Grace Is Free, But Not All Fees Are Simony

Here's welcome news: the diocese of Pittsburgh has joined the list of those who will not charge for annulments. According to the Star-Tribune (h/t Deacon's Bench

 The fees [for annulments] in the six-county diocese ranged from $50 to $650 depending on the complexity of the case, said the Rev. Thomas Kunz.

In some dioceses, the fee are even higher.  Pittsburgh's Bishop Zubik said,

"My hope is that this decision will enable many people to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church."

Catholics are rightly pleased at this development. The expense of obtaining a decree of nullity makes it difficult for some people to come into full communion with the Church. When annulments are expensive, there is also the risk that outsiders (or even Catholics) perceive that annulment is just "Catholic divorce," for sale to parishioners with enough ready cash. 

But here's the problem: it really does cost money to do it right. It would not serve anyone well to make the process of annulment quick and perfunctory (and therefore cheap). Spiritual and psychological experts are specially trained to do this work, and their time and expertise is not free, and neither is clerical work. Some logistical expenses simply can't be avoided. No one should be denied the services of the Church; but someone has to foot the bill. If a diocese can find room in its budget, that's wonderful! But what if it can't?

This same dilemma exists when a parish charges a fee for baptisms, weddings, or funerals, or requires first communicants or confirmation students to take a class that costs money. It looks an awful lot like the Church is charging money for the sacraments. Every parish should work hard to avoid the appearance of simony; but all the same,the parish has to pay its mortgage, its electric and heating bill. It has to pay organists and secretaries and janitors, it has to pay for insurance and supplies, and even priests need to eat and put gas in their cars. So while it may feel weird to write a check for some spiritual thing, spiritual realities do not make bills disappear. Volunteers can only do so much, and scholarships have to be funded by someone.

Some parishes are wealthy, and really can afford to offer their services for free. Whenever this is possible, it should be the policy. There are enough roadblocks in the way of grace; money, or the perception of corruption, should never be one of them.  It can be horribly damaging to a layman's faith to hear that a parish has enough money for lavish buildings and events, but cannot manage to share sanctifying grace without issuing a bill. 

But many, many parishes are not wealthy. Many struggle, week to week, to cover basic expenses. They fully understand that their mission is to bring Christ's salvation to the world, but they cannot do this effectively if they have no money.

So I have to ask myself: if I'm offended at the idea of my parish charging fees, what am I doing to help them balance their budget?  Not everyone is able to tithe or to donate time or other services.  But maybe increase the weekly donation by $5? Or even make a firm commitment to donate faithfully every week, instead of once in a while when we happen to have cash? For a small parish, that would make a significant difference.  

It really is an obligation. The fifth of the five precepts of the Church says, "You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church. According to the Catechism, this means that

the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.

It is up to us to decide how able we are to assist with those material needs, and how exactly we want to assist: with donations of money, time, service, or other kinds of help. But we should regularly revisit the idea of this obligation, and ask ourselves how generously we are supporting what is, after all, our church. At very least, we shouldn't complain when our parish is simply trying to balance its books.