Tax time reminds us of stewardship for church too
Parishes pay taxes to diocese, which pays taxes to Washington and Rome
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
At this time of year, our thoughts naturally turn toward taxes, called an inevitable of life.
While we first think of the IRS, there are many taxes: sales tax, property tax - and the taxes parishes pay to the diocese. Once called cathedraticum, what is paid each year by diocesan parishes is now called "a tax for the needs of the diocese" (Canon 1263).
Cathedraticum comes from the same root that gives the word, cathedral, the bishop's church. Cathedra comes from a Greek word, kathedra, the chair from which great teachers and philosophers taught. In ancient times, those who had authority sat in chairs - a rare piece of furniture. Others stood before them, or sat at their feet.
The bishop's authority as chief shepherd and teacher of the diocese has been recognized since the early days of the church. In the first century, the bishop - called episkopos (Greek for overseer) - headed the local church. We see Paul and Timothy called "overseers" in the Philippians (1:1-2), one of the oldest of the New Testament letters.
As The New American Bible explains, "the Greek term episkopos literally means 'one who oversees' or 'one who supervises,' but since the second century it has come to designate the 'bishop,' the official who heads a local church."
In those early days, the celebration of the Eucharist was overseen by the episkopos. Local members of the church provided the food for the Eucharistic meal, the house in which the liturgy was celebrated and - as in the case of Paul and other ministers of the Gospel - the financial support of the leaders of the church.
It was an informal arrangement that, over the years, developed certain patterns. These became regulations about how the care of bishops, ministers and - as these came into being - church buildings were administered.
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the first formal cathedraticum was ordered by the Second Council of Braga in 572, but it was not until Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) that it became universal in the Western church.
At that time, this tax was paid at the time of the bishop's annual visit to a parish and was set at the sum of "two solidi" or "one 72nd part of a pound of gold."
Over the centuries, abuses of the cathedraticum took place and generated bad feelings. However, the need to support a bishop and his administration of the local church (the diocese) has always been recognized as something each Christian wishes to do - just as early Christians supported the Apostles and other ministers.
In the revised Code of Canon Law (1983), the term cathedraticum was dropped. Canon 1263 says, "The diocesan Bishop, after consulting the finance committee and the council of priests, has the right to levy on public juridical persons subject to his authority a tax for the needs of the diocese. This tax must be moderate and proportionate to their income."
While it is a tax, this amount is also an acknowledgement that the bishop, as our overseer, is chief steward of the diocese. The funds we hand over to his care are used to serve the good of the entire local (diocesan) faith community. And the bishop likewise hands something over to stewards beyond our diocese, for service to the universal church. Dioceses also pay taxes - both to their national conferences, such as the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB), and to the Holy See.
How this "moderate and proportionate" tax is assessed varies by diocese. Often, the diocesan tax is based on the collection taken in parishes.
For example, in the Diocese of Austin, Texas (2003), parishes pay in 9% of their annual parish collections, unless they have a parish school. Then they pay 8%. In San Bernardino, Calif. (2003), the diocesan tax is 11.5% of the parish's collections.
However, as we all know from sales taxes, a flat percentage tax can be very hard for some parishes, and less of a burden to others. In the Diocese of Green Bay, such a flat tax has not been considered "moderate and proportionate to their income" as church law requires. Therefore, a different system is used, according to Mike Speel, accounting manager.
Our diocese looks at a parish's "contributing units" (those that give at least $100 to their parish each year) and measures it against a diocesan average to get a preliminary multiplier. Then, using outside, independent sources, the diocese weighs in the economic situation - job lay-offs, average income, food prices - of the city, town or rural community in which a parish exists. This figure - called the EBI, or economic buying income - of an area is then calculated against the contributing unit multiplier to get a preliminary tax figure for that parish. Then, Speel said, a parish receives a 10% credit if they support a
school and another 10% credit if they support a high school.
It's a complicated system, but one that tries to reflect the local economics of parishes.
"It's not done in a vacuum," Speel said. "We try to make this as objective as possible. The diocese does not interject any preconceptions (about a parish's finances) into this."
As members of Christ's church, we all share in the work of the bishop - and the money a parish gives to the work of the diocese is just one way we practice that stewardship. No one likes taxes, but they remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves or our local community. In the same way, as Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese said in an exhaustive study of financial administration of archdioceses around the country, we are "more than a collection of independent parishes." We are, after all, the Body of Christ, stewards of creation.
(Sources: New American Bible notes in www.vatican.va; The Catholic Encyclopedia; www.austindiocese.org/policies; www.sbdiocese.org; Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church)