SÃO PAULO, Brazil – In Pope Francis’s native Argentina, the usual financial challenges faced by the Catholic Church around the world are being compounded by a historic decision by the country’s bishops to reject the stipends the national government has been paying to Catholic clergy and seminarians since 1979.

The decision to stop accepting the stipends was made by the Argentine bishops’ conference in 2018, following decades of debate, and announced that the withdrawal was complete as of Dec. 31.

The decision to stop taking the stipends does not mean that the Church in Argentina has renounced all state support, as Catholic schools continue to receive state subsidies and various church-sponsored charitable and humanitarian programs, such as residences for recovering drug addicts, also continue to receive public support.

While the amount involved in ths stipends was largely nominal, amounting to roughly $70 a month after being eroded by years of hyper-inflation without adjustments and contributing less than ten percent to the Church’s annual budget, the symbolism of the payments nevertheless was always a source of controversy.

Sociologist Juan Cruz Esquivel, an expert in the relations between church and state in Argentina, said it was the late Archbishop Carmelo Giaquinta of Resistencia who first argued the bishops should renounce the stipend in 1996, and that momentum to do built gradually in the years since, with some prelates deciding to waive their personal payments even before the conference made a collective decision.

Father Maximo Jurcinovic, a communications official for the bishops’ conference in Argentina, said that most prelates in the counrty had used the stipends for pastoral puposes, such as transportation to church venues, rather than supplementing their own income. He said the decision to spurn those payments marks an important turning point for Argentine Catholicism.

“It’s about understanding that the Church must be funded by its own members,” he said.

Cruz Esquivel argued that the stipends may have cost the Church more than they were worth in terms of the effect on public perceptions of Catholicism.

“In the collective imagination, there has always been the idea that the Church is sustained by the state,” he said. “In the context of a crisis of representation and of a general sense of repudiation of the state, the Church ended up being impacted as well.”

Cruz Esquivel described the decision to renounce the stipends as a mostly symbolic move, “an effort to say: ‘We’re independent from the state.’”

To help navigate the transition, the bishops in 2020 launched what’s known as the Ecclesial Funding Program (known by its Spanish acronym FE), which features a digital platform through which donors can make contributions to support parishes, dioceses and church-sponsored social programs.

Jurcinovic said the FE program is now present in at least one parish in all of Argentina’s dioceses and grew at a 200 percent clip in 2023, though its income is not yet equivalent to the amount generated by the state stipends.

In part, Jurcinovic said, the initiative has to overcome perceptions that the Church is already rich.

“Many people seem to think that we don’t need help or that the Vatican sends money to us. We’ve been making an effort to combat such distortions in the public,” he said.

The new independent fundraising model requires greater transparency from the church, Jurcinovic said, including a need for professionalism when it comes to dealing with donations.

“It all has to be accompanied by a catechetical effort. Catholic communities need to understand their central role in that process,” he said.

While the decision to discontinue the stipends was made by the Church, there’s also concern in some Catholic circles that other sources of state funding may be reduced or cancelled by the government under libertarian President Javier Milei, who campaigned on vows to reduce public spending.

That’s the case, for example, with Hogares de Cristo (“Homes of Christ”), a nationwide program of the Argentinian church that assists drug users.

Father Mariano Oberlin is in charge of one the Hogares, located in the Muller neighborhood in Cordoba. He told Crux that he feared the government could completely suspend funding for the initiative since Milei took office.

“During the campaign, many things were said about reducing the role of the state,” he said.

Oberlin said he’s been reassured by Milei’s recent decision to reappoint Roberto Moro, the official who’d headed a government department for the prevention of drug addicition under former conservative President Mauricio Macri, and who had supported the Hogares program.

Nevertheless, he said, there’s a general fear that the monthly funds sent to the Hogares by the government will not be properly readjusted to inflation.

“We had 100 percent of nominal readjustment last year, but inflation corresponded to 140 percent between January and November and to 25 percent in December alone,” Oberlin said, adding that some of the most important costs for the program saw an even higher increase, such as fuel and food.

Priests who work with the poor such as Oberlin say that poverty has been visibly growing, with a growing number of people looking for the Church’s help, since Milei devalued the Argentinian peso as one of his first economic measures to combat inflation.

“In my parish there are four public refectories which are financed with government money. I hope those funds are not cut as well,” Oberlin said.

He’s also worried about the people who work in the Hogar de Cristo, a team of more than 30 people who also live in the same poor neighborhoods of the addicts they help.

“We can’t take care of anybody without them. And they’re also poor people who need to make a living,” he said.