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Study finds Church is ‘less generous’

Meg Handelman | Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A recent study published by Notre Dame professors Brian Starks and Christian Smith found Catholics to be less generous givers than other Christians. Smith said the Catholic Church in the United States has great potential to accomplish good in the Church and in the world, but is often hampered by a lack of funds.

Starks, director of Notre Dame’s Catholic Social and Pastoral Research Initiative (CSPRI), and Smith, co-founder of the initiative, came up with the idea for the study together, Starks said.

“We knew from the larger body of social science research that Catholics giving to the Church, measured as a percentage of income donated, had been in decline for decades,” Starks said.

The study looked specifically at whether respondents “regularly donate at least 10 percent of their income to religious, charitable, or other good causes,” and whether they donated to “solely religious causes” in the past twelve months, Starks said.

John Cavadini, director of the Institute for Church Life, and Smith, who is also director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, collaborated to form CSPRI in 2011 at Notre Dame, Sparks said. He said the group strives to use social science as a tool to challenge and strengthen the Catholic Church.

 “We knew that resource issues are an especially important concern for parishes and dioceses in their efforts toward faith formation, staff development, pastoral planning, etcetera,” Starks said. “So, we decided this study was especially appropriate for CSPRI.”

Starks said when comparing Catholics to other Christians, he and Smith mainly focused on evangelical and mainline Protestants, who represented the groups with the largest number of respondents in their sample.

The study uncovered that Catholics are, on average, less generous in voluntary financial giving than other Christian groups in the United States, Starks said. The median reported annual donation to the Church was only $175 for Catholics who gave, as compared to $588 for non-Catholic givers, he said.

Starks said it is important to understand what are notkey reasons for Catholics being less generous.

“It is not because they have less money to give – Catholics in our sample are slightly above the national average in terms of income,” Starks said. “Second, it is not because Catholics attend church less.”

Instead, Starks credits a “lack of spiritual engagement with money” when explaining the lesser giving of Catholics. Without this engagement, Catholics tend to regard their use of money and material possessions as separate from matters of faith and spiritual life, he said.

Based on their belief that increasing the spiritual engagement with money will increase donations, Starks said he and Smith explored different approaches to allow Catholic pastors and others to begin the discussion about money within their parishes.

“We found that discussions of money in Catholic parishes should not center on meeting basic organizational needs, but rather on spiritual growth and personal world transformation,” Starks said. “Parish culture should help Catholics reflect on the dangers of compartmentalizing their financial dealings from their life of faith.”

To that end, Starks said he and Smith recommend priests give homilies that discuss money while focusing on developing compassion or empathy and challenging materialistic values, which could then help Catholics to recognize the tie between their spiritual life and how they use their money and material possessions.

Starks said if members of the Church are reminded that their donations represent something more than just helping fund the church, Starks and Smith believe giving will increase.

“Most important of all, however, seems to be fostering parish cultures in which the use of money is not seen as a mere secular or profane matter, but, as the Bible teaches, a spiritual concern that God cares about, that shapes one’s personal spiritual life profoundly, and that can genuinely help transform the world along Christian values and purposes,” Starks said.

The study helped to make clear the sociological reasoning behind the lesser generosity of Catholics, as well as uncover practical ways to increase giving, the researchers said. Starks and Smith said if Catholics can increase their giving, the Church will be able to succeed in thriving to their most prosperous state.

“American Catholics learning to become much more financially generous would be truly revolutionary,” Smith said.