group leaders to show their love, gratitude, and support are not the problem. Cash, first-class upgrades on a pilgrimage, motorcycles, houses, and expensive vacations—and all other items normally beyond the means of a priest or the average parishioner in a parish or a community—create at least a perception of corruption. Gifts worthy of such monetary value, obliging the recipient to act in favor of the individual donor rather than in the best interest of the parish community, are never appropriate.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law recognizes the role of gifts, donations, and offerings in the functioning of the Church. Canonically, the Christian faithful are obliged to support the needs of the Church and her ministers. Through financial and material support, the faithful, including laity, religious, and the ordained, are all called to actively support the divine mission of the Church in her works of the various charities and apostolates. Decent support of ministers ensures the carrying out of the divine mission. Furthermore, the diocesan bishop is bound by the law to remind the faithful of their obligation to support the Church and her ministers.
The Code goes further in stating that “the Church” has the innate right to demand from the faithful those things which are necessary for the fulfillment of ecclesiastical duties and obligations. Who in “the Church” is not exactly identified, but one can safely assume ecclesiastical authorities, such as priests, bishops, or the pope.
Counterbalanced against this right of the Church is the right of the Christian faithful to freely give temporal goods for the benefit of the Church. Unsolicited offerings or gifts given to a priest or a bishop, however, are always understood to be given to the institutional entity of the parish, diocese, charity, or organization in which they lead. Only when specified by the donor are such offerings or donations understood to be personal gifts for personal use.
The diocesan bishop has many options to help institute ethical gift giving and receiving in his diocese. There is no universal solution, as every diocese is unique. Accountability and transparency, however, are concepts and practices to be employed in every policy. Setting dollar limits, instituting a mandatory gift registry for high-dollar items, and educating the laity on their rights and the use of common sense in gift donation are good starting points.
Keeping salaries notoriously low, so as to make the ordained or chancery employees dependent on gift reception, may fuel corruption or in the very least bad decision making. Consulting diocesan and parish pastoral councils, along with the presbyterial council, will help form common sense gift-giving policies conforming to the culture of a particular parish and diocese.
Church leaders, both lay and ordained, can establish their own personal guidelines in receiving gifts. The first question any gift recipient must ask: Is the acceptance of a gift commensurate with one’s own personal vocation to serve God and neighbor? Does an accepted gift further a divine mission? Or is the gift received in the corruptive attitude of being owed, or as an award for carrying out the demands of vocation, or worse, justification for a low salary?
Proper gift reception begins in genuine gratitude for blessings already received, in thankfulness for the privilege of serving God’s faithful, and always focused on the furthering of the divine mission of the Church. Gifts given to influence decision making and influence behavior are bribes. High-dollar items, such as cash, cars, and vacations, personally enrich and set the leader apart from those they lead. These kinds of gifts lend themselves to suspicion of motivations and resentment. The acceptance of luxurious gifts always has a price tag.
Our Lord Jesus Christ accepted gifts of expensive oil, lodging, wine, and meals; but it was always done perfectly, in obedience to the Father, in performing His Will. The practice of accepting gifts in the Church today should be animated by the same attitude of the Founder. The trust of the faithful, the integrity of evangelization, and the salvation of souls depends on it.
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