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Baroque to broke: French Church sounds alarm over plunging finances

The French Church is sounding the alarm over the state of its finances as donations drop over the sex abuse crisis and over competition from other charities.

Driving the news

“If resources continue to decline, we will be closer to the first Christian communities than to the rich and triumphant Church”, treasurer of the Diocese of Digne, Marc Divry, told La Croix.

In 2018, about 1 million people donated to the Church, a number which included only half of all French practising Catholics, according to Bishops’ Conference numbers.

On average those Church donors gave 243 euros, for a total giving income of 248 million euros.

But not even that number, nor the 113 million euros the French Church received in bequests last year or its considerable real estate holdings, seems like it will be enough to maintain the institution.

A drop-off in faithful, economic difficulties in wider society, the Church sex abuse scandals, pensions for aging priests and competition from other charities are all shaping up as major threats to the French Church’s financial survival long-term.

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“If the family is going through problems, donors are reluctant to give, as we are seeing these days”, sad Laurent Charignon, diocesan treasurer in Marseille, reflecting on why those Catholics still staying in Church are giving less and less.

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“For those aged 20-45, giving to the archdiocese that will repair the roof of a presbytery is much less impressive than contributing to the construction of a dispensary in Sri Lanka”, added Charignon, explaining why young people, in particular, aren’t contributing to the collection plate.

But there’s an added problem: French dioceses, even if they’re failing, don’t receive any money either from the Vatican nor from the national Bishops’ Conference, despite what many people believe.

And even if the dioceses sold their real estate portfolios – which in some cases are valued at tens of millions of euros – the income would only provide enough to live on for a few years, Church financial officers say.

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Why it matters

The ‘perfect storm’ of financial instability is prompting several of the French dioceses to turn to innovative solutions to try and ensure their sustainability, and to avoid the already sadly implemented quick answer of employee layoffs.

Dioceses are experimenting with solutions like technology that enables youth to donate by SMS, a stronger focus on legacies or even investments of the type that have seen the Vatican in the eye of a credibility storm over the past weeks and months.

“Professionalism is not incompatible with the values of faith,” says Frédéric Chastenet, Autun diocesan treasurer told La Croix, adding “there is nothing to be ashamed of when you make wise investments”.

However those new initiatives turn out, more and more French clergy are repeating more and more frequently the old, and true, adage: “The Church lives only from the generosity of the faithful”.

That’s why the Bishops’ Conference is organising this Christmas and New Year, for the third year in a row, a nation-wide collection of funds that they’re hoping will help the Church start 2020 on the right foot financially.

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