Stewardship as metaphor

My church, a Roman Catholic parish of more than 1,500 families, is officially big on the concept of stewardship. You know the drill — you give your “time, talent and treasure” to the church and in return you will get various blessings and happiness. Fork over 10 percent of your gross income, and somehow God will give you even more in return (often in vague and undetectable ways). Something like the “Prayer of Jabez” with a distinctly Catholic spin. It’s a wonder Wall Street hasn’t been more bullish on the concept.

Anyway, we are subjected to relentless preaching about the virtues of stewardship. We are unceasingly exhorted to give, give, give in order to improve our faith lives. Whether one accepts the hidden premises here is irrelevant; what is interesting, from a philosophy-of-religion perspective, is the sequencing of stewardship.

If we concede the religious principle, that acts of mercy or acts of charity are morally good and spiritually beneficial, we must ask: Which comes first? The faith or the act?

Stewardship as an organized program presupposes that good stewards are already good Catholics of strong faith. Yet everyone is encouraged to be a steward. It’s trivially true that not every Catholic is a good, practicing Catholic with strong faith. So what gives? Is this a form of Pascal’s Wager, wherein a life of faith is to be cultivated through habituation? You act like you believe in order to gain faith?

The role of the church is to work to ensure the salvation of souls. Although the parable of the good steward is a great metaphor, the metaphor cannot substitute for reality. Nor can a metaphor, no matter how applicable it might be to some aspects of our lives, serve as a guiding principle for the totality of our existence.

There is more to being a good Catholic than merely following the formal precepts of stewardship, but many of the parishes aren’t teaching these other aspects to the same degree. It’s as if “stewardship” is the one-size-fits-all method for living an authentically Catholic existence.

I have no objection to occasional reminders to give more. But if the link between faith and practice is as strong and as logically necessary as that presupposed by the theory of stewardship, then instead of incessant exhortations, perhaps the church should focus, as I once told a former pastor, on helping the faithful to center their lives on Christ. If, after all, the faith is there, then the act should follow. If the faith is lacking, then no amount of nagging will achieve the desired outcome.

Focusing on the act to build the faith seems backward, but it’s the central (if unspoken) conceit of stewardship. Although this is may be excusable in the periphery, to elevate this concept to a position of centrality in parochial catechesis seems detrimental to the long-term spiritual health of the faithful.

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