"It should reinforce and strengthen our duty to contribute to the Church both materially and spiritually."
The arancel system refers to the present practice of collecting set fees for mass offerings and the celebration of the sacraments. The Spanish word “arancel” literally translates into “tarrif” and interestingly, such exactly was the intent of the First Plenary Council of the Philippines, which assembled in Manila in 1953 when it decided to continue with the said practice introduced in the seventeenth century – to impose a “church tax”. In fact, the same meeting of Filipino bishops decreed that “the edict of the Bishop whereby the parochial taxes approved by the Holy See are established will be made known to the people and a copy posted in each parochial office as well as in the sacristy, in an open place.” (Acts and Decrees of the First Plenary Council of the Philippines, 734). This practice continues to this day in many dioceses and parishes in the country.
But why was an arancel system imposed in the first place? During the Spanish regime, the Crown exercised royal patronage over the Church, and for such reason, the Church received funds and the support of the government. But because of the distance of the colonies from Spain and the many other concerns of the colonial government, the Church had to source out alternative resources and additional revenues for it to carry out its mission – largely the income derived from church estates, supplemented by the offerings of the faithful based on the arancel system.
With the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines, so did centuries of royal patronage over the Church. The new American colonial establishment appealed to the Holy See to authorize the sale of the vast tracts of “friar lands” and perhaps in cognizance of the shift in political realities, it readily agreed to the sale. This left the Catholic Church with no other stable source of revenues but the offerings derived from the arancel system.
However, when the bishops in 1908, and later in 1958 decided to continue with the arancel system, they had three things in mind. First, that the faithful have the obligation to contribute to the Church according to their individual means. Second, that the “church taxes” should not burden the faithful and prevent them from fulfilling their religious duties. Third, that the abuse of setting too high a “price” on Church ministrations, and requiring payment over and above the fixed tariffs must be prohibited.
In fact, the arancel system was a careful attempt at balancing equity and Christian charity. Unlike the “church tax” system in Europe which applied to all faithful and paid annually or in fixed installments, or the “planned giving” or the “tithe system” in the United States which required the regular payment of a fixed contribution that approximates a tenth of one’s income to the Church, the arancel system was imposed only whenever the ministrations from the Church were needed. In fact, far from setting a fixed fee, the arancel system was originally intended to impose a cap or a ceiling on church fees. Thus, it allowed the faithful to contribute without imposing a burden for those who cannot afford while providing the Church a measure of financial stability, instead of a hit-and-miss method of financial support from voluntary offerings.
Last week, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy released a new set of guidelines entitled “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church” urging parishes to “outdated” models and to heed Pope Francis’ call for a spirit of “missionary evangelization”. Although these guidelines are meant to serve as a set of non-binding suggestions for the renewal of parish life. Part of the reforms that the guidelines introduced was for parishes “not to ‘commercialize’ the sacramental life, and not to give the impression that the celebration of the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, along with other ministerial activities, are subject to tariffs.”
Mainstream media quickly interpreted this as a call to stop the collection of fixed church fees, especially for mass stipends and stole fees – and ending the current practice of how the Church sources out its revenues.
The realization that the imposition of the arancel system has become prejudicial against the poor, who might not be able to afford something which is supposed to be free, has led the Church to assess the current practice. In fact, even before the recent guidelines issued by the Vatican, several Filipino bishops have already introduced steps to remove fees for sacramental and other church services.
In 1992, for example, the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines encouraged diocese to consider tithing as a model for the stewardship of Church resources. In 2015, the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan under Archbishop Socrates Villegas, stopped charging fixed rates for sacraments and sacramentals, instead accepting whatever parishioners can offer. In 2019, Bishop Ruperto Santos of the Diocese of Balanga decreed the removal of fees for funeral Masses and blessings in his diocese. In other Philippine dioceses, guidelines have also been set for the gradual removal of the arancel system.
In several dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Palo, Leyte and the Diocese of Dumaguete, all church offerings, collections and other revenues are now remitted to the diocese, and in place, all priests now received a fixed monthly amount, termed as “standard living allowance.” Surplus of the revenues are now assigned for the maintenance of churches and the conduct of pastoral programs.
Other initiatives include the introduction of a modified form of tithing, where individual parishioners make a regular monetary contribution to the parish to support its pastoral work.
Sadly, the barrage of criticisms against the arancel system are based on unfounded assumptions. Far from enriching the Church or the clergy, it serves as an accessible means for the faithful, as all Catholics should, to provide for the needs of the Church, for the support of its priests and its works of evangelization and charity. Until a certainly better means is found to assure the financial support of the Church and its activities and ministries, the Church shall have to make the best use of the current system.
Admittedly, the arancel system is far from perfect, and it may be right to say that the time has come to review its usefulness. It inherent semblance of commercialization has left an impression among Catholics that, given the price attached to them, the sacraments are for sale and not free. In fact, it cannot be denied that many of the poor are kept away or shy away from receiving the services of the Church because they cannot afford to pay the amount attached. But the sacraments are free, and there is no price tag for them as a means of grace and salvation. No amount of money can buy them for what they are worth.
After all, the Church is and should not be a commercial enterprise, and its business should not be misconstrued to be that for profit, but as it for was traditionally referred to as “obras pias” – its works of worship, service and mission. The need to revisit and revise the existing arancel system should not downplay but rather reinforce and strengthen our duty to contribute to the Church both materially and spiritually. More than just an institutional change, however, what is required an interior conversion for all Catholics to become faithful stewards of the Church and fulfill more intently our duty to provide for its needs so thus detached from material possessions and with outmost confidence in God’s providence, the Church can do with greater vigor its evangelizing mission in the world.
Churches cannot be like some kind of supermarket, places of commerce perhaps with a price list for the sacraments. – Pope Francis