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A canonical look at Fr. Pokorsky’s idea

February 1, 2019

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky has an interesting essay over at CatholicCulture wherein he suggests “restricted donations” as a mechanism by which Catholic laity might influence pastors, and to some extent bishops, toward the good. Now to the extent that unusually bad times call for unusually creative remedies (even if only partial remedies, as Pokorsky notes), then I say, examine everything and keep what is good. Some canonical thoughts on Pokorsky’s proposal follow.

Canon law places a positive but unspecified obligation on all the faithful to support the Church financially, this, basically to the effect that Catholics need to make donations to the Church, in season and out. How, and how much, the Code leaves up to individuals, but something, sometime, is required. 1983 CIC 222 and 1260-1262

In general the Church is required to accept such donations as are offered to her (1983 CIC 1267 §§ 1-2). This is not as self-serving a rule as it might at first appear but that’s a point we need not develop now. Canon 1267 further addresses, however, some special issues regarding certain kinds of donations and it is here that Pokorsky’s proposal needs to pause. Let’s look at two considerations.

First, and less problematically, Canon 1267 § 3 states that donations “given by the faithful for a certain purpose can only be applied for that same purpose.” As Pokorsky rightly and happily notes, most donations come to the Church for her general support and are not tied to a specific project. Donations as are restricted (say, to the ‘New Roof Fund’ or the ‘Support our School’ collection) are, in my observation, duly set aside by parishes and dioceses for such projects as is morally and canonically required. While the mechanisms for handling funds when designated projects are rendered impossible by circumstances are a bit more complex than Pokorsky suggests but those unusual considerations do not detract from the main point that Pokorsky’s proposal, in this regard, besides whatever plausibility it enjoys under civil law, has good canonical support as well. His point that using civil law rules on restricted donations can advance transparency in the Church is consistent with Canon 1287 § 2. Indeed, the wider civil law concept of legally enforcing donor-restricted gifts might well have come to States from the Church! Kennedy, CLSA New Comm (2000) 1470.

But a second and more problematic issue, however, is raised when Pokorsky proposes not simply ‘restricted’ donations as understood by Canon 1267 § 3, but also ‘modal’ or ‘conditional’ donations as understood by Canon 1267 § 2 (the distinctions between ‘modal’ and ‘conditional’ gifts not being needed for present purposes). Modal-conditional gifts are notably different from restricted gifts.

Pokorsky hypothesizes a donation accompanied by the following note: “This $ 10,000 donation is to be used by Catholic Charities to feed the poor after the [b]ishop publicly denies Communion to the nominally Catholic pro-abortion governor.” Hmmm.

Such an offering is restricted in that it specifics allocation to Catholic Charities for feeding the poor—so far so good—but it is also modal-conditional in that it requires an action (here, an episcopal directive against administering holy Communion to an offending politico) that is in no way related to the work or the funding of Catholic Charities. Now, while restricted gifts in general require no special approval by the Church official receiving them (beyond a quick verification, I suppose, that the intended purpose is one served by the institution, as in, Yes, we have a grade school here), a modal-conditional offering must be approved by (lsms, per Canon 134) the local bishop prior to acceptance.

Modal-conditional gifts, especially those turning on Church governance decisions (say, a bishop deliberating whether to invoke canon law against an offending member of the faithful, a decision largely controlled by Canon 1341), are among those gifts that canonical commentators recognize could well be refused by Church officials. Kennedy, CLSA Comm (1985) 868. The very appearance of making such decisions in exchange for donations is simply too great for Church officials to countenance—this, no matter how appropriate the underlying action might be. If the Church no longer allows indulgences to be based on financial donations (and she doesn’t) because of the bad appearance of such indulgences (notwithstanding their theoretical justification), would it surprise anyone that donations conditioned on governance decisions (e.g., Here is $ 10,000, bishop, if you make Fr. Bob the pastor of All Saints Parish–a perfect fit, let’s say!) would be refused by Church officials?

In addition, modal-conditional gifts are complex enough when offered to the Church official with authority to implement the condition (as I take Pokorsky’s example to be); but they are more complex still when presented to Church officers with no authority over the observance of the condition (e.g., Here, Father, this is $ 1,000 for our parish grade school on condition that the bishop excommunicate our rotten governor.)

These issues being raised, Pokorsky’s proposal does not depend on the vindication of his Catholic Charities example and it might well stand without it. Further discussion could illuminate it. For that matter, there are other ideas floating around out there for using money to influence Church decisions which, per se at least, need scandalize no one. Whether they pass specific canonical or prudential muster, however, is another matter. Perhaps time will allow me to treat some of them in due course.

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