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Mass Stipends and Simony

If selling sacred things is a sin, then how can priests accept stipends to say Masses?

Jimmy Akin

If you look at the bulletin for a typical Catholic parish, you’re likely to see a schedule of upcoming Masses along with notes for “Mass intentions,” like “for the holy souls in purgatory,” “pro populo,” “the Brown family,” “John and Jane Smith,” etc.

Some of these are straightforward. If the Mass intention is for the holy souls in purgatory, that means that the priest will intend to apply the spiritual benefits of the Mass in a special way to these souls.

Similarly, in Latin, pro populo means “for the people,” and so that Mass will be intended to benefit the people—meaning the people of the parish.

But what about Mass intentions for “the Brown family” or “John and Jane Smith”? Obviously, the Masses are intended for the benefit of the named individuals, but why do they rank? Why do they get Masses celebrated for their benefit?

The answer is that they asked. At some point, they spoke to the priest (or called the parish office), said that they’d like to have a Mass celebrated for their intentions, and got put on the schedule.

You can do the same thing!

But there’s something else that they likely did, which was to offer what’s known as a Mass offering or stipend. This is a sum of money that is given to the priest who celebrates the Mass.

At this point, your spider sense make go off. You may be wondering, “Money? For a Mass? Is this some clever device to extract money from the faithful? Is it a form of clerical abuse of the laity? And since the Mass is a sacred thing, is this the sin of simony?”

As we’ll see, the answer to these questions is no—at least, not unless a priest is breaking the law.

The Gospels record Jesus making statements that exist in tension with each other. For example, as Jesus is sending out the Twelve on a preaching mission, he tells them not to take a bunch of supplies with them, because “the laborer deserves his food” (Matt. 10:10). Luke’s parallel passage has “the laborer deserves his wages” (10:7).

Passages like this indicate that ministers of the Gospel have a right to earn their living from their ministry—a theme stressed in other passages in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:4-14, 1 Tim. 5:18), and St. Paul summarizes Jesus’ teaching by stating that “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14).

On the other hand, just two verses before Jesus told the Twelve that the worker deserves his food, he told them, “You received without pay, give without pay” (Matt. 10:8).

That makes it sound as if ministers shouldn’t charge for their work. As we often do in Christianity, we thus have two principles that at first seem opposed and need to be harmonized. They both reflect aspects of a deeper, more complex truth.

Light may be shed on the situation by the case of Simon Magus. In Acts 8, the magic practitioner Simon converts to Christianity through the ministry of Philip the Evangelist in Samaria, and then Peter and John arrive to confirm the Samaritan converts.

When the converts receive the Holy Spirit, Simon is impressed and offers them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 19). Peter then rebukes him “because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money” (v. 20).

This leads to Simon’s sin being named after him—simony—and today, it is defined as “the buying and selling of spiritual things” (CCC 2121).

How can we harmonize the biblical data? On the one hand, ministers have a right to earn their living from the gospel, so they must be able to receive money—or goods and services—in connection with their work. That’s not the problem.

The problem must be something more specific—like how or under what conditions they receive the money.

One way of receiving money is accepting donations in a general way, without them being tied to any specific act of ministry. This is how most ministers today—Catholic and otherwise—earn their salaries.

However, you also could pay someone on a per act basis. This is the way non-salaried employees get paid—e.g., for each bushel of grain harvested, each chair put together, or each article written, they receive a certain amount of money. The same could be applied to ministers.

There’s nothing immoral about either a general salary or a per act payment, and the same applies to ministerial laborers as much as any others.

So what was wrong about Simon’s situation? For a start, he was essentially offering to buy ordination from the apostles. But ordination is not simply a commercial good. It is a gift of God and a calling to the service of others. That fits with the definition of simony as the buying of spiritual things.

But perhaps there’s something more to learn here. What would Simon have done with ordination if he had obtained it? Presumably, he would have used it to make money.

He’d previously amazed people with his magic—from which he no doubt earned income—and after ordination, he would offer to give the Holy Spirit to people in exchange for money, which would fit with the other side of simony—the selling of spiritual things.

This also would have been wrong for Simon to do, but why is that the case if ministers have a right to earn their living from ministry?

Think about what happens in a store. There’s something you want to buy—maybe even something you desperately need—and the seller requests money for it. But what if you don’t have the money? What happens then is that you don’t get the wanted or needed item.

Now cast your mind back to the ancient world, when the overwhelming number of people were poor and barely scraping by, living hand-to-mouth.

Spiritual things are the most essential things in life, and if they are being sold—in the proper sense of the term—then the poor would just have to do without spiritual things!

You’re a poor person and can’t pay to get baptized to be forgiven and go to heaven? Too bad for you!

Yet God loves the poor, and so Christian ministry must not allow such situations to occur.

Christian ministers deserve to earn a living from their ministry, but the poor deserve to have the benefits of that ministry, even if they can’t pay. Any system of compensation for Christian ministers must incorporate these principles.

Therefore, ministers cannot act like shopkeepers and deny spiritual goods to those who can’t afford to pay for them. There’s nothing wrong with compensating ministers on a per act-of-ministry basis, but if they refuse to minister to those who cannot pay, then they cross the line into selling spiritual goods and thus into simony.

What about Mass stipends? There have been abuses of Mass stipends in the past, but for centuries, the Church has implemented strict policies to prevent abuses.

There’s nothing wrong with compensating a priest for saying a Mass for your intentions, but there need to be—and are—laws to keep this from becoming a money-making scheme, an abuse of the faithful, or outright simony.

The principal laws are found in canons 945-958 of the Code of Canon Law. That’s right: fourteen canons devoted to just this topic! Counted other ways, the section amounts to twenty-two subsections and over 800 words—just devoted to regulating the kinds of stipends priests can accept and how they must handle them. That’s an indication of how seriously the Church takes this issue.

A fundamental protection is set up even earlier, when the Code says,

The minister is to seek nothing for the administration of the sacraments beyond the offerings defined by competent authority, always taking care that the needy are not deprived of the assistance of the sacraments because of poverty (can. 848).

So a priest can’t ask (or hint) that he’d like more than what the locally approved offering is. In the United States, this ranges between $5 and $20 for the celebration of Mass, with most dioceses setting it around $10.

And even those who are impoverished are not to be “deprived of the assistance of the sacraments.” Later, this theme is picked up again: “It is recommended earnestly to priests that they celebrate Mass for the intention of the Christian faithful, especially the needy, even if they have not received an offering” (can. 945 §2).

With the poor and others who have not made an offering taken care of, that prevents outright selling and thus simony.

It also keeps this from being a form of spiritual abuse of the faithful. The Church earnestly exhorts the priest to say Mass for the intentions of a member of the faithful even without an offering.

And about this being a money-making scheme? The Code provides, “No one is permitted to accept more offerings for Masses to be applied by himself than he can satisfy within a year” (can. 953).

Except for Christmas, a priest is allowed to keep only one Mass offering for himself per day (can. 951 §1), so if you multiply $10 by 365 days, that would be an annual sum of just $3,650. Nobody is going to get rich on that.

The Code also provides numerous other protections for the faithful. For example, if the faithful give an offering, and it isn’t clear how many Masses they want said, the priest is supposed to compute it from the offering.

Back when I entered the Church in 1992, the standard Mass stipend in Arkansas was $5, and one family in my parish made a $50 donation—wanting only one Mass—and they were surprised to find ten Masses listed on the schedule for their intentions!

The Code also mandates a bookkeeping system to ensure that the Masses are said. Pastors of parishes are “to have a special book in which they note accurately the number of Masses to be celebrated, the intention, the offering given, and their celebration,” and the bishop or his representatives are required to audit this book every year (can. 958).

The Code even provides punishments for priests who traffic in Mass offerings (can. 1383).

There are additional provisions to ensure that the wishes of the faithful are strictly honored in this matter, and the Church is very serious about Mass offerings remaining modest, in keeping with the legitimate financial support of the Church and its ministers, and not turning into a crass money-making scheme.

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