An Irish priest has warned that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a “huge question-mark” on the Church’s financial viability.
– Church income “in free-fall”
Between government restrictions on social gatherings and widespread fear of contracting the virus, Mass attendance numbers in Ireland have gone way down, with the result that collection takings have plummeted and “the income of the Catholic Church is now in free-fall, and will be (it appears) for some time”, Fr. Brendan Hoban alerted in a September 1 column in the Western People newspaper.
Hoban – a parish priest in the Killala diocese and co-founder of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests – addressed in his article what he called a “strange belief” and a “persistent fallacy”, especially among critics of the Church: namely, that dioceses and parishes have “plenty of money” at their disposal.
“It’s glaringly obvious that without church collections there’s no other form of income available. The Catholic Church is as rich as its adherents are generous – no more and no less”, Hoban observed.
– “The pandemic may well be what sends the decline spiralling out of control”
Hoban’s warning about the dire financial situation of the Irish Church has been borne out already in the duration of the pandemic to date.
In the Dublin archdiocese, for example, collection income fell by 80% during the peak of the outbreak in March, and has since then only experienced a “modest improvement”, according to a spokeswoman.
“Even after just six months, some parishes are in financial difficulty”, Hoban alerted in his article, noting that the situation is only likely to worsen, “when… the Church loses its paying ‘customers'” and a large number of faithful don’t return to Mass even though it is safe to do so.
“The fear now is that, while religious practice had declined significantly over recent years (for a variety of reasons), the pandemic may well be what sends that decline spiralling out of control”, Hoban alerted.
– Church heading “to the point of virtual invisibility”
In a worst-case scenario post-COVID for the Irish Church, Hoban said that “churches will close; priest numbers (even if we could attract vocations) will continue to decline because we won’t be able to pay them [and] the public profile of the Church may diminish to the point of virtual invisibility”.
In such an apocalyptic situation, the priest said “the Church will have to cut its cloth according to its measure” and finally face up to the implications of a crisis in Catholic life that has been threatening for some time.
“With the Catholic Church being effectively funded by older Catholics – as evident in the declining collections of recent years – it has been clear for some time that a financial crisis was looming”, Hoban wrote.
For that reason, the Irish cleric urged bishops to tackle the “range of difficult decisions” on the future of the Church in the country “that heretofore were casually placed on the back boiler by the ‘It’ll-do-in-my-time’ brigade”.
“What will the Catholic Church in Ireland be like after the pandemic? And what do we need to do now to prepare for it?”, were the questions Hoban pushed Church leaders to prepare for.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the Irish Church was facing a difficult future, with priest Hoban, for example, warning in March – in a situation typical of the Irish Church in general – that by 2035 his Killala diocese will have just five to seven priests for 22 parishes.
Vocations aside, the difficult COVID-19 financial situation for the Irish Church has been compounded by the failure of the majority of bishops in the country to publish diocesan financial reports.
Lay group ‘We Are Church’ Ireland denounced in June that just 10 of Ireland’s 26 dioceses – or 38% – publish audited accounts on their diocesan websites.