Windfall danger


There should be a danger sign printed on our money. While useful as a store of value, it tends to make us a little crazy. There is good reason for proverbs like “A fool and his money are soon parted,” and “Love of money is the root of all evil.”
Jesus wasn’t just making a suggestion when he said we can’t serve both God and Mammon, meaning pursuit of the material wealth that money represents. He was stating a truth of human integrity: we can’t have both a grasping and a giving heart. One or the other will rule.
Sometimes we don’t know what money really means to us until it comes as a surprise, a windfall. Our neighbors in the Des Moines Diocese have been working to regain their balance after one of those surprises: a more than $13 million gift to 13 parishes from farmer Edwin “Bud” Skalla.
This isn’t New York, Chicago or Los Angeles we’re talking about, where money like that is more common. This is small town and rural southwestern Iowa. The land itself is valuable but we don’t often get its value turned into cash spread across so many little parishes. As that is happening to our neighbors, we see how hard it is to negotiate two essential values of community: unity and subsidiarity, or the need of constituent parts in a society to fulfill their own common good as far as possible.
While Des Moines Bishop Richard Pates tries to do his duty for unity, many members of the parishes are fierce watchdogs for subsidiarity. The result is high tension. Of course. Money, unexpected big money, is involved.
The bishop said he had been asked to offer some guidance to those 13 parishes. So he suggested that they use a diocesan common fund, which his diocese calls The Catholic Foundation of Southwest Iowa. It pools parish surpluses and endowments for efficiency in administration and investment costs while each parish retains control of its portion. These diocesan savings and investment funds also tend to help the cause of transparency across the culture of Catholic giving and spending.
Some people saw in that suggestion a money “grab” by the bishop. In his initial letter to the parishes, Bishop Pates had also suggested that part of the windfall money go into funds that support diocesan-wide needs, such as the formation and support of priests. That could possibly be called a “grab” by the bishop, since misunderstanding is always possible. But for some, there is no misunderstanding.
They feel a fierce sense of ownership in that money. It’s theirs, and they get to control it absolutely. Any sharing is done with reluctance and suspicion. It’s the well-known American individualist attitude of suspicion toward “government,” whether that government is secular or religious. We think we know better how to use our money, all of it, than any bureaucrat in Washington or the bishop’s chancery in Des Moines.
Bishop Pates has to work for what his whole diocese needs. He also has to hope that every Catholic in the diocese shares his concern for the whole. We think that the people affected by Bud Skalla’s gift will get their balance and figure out fair ways to share their windfall. It’s the Catholic way.
The rugged individualist is an American mythic figure of the frontier imagination which has no place in Christian thought or culture. The myth is cynically used in our politics to weaken the bonds of community while allowing a rule of selfishness and greed. One of our most important roles as a Catholic community is to demonstrate the better way that sees all life as gift, and gratefully shares.
Frank Wessling

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