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Acton Institute Powerblog

A bait and switch at Peter’s Pence?

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The Wall Street Journal’s recent article on the Vatican’s main charitable appeal landed like a bombshell this week. And it didn’t help that we’re in the midst of the holiday giving season. The Roman Catholic Church conducts an annual collection known as Peter’s Pence, which is touted as supporting mercy ministries and serving those most in need. Shockingly, the Journal has reported that for at least the last five years “as little as 10%” of the approximately $55 million raised annually through this popular appeal has actually gone towards charitable work. The rest has gone “toward plugging the hole in the Vatican’s own administrative budget.”

Interestingly, the Journal goes on to explain that this is permissible. “Under church law, Peter’s Pence is available to the pope to use at his discretion in any way that serves his ministry, including the support of his administration,” the paper reports. Indeed, the website for Peter’s Pence mentions that receipts from the collection “also contributes to the support of the Apostolic See and the activities of the Holy See,” which “consists of the central administration of the Catholic Church and the papal diplomatic network around the world.”

That’s probably news to most people who have donated. People who have given to the collection, at least through the Peter’s Pence website, would rightly be confused and outraged that the vast majority of their money was going to administrative purposes. With the preponderance of the language and images used on the site emphasizing its charitable dimensions, one would safely assume they were giving exclusively to the vulnerable.

But it’s not just the popular collection’s website that states charity is the main purpose of the funds. The Journal’s article also mentions that:

Local church leaders echo the Vatican’s line when soliciting contributions. According to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “The purpose of the Peter’s Pence Collection is to provide the Holy Father with the financial means to respond to those who are suffering as a result of war, oppression, natural disaster and disease.”

Given the great disparity between how it is marketed and what the vast majority of the collection is actually used for, Vatican officials have a great deal of explaining to do. People understand that administrative costs are necessary to running churches and charitable organizations. The popular charity accountability organization known as Charity Navigator states that no more than 15 percent of a charity’s revenue going toward administrative costs is acceptable. With 90 percent of its collections used for administrative costs, however, Peter’s Pence falls far short of this ideal.

News like this undoubtedly discourages giving towards charitable causes. It may cause others to swear off giving at all. We must be diligent in who we give to and hold those organizations accountable. This is especially true of our churches, whose actions serve to either exalt or diminish the name of our Savior in popular culture.

While we need to scrutinize organizations more carefully before giving to them, this should not completely stop us from doing so. There are still plenty of causes and organizations worthy of supporting sacrificially. As we consider this Christmas season what our Heavenly Father gave us through the Christ child, and what Christ Himself gave up in order to dwell among us, we can do nothing less.

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Andrew Vanderput

is the Poverty Initiatives Manager at the Acton Institute where he promotes business and enterprise solutions to material poverty. Andrew comes from a diverse background in public policy, nonprofits focused on international poverty, marketing, and consulting.