- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2011

DUBLIN — Ireland’s deep recession came at the worst possible time for the country’s largest Catholic Church district.

The Archdiocese of Dublin lost millions of dollars of investments in Ireland’s failed banks. Wages are soaring, and attendance is declining. The church also is paying millions of dollars in legal settlements in a widening sex scandal.

One proposed solution: Tax the remaining parishioners.

But many churchgoers in this overwhelmingly Catholic nation are grumbling over any attempt to force them to pay for what traditionally has been a voluntary donation to fund the church.

“It’s contrary to Irish culture,” said David Quinn, a religious-affairs commentator from the Iona Institute Christian think tank in Dublin.

He added that even tithing, pledging one-tenth of one’s annual income to the church, is anathema to Irish Catholics.

An internal report by the Council of Priests, the executive committee of the Dublin Archiocese, suggested that a “parish levy” could help reverse the financial crisis.

“Collections in the diocese have been decreasing in recent years,” the report said, referring to the 199 parishes under the authority of Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

“In a time of economic downturn, as well as declining participation at Sunday Mass, this is not surprising.”

The Dublin Archdiocese, the largest of 26 church districts in Ireland, invested about $14.5 million in bank shares that are now estimated at only about $43,500.

Because of a shortage of priests, the archdiocese has had to hire more costly lay members of the congregation for some nonreligious jobs once performed by the clergy, and wage costs are up 500 percent over the past decade.

Voluntary donations to the church have fallen with a decreasing attendance at Sunday Mass, and the church administration’s cash reserves have been wiped out by child-abuse settlements.

The church has paid nearly $20 million in settlements and legal fees in 172 cases against 44 priests. Fifty-five more lawsuits are pending.

“The archdiocese has to face the current serious economic reality and review what it can and cannot support financially in the coming years,” the Dublin Archdiocese said in a statement.

“It is complex situation which will require a multifaceted, considered response.”

One of the document’s proposals to relieve the financial crisis is a “parish levy,” which would require Catholic families to make regular payments to bail out the diocese.

The per-person amount of the church levy was not specified in the document, but the report said the goal would be to raise more than $4 million a year.

The Irish Catholic Church traditionally has relied on donations from congregations rather than formal tithes or a government-collected church tax like the ones imposed in Denmark, Germany, Iceland and Sweden.

“The church tax in Germany is very successful,” said Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the Irish Catholic, the independent weekly newspaper that first reported about the internal church document.

“The German Catholic Church heavily subsidizes the Vatican,” he added.

However, the German Catholic Church has faced steady attrition over the past decade, in part from parishioners trying to get out of paying the church tax.

Irish Catholics are likely to rebel against such a tax, Mr. Kelly said.

“I don’t think there’s any appetite for it now,” he said. “It would be seen as a bridge too far.”

Lorcan Price, 25, a Catholic lawyer in Dublin, added: “People in this country are fairly resistant to anything like a tax.”

He noted that Ireland is “one of the few countries in the world” that doesn’t have a property tax.

However, he added, “If you believe in the church’s spirituality, you should really put your money where your mouth is.”

Mr. Quinn of the Iona think tank agreed.

“It won’t even get off the drawing board. The diocese is going to have to look to other ideas,” he said. “Of course [believers] should pay, but the question is: Should it be voluntary or a quasi-tax.”

With the Irish church’s reputation at a new low, Mass attendance in Dublin is estimated at just 20 percent of Catholics.

The Rev. Aquinas Duffy from Dublin’s St. Pius X Church said he sees how the recession has emptied collection plates.

“In the last few years, now, it’s particularly noticeable that the income for the parish has been dropping steadily,” he said on Irish national radio.

“A lot of it, I think, is that people just don’t have it.”

Father Duffy said priests reported a 6 percent drop in their income in 2010 and that lay congregation members in “key leadership roles” had to be paid in order to ensure the church’s future.

Dublin priests contacted for this article declined to comment.

Some Catholics worry that the church will cut back on social programs as a result of its dire financial troubles.

“There are a lot of worthy Dublin Diocese projects - social outreach, food kitchens - and that may come under pressure,” said Mr. Price. “The church also has elderly clergy to take care of.”

Dublin resident and parishioner Paddy Monaghan said the church should look for other ways to raise money.

“I think there’s a lot of [church] property in Dublin,” he said. “There are things that can be done without asking parishioners for more.”