Coronavirus lockdown leaves Catholic priests struggling for funds
CNA Staff, Aug 27, 2020 / 05:00 am (CNA).- Catholic priests in England are struggling to make ends meet following a drop in income caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Clergy who applied to a U.K. government scheme for financial support were turned down on what they believe is a technicality.
Their financial problems began soon after the government imposed a nationwide lockdown in March to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has killed 41,552 people in the U.K. as of Aug. 27, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Traditionally offertory collections taken at Easter and Christmas Masses help to support parish priests throughout the year. But churches across the country remained closed for Easter.
Fr. Kevin Hooper, pastor of the Catholic Parish of Kenilworth in Warwickshire, in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, told CNA: “One of the strangest moments in my priestly ministry was doing the Easter Vigil all on my own in an empty church. That meant of course that collections weren’t taken. Whatever came in, came in through greetings cards at Easter from parishioners, which certainly wasn’t the same as having the normal Easter offering. So obviously things suffered there.”
“And then people haven’t been coming to Mass, and so the traditional requesting of Mass intentions with an offering hasn’t happened. And then of course all my marriages have been postponed to next year. There hasn’t been a baptism in the parish yet this year.”
Due to restrictions on funeral rites, some parishes have not received the normal level of donations associated with funerals as a result of the pandemic.
Hooper’s income was restricted to the modest living allowance that priests are permitted to take from the parish.
“Everything else really came to a grinding halt,” he said.
When the government launched a financial support scheme to help the self-employed weather the coronavirus crisis, Hooper applied for it. But his application was rejected.
When he questioned the decision, he was told that the scheme was only open to those who were both self-employed and trading.
Hooper said that he was fortunate to be able to resort to his personal savings. But he worried that priests in poor parishes might struggle to support themselves.
Hooper’s experience highlights the complex position of Catholic priests under U.K tax law. For the purposes of National Insurance, a mandatory contribution allowing workers to qualify for certain benefits and the state pension, priests are classified as self-employed earners. But clergy are regarded as office holders for income tax purposes, meaning that any remuneration they receive is taxable as general earnings.
The treasurer of Birmingham archdiocese wrote to HM Revenue and Customs, the U.K tax authority, in June asking it to reassess priests’ exclusion from the scheme.
Bernard Cooper, clergy welfare coordinator of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, told CNA: “If a priest comes to me saying, ‘I’ve got no money. I can’t manage,’ it’s vital that even in the poorest parish, with no income, that the parish finances must reflect the support of its priest.”
“So in those extreme cases the diocese is basically having to increase the overdraft of the parish, obviously guaranteed by the diocese, to enable the priest to draw some money to live on. Most priests are extremely reluctant to do that. They don’t like drawing money from the parish account if the parish ain’t got the money.”
“A secular priest, a diocesan priest, does not have the vow of poverty. The perception that priests have -- and the perception that the faithful, the lay people, have -- is that a priest is poor and should be seen to be poor and not put himself in a better position than his own congregation.”
Cooper added that applying for Universal Credit, a benefit payment for people on a low income or out of work, did not appear to be an option for priests.
“They are just sort of left high and dry,” he said, adding that he hoped the tax authority would resolve the matter in priests’ favor.
The situation for clergy in England appears to vary considerably from diocese to diocese.
The Diocese of Leeds, for example, paid a living allowance directly into priests’ bank accounts to help them through lockdown.
A spokeswoman for the diocese said: “Some priests had expressed their concern about how they would manage in that time of uncertainty; others had no worries. But to ensure all were treated equally and could feel financially secure and supported -- and crucially to prevent any priest being tempted to disadvantage himself and ‘go without’ -- the allowance was paid to all priests.”
The diocesan finance department also made a further allowance available to cover the lost Easter offering.
Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, pastor of St. Peter’s, Hove, a seaside town in East Sussex, told CNA that he had received similar financial support in his Diocese of Arundel and Brighton.
“Much to my surprise, the Mass intentions held up,” he said, explaining that parishioners continued to drop off Mass offerings in envelopes throughout the lockdown.
He added that since public Masses were permitted to resume in July, Mass attendance was around half of what it was before the crisis.
“The interesting thing is, our finance committee met and, as it turns out, even though our congregation has gone down a lot, our takings have not gone down correspondingly. They’re not as catastrophic as you would expect. So what this points to is that those who gave a lot have come back,” he said.