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Church Maintenance

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The proper support of church edifices and church institutions, as well as of the clergy who minister in them, has always been both a necessity and a problem. As the Church of Christ is a visible organization, it must embrace a visible priesthood, worship, and temples. These must be maintained. As a consequence, the Church must acquire property both movable and immovable, and this she cannot obtain without a corresponding generosity on the part of the faithful. To pretend that the Church should be utterly deprived of property, is not only an error, but also an absurdity. In the Old Dispensation, the Jewish priesthood were put in possession of certain towns all through Israel, and by the Mosaic Law they received a portion of various sacrifices offered in the Temple. The magnificent Temple itself was a gift of the kings of Israel, and its maintenance was provided for partly by royal munificence, partly by the offerings of the people. The Temple had its treasury or corbona. By Divine command, as we read in Scripture, the Aaronic clergy received firstfruits, tithes, and other contributions towards their support.

Apostolic times

Nor was there less recognition of the general principle in the New Testament. We are told that Christ and His Apostles had a common purse for the defraying of their expenses. That this information comes to us only incidentally, through the narration of an event bearing no direct relation to it, shows that the Evangelist presumes the reader to take it for granted that there was a common purse for the expenses of Christ and His disciples. The Acts of the Apostles portray to us the fervour of the first Christians, who sold their lands and laid their proceeds at the feet of the Apostles that they might employ them for the needs of the nascent Church. Along with the support of the poor and the widow and the orphan, would also necessarily be included the sustentation of the clergy and the defraying of the expenses connected with the worship of God. Christ in sending forth His disciples to preach told them to accept what was necessary for their support from the people to whom they ministered, basing it on the general principle that the labourer is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7); Saint Paul states (1 Corinthians 9) that it is Christ's command that the faithful give temporal sustenance to the clergy. While reminding the Corinthians that he himself has been no charge or burden to them, he takes occasion to inculcate on them the duty of supporting their pastors. "If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great matter if we reap your carnal things? Know you not that they who work in the holy place, eat the things that are of the place; and that they that serve the altar, partake with the altar? So also the Lord ordained that they who preach the Gospel, should live by the Gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:11, 13-14).

Connected with this contribution towards the support of the clergy, we find Saint Paul also alluding to the similar duty of helping the poor. In the fifteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans he states that contributions had been made in Macedonia and Achaia for the support of the poor in Jerusalem, and that he is on his way to that city to bring the contributed relief (Romans 15:25-28). In like manner (1 Timothy 5) he speaks of the Church supporting the widows. The Apostles in fact, as we learn from the Acts, charged the deacons with the ministry to the temporal wants of the poor. The Church has always been mindful of this conjoining of the support of the clergy and of church institutions with that of the poor and suffering, and hence the regulations for setting apart some of the income of holders of benefices and the employment of church moneys for the relief of the helpless and the indigent, the widows, the orphans, and the sick.

The early Church

From the beginnings of the Christian Church history, as we gather it from the Fathers and early ecclesiastical writers, the faithful made voluntary offerings to defray the expenses of Divine worship and to support the clergy and the poor. Though these offerings would naturally be for the most part in money and in kind, yet we find also property set aside for ecclesiastical purposes. Thus the Christian cemeteries or catacombs and the "titles" or houses where Mass was offered seem very early, even in the lifetime of the Apostles, to have become consecrated to church uses. That in the course of time they passed into the possession of the Church, and became church property in the modern sense of the term, is evident from various edicts and decrees of the Roman Emperors, as, for example, of Aurelian and Constantine. These show conclusively that, even in the times of persecution by pagan rulers, the Church had lands and edifices of various kinds in its possession. Nor was this state of things confined to the city of Rome, but it was practised and recognized all over the Roman Empire.

The endowed Church

When peace was given to the Church by Constantine, at the beginning of the fourth century, an era of temporal prosperity for the Church set in. As the Empire gradually became Christian, the donations for religious purposes increased by leaps and bounds. Constantine himself set an example for the Christian rulers who followed him, when he bestowed upon the pope the Lateran palace and erected magnificent basilicas in honour of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Henceforth the civil power, which had been formerly adverse to the Church, became its protector. Gifts of money and land for ecclesiastical purposes were now legally recognized, and though some of the later Roman emperors placed restrictions upon the donations of the faithful, yet the wealth of the Church rapidly increased. Whatever losses ecclesiastical property suffered by the inroads of the barbarians on the fall of the Western Roman Empire, in the last quarter of the fifth century, were made up for later, when the conquering barbarians in their turn were converted to Christianity. Edifices for Divine worship, asylums for the poor and sick, monasteries and nunneries, universities and schools, cathedral and collegiate churches, chantries and preceptories, were founded and endowed in great numbers. The spirit of faith manifested itself in conferring on the Church the means for adding becoming splendour to the celebration of Divine worship and for founding benefices to support the clergy. The bitter complaint made, after the so-called Reformation, that "under the papacy giving had no end" was true to a surprising extent. Landed property became as a rule the title for the ordination of clerics. A great advantage of this system was that the clergy were not obliged to make constant demands on their flocks for the means of livelihood or to sustain worship; and only those who felt impelled to give voluntarily were looked to for offerings. It is true that the Church always insisted on the Divine law that the faithful must support their pastors, yet this support was generally provided for by perpetual foundations, not dependent on the temporary generosity of the people. The wealth of the Church at this period has sometimes been made a matter of reproach to her, but while freely admitting that abuses were possible and indeed at times unquestionable, yet this was in contravention of the laws of the Church. It was never the Church's intention that her clergy should acquire property or income for the purpose of leading an indulgent or luxurious life. The saying of Saint Ambrose that the Church has wealth not in order to hoard it, but to bestow it on those who are in need of it, was always recognized as a bounden duty. Hence the canonical restrictions placed upon the holder of a benefice in the employment of his income, and the duty imposed upon him of setting aside part of it for the poor. It must not be forgotten that when the Church was wealthiest, it covered Europe with asylums and places of refuge for every form of poverty and distress, and that the great landed monasteries were also noted for their hospitality to pilgrims, their generosity to the indigent, and their zeal for education. It is also noteworthy that despite the calamitous usurpations of the civil power in many countries, which reduced the clergy to comparative indigence, yet the fervour of vocations has never been chilled by the loss of endowments and pensions. The canon law contains many severe regulations against avarice and simony in the clergy. As this is not a technical treatment of the question of church property, nothing is here said specially of the laws governing its acquisition, administration, and alienation; neither, for the same reason, do we enter into any detail concerning the regulations made for benefices and those who hold them. It is intended merely to point out, in general, the temporal means and the sources of support of ecclesiastical institutions and of the clergy during the course of the Church's history. The rapacities of Governments and the violence of revolutions have torn from the Church many of her endowments in most countries of Europe, and all of them in some. In such cases the clergy must again, as in the earliest times, look to the direct generosity of the faithful for their support and for the means of carrying on the liturgical and benevolent institutions of the Church.

Missionary countries

It is particularly in countries where the Church has never been endowed and established, and in those where all such advantages have been entirely withdrawn from her, that the problem of Church maintenance must be faced in all its nakedness. To show what means have been employed to solve this difficult problem, and likewise to give some appreciation of the generosity of the not over-wealthy faithful on the one hand and of the care of ecclesiastical rulers to avoid abuses on the other, it will be well to chronicle the decrees of various synods in countries where church maintenance is a burning question. The synods, first of all, insist on the fact that the faithful are bound by the Divine law to support the clergy who are their spiritual guides. The First Synod of Baltimore in 1791 declares: "Owing to the increasing number of Catholics dispersed over widely-separated tracts of the United States, there is need of a much larger number than formerly of labourers in the Lord's vineyard, and these cannot be obtained or supported unless the means be given by the faithful, as indeed they are bound by Divine precept to give them, for the Apostle says that it is but just that those who sow spiritual things for others should reap of the latter's carnal things (1 Corinthians 9:11). Therefore the faithful should be frequently reminded of this obligation, and if they do not satisfy it, they have only themselves to blame if they cannot have Mass on Sundays or feast days nor obtain the sacraments in their extreme necessities. Consequently, when in proportion to the worldly goods with which God has endowed them, they refuse to contribute to the ministry of salvation, and so do not satisfy the Divine and ecclesiastical precept through their own fault, let them know that they are in a state of sin and unworthy of obtaining reconciliation in the tribunal of penance; and moreover that they will have to give an account to God, not only for their own sins, but also for the dense ignorance and vices of the poor who on account of the miserable parsimony of the richer people are entirely deprived of Christian instruction. In order therefore that what is done in other parts of the Christian world should have a beginning among us, we have made decrees concerning the offerings of the faithful" (Decr. 23). The Fathers give these regulations concerning the contributions: "The offerings according to the ancient custom of the Church, are to be divided into three parts if it be necessary; so that one part may be applied to the support of the priest, one to the relief of the poor, and one for obtaining such things as are necessary for the Divine worship and the church fabric. If provision has already been made from other sources for the sustentation of the ministers of the sanctuary and for the relief of the indigent, then all the offerings should be used for procuring sacred vessels and other things necessary for the Divine service, for repairing the churches or for building new ones" (Decr. 7). In 1837, the Fathers of the Third Provincial Council of Baltimore say: "Lest priests be forced to beg or suffer such penury as is unbecoming to their sacred order, we exhort the bishops to admonish the faithful of their duty to supply a proper sustenance for those especially who labour in word and doctrine among them. And if on account of sickness or other cause they be not able to fulfil their sacred ministry, lest affliction be added to affliction, let what is necessary be supplied to them by the faithful to whom they have ministered. If the congregation be too poor to do so, we exhort the bishops to use all the means in their power to arouse the charity of other priests and other congregations in their behalf" (Decr. 2). The Third Provincial Council of Cincinnati, in 1861, declares: "Treating of the proper support of the pastor, the Fathers unanimously agreed that the faithful are bound under grave sin to give him sustenance; but that the pastor on his side, if called to assist a dying person who has refused to fulfil this duty though able to do so, is also bound under grave sin to visit him, on account of the serious obligation of charity towards a dying man placed in extreme necessity." In England, we find the following in the First Provincial Council of Westminster, held in the year 1855: "As the duty of paying tithes does not exist among us, let the faithful be warned that they are not freed thereby from the obligation of providing for Divine worship and for the proper support of the sacred ministers" (Decr. 4). "The faithful who through devotion or for any other cause do not frequent the quasi-parochial church or missionary to whom by domicile they are assigned, should not imagine themselves to be freed from the obligation of assisting the church and supporting their pastors. They should also be as solicitous as those who attend their proper church for relieving the misery of the poor and for educating the young. Therefore, by alms giving according to their means, let them strengthen their legitimate pastors who must sustain the burden and heat of the day in cultivating the vineyard of the Lord" (Decr. 5). The payment of tithes is declared to be binding on the faithful of the Canadian Province of Quebec by the Fourth Provincial Council, in 1868: "As the error has crept into many minds that tithes and other debts which are paid to the Church or her ministers for their support and to enable them to fulfil their duties towards the faithful of whom they have spiritual charge, are to be paid only through force of civil law, and that the obligation of giving them does not arise from any other source, in order that this error be entirely corrected and completely removed, we consider it opportune to declare and decree that this obligation is derived specially from the laws which the Church herself has made or can make independently of the civil law; and that it pertains to the bishop of each diocese to impose precepts concerning this matter upon the faithful, as necessity shall require, and taking into consideration circumstances of persons and places. Wherefore if it seems just and opportune to the bishop to demand a tax, defined with proper moderation, of the faithful of any place, whether the civil law there prescribes or does not prescribe the paying of tithes, let each of them pay it to the priest to whom under any title belongs the duty of ministering to their spiritual needs. There can be no doubt that the faithful of that place severally are bound in justice and conscience to pay this tax, and anyone who refuses is to be visited with penalties according to the circumstances. What has been said of the obligation on the faithful of supporting their pastors is also to be held concerning the building and the reparation of temples and churches, namely that it binds the conscience of the faithful" (Decr. 16). In Ireland, the Third Provincial Council of Tuam, in 1858, treats also of tithes: "in collecting the offerings of the faithful, who emulating the first Christians and even the Hebrews are accustomed to contribute the first-fruits of grain and other products to parish priests and vicars as to the ministers of God, we ordain that no more be demanded than what is offered spontaneously and voluntarily. Reproaches against those who may perchance show themselves less liberal, are to be avoided under pain of suspension" (cap. xvii, 1).

Blessings of giving

The truth that it is more blessed to give than to receive is also insisted on by the synods. Speaking of contributions for the education of candidates for the priesthood, the pastoral letter of the Fifth Provincial Council of Baltimore (1843) says: "It is by placing the ecclesiastical institutions in the respective dioceses on solid foundations, that you will secure for yourselves and your children the perpetuity of the blessings wherewith it has pleased God to enrich you in Christ Jesus. Those to whom the wealth of this world has been given, cannot better employ a portion of it than in providing for the education of ministers of the altar. We are far, however, from meaning to undervalue the offerings which faith may inspire for the erection of temples to the glory of God, or charity may present for the clothing and maintenance of the orphan. We exhort you brethren to follow the impulse of the Holy Ghost in the various good works for which your charitable co-operation is solicited, and to remember in the day of your abundance, that whatever you set apart to the glory of God, in the exercise of charity, is so much secured against the caprice of fortune. 'Be not then high-minded, nor hope in uncertain riches, but in the living God (who giveth us abundantly, all things to enjoy), do good, be rich in good works, distribute readily, communicate, lay up in store for yourselves a good foundation against the time to come, that you may obtain true life" (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Again the Fathers of the Sixth Provincial Council (in 1846) write: "On you it depends to give, especially to those who labour in word and doctrine, that support which will leave them without solicitude for the things of this world, that they may wholly apply themselves to the exercise of the holy ministry. We beseech you, brethren, to know them who labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you, that you may esteem them more abundantly in charity for their work's sake. To you we look for means to educate youth for the ecclesiastical state, that when fully instructed in the duties of their holy vocation, and trained in discipline, they may become fit ministers of the Church, and adorn it by their piety and zeal, as well as by their talents. You should aid in the erection of the temples in which you and your children are to worship, and see that the house of God be not unworthy of the sublime functions which are to be performed in it. Of the worldly goods which God has bestowed on you, you should set apart a reasonable portion to be specially devoted to His glory; and you should rejoice at the opportunity thus afforded you to manifest your gratitude for His benefits." The Fathers of the First Plenary Council of Baltimore (1852) joyfully acknowledged the generosity of the faithful: "The wants of the Church in this vast country so rapidly advancing in population and prosperity, impose on us, your pastors, and on you, our children in Christ, peculiar and very arduous duties. We have not only to build up the Church, by the preaching of the Gospel, and the inculcation of all the virtues it teaches, but also to supply the material wants of religious worship in proportion to the unexampled rapidity with which our flocks increase. We have to establish missions in places where, but a few years since, none or but few Catholics were to be found, and where now the children of the Church cry with clamorous importunity for the bread of life. We have to build the Church, where before God's name was not publicly worshipped; and to multiply His temples where they no longer suffice for the constantly increasing wants of the faithful. We have to provide a ministry for the present and future wants of the country, and in this matter we have to contend with difficulties which are unknown in countries where religion has been long established, and where the piety and zeal of past generations have furnished ample means for this most important object. We have to provide for the Catholic education of our youth. We have not only to erect and maintain the church, the seminary and the schoolhouse, but we have to found hospitals, establish orphanages, and provide for every want of suffering humanity, which religion forbids us to neglect. We thank the Giver of all good gifts for the extraordinary benediction which He has hitherto bestowed upon our efforts, and those of the venerable men whose places we fill. We rejoice at having the opportunity of bearing public testimony to the generous assistance which we have received from our flocks in our respective dioceses. Much however as has been done, much still remains to be accomplished. Our churches are nowhere equal to the wants of the Catholic population, and, in many places, are far from being sufficiently spacious to afford one-half of our people the opportunity of attending Divine worship. We therefore exhort you, brethren, to co-operate generously and cheerfully with your pastors, when they appeal to you in behalf of works of charity and religious zeal. In contributing to Divine worship, you make an offering to God of the gifts He has bestowed on you, and a portion of which He requires should be consecrated to His service, as a testimony of your continued dependence on His sovereign mercy. We hope that the example of your Catholic forefathers, and even of some among yourselves, will be generally felt and not infrequently imitated; and that here as well as elsewhere, the Church will be able to show the proofs of her children's faith in the numerous temples raised to the honour of God's name, in the beauty of His sanctuary which the true Christian will ever love, and in the ample and permanent provision made for the maintenance of public worship."

Restrictions on the clergy

While vigorously insisting on the duty of giving on the part of the laity, the Church demands on the part of the clergy that moderation and prudence be exercised and that abuses be avoided. The First Synod of Baltimore, in 1791, warns priests to avoid "all appearance of avarice or simony". In the Canadian Council of Halifax, in 1857 (Prov. I), it is decreed: "In the administration of the Sacraments care must be taken lest anything be done that savours of the horrible crime of simony or avarice or filthy lucre, and the Sacraments must never be denied to any one under the pretext that he has not made the customary offerings. If any priest acts otherwise, he is an unfaithful dispenser, he makes light of the ministry of Christ, he scandalizes the little ones; and Such a delinquent should know that he may be severely punished according to the judgment of the ordinary" (Decr. 4). The Plenary Synod of Ireland, at Thurles in 1850, contains a similar decree (Decr. 5): "In the offerings made by ancient and received usage in the administration of certain sacraments, let the parish priests beware lest anything be done that may savour of simony or avarice. Let the sacraments never be denied under the pretext that offerings have not been made; otherwise the delinquents may be disciplined according to the bishop's judgment." The following decree (14) is found in the statutes of the First Provincial Council of Westminster (1855): "Where the custom obtains (which is indeed ancient in England), of giving presents to individual priests at Easter and Christmas, such offerings belong to them. But let every priest be on his guard lest he fall under suspicion of receiving anything in view of the sacrament of penance administered by him." In 1854, the First Council of the Colonies of England, Holland and Denmark passed the following decree (Art. vii, 2): "Let every ordinary determine the stipend for Masses and for everything else that may be accepted from the faithful in ecclesiastical functions, an let no priest infringe this decree under any circumstances, nor ever let them think that they are allowed to deny the sacraments to those who, on account of their poverty, make no contributions. Let the bishops keep before their eyes these words of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXII): 'Let them prohibit absolutely those importunate and illiberal exactions of alms (for they are exactions rather than requests) and other similar things, which are not far removed from simoniacal guilt or the disgrace of seeking after lucre.'" The authority of the bishop is needed for unusual demands on the faithful. Thus the Second Provincial Council of Tuam (1854): "It is not permitted to any parish priest or ecclesiastical person or layman to make an extraordinary collection for any object whatever, unless the license of the bishop has been asked and obtained" (Decr. 6). In Australia, the Second Provincial Council of 1869 makes a similar precept (No. xii): "We prohibit any collection under any title or pretext, without the permission of the ordinary." English bishops enter into greater details (II Prov. Westmin.): "Every one seeking alms from the faithful must have the autograph of the ordinary or of his own superior declaring the object of the collection, and the license of the bishop of the place where he collects, under the condition expressed in his letters that he is obliged to render an accurate account to the bishop or to his superior of all the money collected by him and stating explicitly where he obtained it, what persons contributed it, and how long he remained in each place" (Decr. 21). In regard to stipends, the Second Provincial Council of Quebec decrees: "Lest parish priests and rectors of churches fall under suspicion or acquire a bad reputation among their flocks, let them carefully distinguish their own rights from those of their churches; nor may they change the tariff for ecclesiastical functions without the approbation of the bishop, nor may they take anything as their own, except such things as the diocesan law or approved custom ascribes to them" (Art. xvi, § 2, 8). Pope Gregory XVI, writing to the Vicar Apostolic of Gibraltar, in 1841, declared: "As to what pertains to the administration of the sacraments, let it be your care to admonish the faithful subject to you, that these Divine gifts are not to be received for any earthly price; but that they are to be distributed gratis by the ministers of God who have received them gratis; nor can any probable custom contrary to the canon law (against simony) be pretended, for the purpose of asking money on the occasion of the administration of the sacraments, when this has been rightly forbidden by you or the Congregation of the Propaganda by faculties received from us for the preservation of the sanctity of the sacraments." The people are also warned against improper means for obtaining money for charitable purposes. The Pastoral Letter of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866) says: "We warn our people most solemnly against the great abuses which have sprung up in the matter of fairs, excursions and picnics, in which, as too often conducted, the name of charity is made to cover a multitude of sins. We forbid all Catholics from having anything to do with them except when managed in accordance with the regulations of the ordinary, and under the immediate supervision of their respective pastors." Certain abuses are sternly censured by the American bishops (II Plen. Balt.): "It is reported, and we have learned it with great sorrow, that there are some priests in certain localities who during the Mass itself descend from the altar and go around in the church asking alms of the faithful. We reprobate, and command the extirpation of this most disgraceful abuse, which is injurious to the Church and its sacred rites, and which provokes the derision and contempt of non-Catholics. Concerning this matter we lay the burden on the conscience of each of the bishops" (tit. vi, cap. i). Again in the same chapter the Fathers say: "We cannot but declare that it is an intolerable abuse and a profanation of holy things, when, as has often happened, public and frequent invitations to give alms for the foundation [of Masses] are inserted for many months together in public newspapers among profane business notices. We desire the bishops, and [regular] prelates to destroy this abuse without delay and prevent it in the future." Likewise when treating of pew-rent, the synods decree that certain seats must be left free, nor can the pastor diminish the free space without the knowledge of the bishop (e.g. II Prov. Westmin., viii). As to collecting money at church entrances when the Sacred Mysteries are celebrated, the Congregation of the Propaganda, writing to the American bishops in 1882 and again in 1866, declared that this practice was contrary to the desires of the sovereign pontiff.

Ways and means

The principal methods of obtaining money for the support of the clergy and church institutions, have been already touched on. We may summarize the main ones here. For England the Second Provincial Council of Westminster (viii, De. bon. eccl.) enumerates: pew-rent, collections during Mass, seat money, alms contributed on the occasion of a sermon by a distinguished preacher, and house-to-house collections. In the United States, the same methods are employed. In some parts of Canada, tithes are payable, and the Third Provincial Council of Quebec (No. ix) decreed for Upper Canada that a certain sum should be required of each of the faithful, to be computed on the basis of the civil assessment roll. In addition to the above, priests may accept fixed stipends for Masses, and although they may not demand money for the administration of the sacraments, yet they can receive what is spontaneously offered at baptisms, marriages, funerals, etc. The poor are to be buried gratis (II Plen. Balt., c. ii). No offering may be received for confession (II Prov. Westmin., viii, 14). Nor is any money to be asked for conferring extreme unction (Syn. Plen. Thurles for Ireland, xv). For the pastor and his assistants, a definite salary is usually fixed, payable out of the revenues of the parish (III Plen. Balt., No. 273). To distinguish between parochial goods and sacerdotal perquisites, the following rule is given: When the things offered are adapted for ecclesiastical purposes, they are presumed to be given to the church; when they are for personal use, they are supposed to be given to the pastor. The latter rule applies also to sacred objects if they are presented by the congregation to a particular priest, expressly as a token of gratitude and affection.


The decrees of synods cited in this article may be found in the Acta et Decreta S. Conc. Recentiorum: Collectio Lacensis (Freiburg im Br., 1875). III, with the exception of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (Baltimore, 1886).

About this page

APA citation. Fanning, W. (1908). Church Maintenance. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fanning, William. "Church Maintenance." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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