My kids find it hilarious when my wife pulls out her checkbook — banking’s equivalent of a typewriter.
But we still write checks every week to put in our offering envelope for church. I know this is old school. More and more people are going direct deposit, which churches like because it guarantees a dependable flow of revenue, whether the faithful skip that week or month or visit another parish.
Out of sight, out of mind may not always be a good thing, however. Our habit of putting the envelope in the basket was confirmed when we had children. We wanted them to see our offertory gift every week. We got kids’ envelopes for them, of course, but they were left at home as often as not. So we always made sure that one of them got to put Mom and Dad’s envelope in the basket when the ushers came round.
It was a visual lesson in stewardship, a visible sign of our commitment to support the church.
I was thinking about all of this for two reasons. The first is the feast of Epiphany and the story of the Magi bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. In some communities today, it is a tradition to slip dollar bills under the manger in the church’s nativity set, a literal gift to the Christ Child.
But each Sunday, when you and I drop our envelopes in the basket, we are bringing our gifts as well. The idea of taking what we have, whether the widow’s mite or the first fruits of the harvest, to support the church and its works is a centerpiece of the Christian tradition.
Unfortunately, Catholics today lean toward the widow’s mite. We are cheapskates, giving less money to support our church than any other major religious denomination. Forget tithing 10%. On average, we plunk 10 bucks a week into the basket. And this is in the good times. Since the 2008 Great Recession, many parishes and dioceses have struggled, and anecdotal evidence suggests that numbers have sunk since the 2018 sex abuse scandals hit the headlines.
Which brings me to the second reason I’ve been thinking about church giving. There has been in the past few years a willingness on the part of some to punish the church and its leadership by withholding funds.
Much of this has been connected to the sexual abuse crisis. Frustration fueled by headlines has led to various calls to boycott bishop appeals and fundraising of Catholic charitable organizations as well as the local parish.
Some of this is done out of anger. Some of it is done to express dissatisfaction for the church’s own financial practices. Some of it is fueled by ideological opposition to the pope or the local bishop.
The people being hurt, however, aren’t holding a crosier. The people being hurt are the recipients of the vast networks of Catholic charitable efforts. It also hurts the people who do so much of the work of the church — the people in the chanceries, the parish offices, the schools, the charities, the communications offices and more.
We are in a new age of accountability for the church, and this is a good thing. Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have sought to reform the Vatican’s financial structure, and the church will only grow stronger and more trusted as it becomes more accountable from top to bottom.
But let’s not forget who we support when we bring our gifts to the church each Sunday, be they cash, check or direct deposit.
Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.