Catholics in Ohio and Kentucky are giving more money this year than they have in almost a decade to the church’s largest annual fund drive. Church officials say donors recognize a greater need in tough economic times and are digging deeper to help poor families, social service groups, retired priests and others who benefit from the fundraising campaign. They also attribute at least some of the increased giving to the church’s high-profile opposition to national health care reform rules, which Catholic bishops say threaten religious liberty.
Although donors usually don’t give a reason for their contributions, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Covington both have received letters and calls from donors expressing support for the church’s opposition to the health care reform law. “Some of the faithful are feeling more of a connection to the church these days because of the beating we’re taking in the public square,” said Michael Vanderburgh, director of the archdiocese’s stewardship department. “They want to stand in solidarity with the church.”
Collections so far are running ahead of last year’s pace in both dioceses, and church officials say total donations are on target to top $4.2 million in Cincinnati and $3 million in Covington by the end of the campaigns in December. Both would be the highest since 2003. Covington has seen an increase in individual donors, from about 8,900 last year to 9,300 this year, but Cincinnati has pulled in more money with fewer donors. The number of contributors in the archdiocese is down from 33,400 to 29,600, while the average pledge is up from $116 to $135. The big push for donations is over, but the campaign runs in both dioceses for the rest of the year and additional contributions are expected to trickle in for months.
Bob Stautberg, a donor to the archdiocese’s campaign since it began in the 1970s, doubled his contribution from $500 to $1,000 this year. The Indian Hill man said tough times inspired him to give more. “With the economy the way it is, the need for what the archdiocese does is great,” he said. The fundraiser is known by different names – Cincinnati calls it the Catholic Ministries Appeal; Covington the Diocesan Parish Annual Appeal – but the money goes to similar causes in each diocese.
Catholic charities and social services, including food banks and aid to poor families, get about one-fourth of the donations. Retired priests, Catholic education programs and other causes get the rest. The dioceses already have collected about 75 percent of the money pledged, and church officials say donors historically make good on all but a small fraction of pledges. The uptick in donations is especially encouraging to church leaders because it comes at a time when Mass attendance continues to decline, both in the region and across the country. Two out of three Catholics in the Cincinnati and Covington dioceses do not regularly attend Mass.
Vanderburgh said the response to the annual fundraiser suggests dedicated Catholics are willing to do more, even if there are fewer of them in the pews. “It means people aren’t in line to jump off the ship,” he said. “It means they are faith-filled people.” He said most appear to be responding to the need they see in a difficult economy, but Vanderburgh and others said the recent flap over health care reform is having an impact, too. “I have had some feedback about the challenges the church is facing,” said Michael Murray, director of the stewardship office for the Diocese of Covington. “Because of the church being under fire, people see that. They want to support the efforts of the church.”
Catholic bishops and others have argued for months against federal rules requiring businesses and institutions to offer their employees insurance that includes birth control coverage. They say the rules infringe on religious freedom because they violate church teachings that consider birth control a sin. President Barack Obama changed the policy so it now requires employees to get birth control coverage directly from insurance companies, but the bishops rejected it as inadequate. Many priests in Ohio and Kentucky have spoken from the pulpit about the issue and conservative Catholics, in particular, have rallied to the cause.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops does not track changes in fundraising habits in America’s dioceses. But a spokeswoman said calls, emails and letters to the organization suggest that both the economy and health care reform are important issues to church leaders and lay Catholics. The increased giving also indicates Catholics angered by the church’s handling of the clergy abuse scandal may be opening their wallets again. From 2003 to 2005, the years immediately after the scandal broke; donations tumbled 20 percent or more in both dioceses and continued to fall for several more years in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
“It has quieted down quite a bit. People have forgotten a little about it,” said Dan Frondorf, who leads the Cincinnati chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “The lack of bad news has helped them.” Some say the church is doing a better job of getting out the good news, too. Luncheons, personal appeals, Internet campaigns for online donations and other outreach efforts are regularly used now to explain the fundraisers, where the money goes and how Catholics can contribute. “The need is greater,” Stautberg said. “But I also think they’re doing a better job of communicating the need.”
By Dan Horn (Cincinnati Enquirer: May. 25, 2012)