Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith is leading a multifaceted, multiyear study aimed at learning why some folks are more generous than others. Although the work, which involves scholars from ND and other institutions, is far from complete, Smith has found one preliminary result that Catholics may find unflattering and troubling: As a group, we’re tight.
Relative to other denominations, Catholics are not as generous with their tithing.
Smith, who first reported the result in his 2008 book Passing the Plate, has yet to explain definitively why this is so, but the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of sociology has some guesses.
He suggests one reason for the lower level of Catholic financial generosity may be that as far back as the Roman emperor Constantine, Catholicism has had a history of being “the state church,” the church that society as a whole, rather than individuals, helps support. “While the Catholic Church was never the state church in America, that notion is still part of the DNA of the tradition,” Smith argues.
A second explanation may be that Catholic churches — the buildings — are technically owned by the local bishop, unlike Protestant churches which are owned directly by the congregation. Therefore, he believes, the need to give may be felt less intensely. “Catholics ‘belong’ to a church, but they don’t feel they financially ‘own’ it as Protestants do,” Smith says.
Another factor limiting generosity may be the upward mobility of U.S. Catholics as they work to acquire wealth. “In the 20th century American Catholics went from being urban, ethnic, working class, persecuted, relatively poor to being suburban, middle class, moving upward economically, educationally in assimilation and acculturation,” Smith points out.
Finally, Smith believes the long tradition of a low-cost church workforce composed of nuns, brothers and priests has lulled Catholics into thinking the church has less financial need, even though much of that cheap labor pool is now gone because of the massive decline in vocations after Vatican II.