WASHINGTON — The nation's Catholic bishops Tuesday overwhelmingly approved an annual parish collection to rescue religious orders, especially those with a high ratio of aged nuns, which are faced with a retirement-fund shortfall of more than $2.5 billion.
"It's a matter of justice, not merely one of charity," urged one bishop at the annual meeting of U.S. bishops.
While setting no money goals, the heads of dioceses approved, 156 to 10, a plan to start sometime next year an annual collection for 10 years. There was optimism that it will set records for church donations among the country's 53 million Catholics, even if the total deficit is unreachable within a decade.
"Sisters (especially the elderly or frail) evoke an emotional response. 'This makes this cause a fund-raiser's dream,' " said a briefing paper provided to the bishops from the retirement project committee. The committee was citing results from a specially commissioned Gallup Poll on how much people would contribute.
The first national collection for the retirement project will be the 12th such U.S. church-wide fund appeal in the parishes.
The enormity of the need became evident last year when the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen & Co. analyzed the results of a 1985 church-run survey of Catholic orders and concluded that $2.5 billion would be required to support nuns, priests and brothers in their retirement years. The figure would be $3.5 billion unless an estimated $1 billion in saleable assets held by the surveyed orders are sold to reduce the deficit, officials said.
The crisis arose, church officials said, because religious orders--especially nuns, who number 115,000 in America in contrast to 29,000 religious order priests and brothers--rarely had developed retirement or pension plans. Diocesan priests, whose retirement benefits vary from diocese to diocese, were not included in the survey and would not receive money from the special collection.
Retirees Live Longer
Sisters employed in schools, hospitals and elsewhere traditionally supported the relatively few retired nuns in their communities. But in the last two decades many young sisters dropped out and fewer novices joined while retired nuns were living longer. Officials said the 1985 survey showed that about 44,000 sisters were over the age of 70. Next year the median age of sisters will be 66.
The $2.5-billion figure was treated skeptically, as possibly too high, by Bishop John R. McGann of Rockville Centre, N.Y., who presented the retirement program to the bishops. But Sister Mary Oliver Hudon of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who directs the retirement project, said the figure is real--and even represents only 76% of the "religious," a Catholic term for members of orders.
"Many small (orders) did not respond to the survey, though we expect to have better data from another survey we sent out last month," Hudon said in an interview. "Some people think the numbers were exaggerated; if anything, they were conservative."
Yet, the entire amount is not needed within 10 years. The figures also include the future retirement income that will be needed by many sisters still earning a living. Many religious orders have started retirement funds in recent years. Part of the plan approved by the bishops Tuesday was to help orders develop "compensation packages" and expand their benefits from Social Security.
Some Managed Well
Some religious orders have managed their resources well, noted several bishops.
"I know some orders who have more money than my archdiocese," said Archbishop Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans.
Sister Hudon disputed reports that some sisters have had to go on welfare. "There are a few individuals who apply for supplementary income and those have serious medical problems," she said, noting that federal regulations permit such applications. The Wall Street Journal said in April, 1986, that a 1981 bishops' survey showed 1,000 nuns on welfare and quoted a financial officer for an order based in Wisconsin as saying that she recommends applying for welfare only "as a last resort."
Organizers of the retirement project decided to spread the obligation nationally because some dioceses have an imbalance of retired sisters living in their areas. One community cited in the report to the bishops has 605 members serving in 58 different dioceses, but 212 of their 289 retired sisters live in one diocese.
Outlook in California
Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said in an interview that bishops in the 12 California dioceses began working on the problem several years ago, dividing it into three areas. "Each year we've been increasing the salaries of the sisters who are working and been establishing retirement benefits for sisters who have been working," he said.