Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Catholicism in the Economist

A parishioner alerted me to an interesting article in the Economist about the finances of the Catholic Church.  The Economist should be credited for doing some actual research before putting pen to paper; in reading the article I didn't feel completely despondent like I normally do when I read the moronic drivel produced by periodicals like Newsweek when they open their mouths and try to talk about the Church.

Some comments:

1)  The thesis of the article is that the finances of the Catholic Church are a mess.  Early on the article notes, "the financial mismanagement and questionable business practices would have seen widespread resignations at the top of any other public institution."  That made me laugh out loud given the TRILLIONS of dollars that our country spent bailing banks and corporations out where it has been reported that most of the leadership did NOT lose their jobs. 

2)  I also found it disturbing how easily our public discourse oscillates between sometimes considering Catholic hospitals, Catholic schools, Catholic universities, and Catholic Charities as part of the Church some of the time, and other times does NOT consider them part of the Catholic Church.  In order to paint this picture of the Catholic Church as this bloated behemoth of a cash cow, the Economist talks about how the Church spent 171.6 billion last year.  When you look at the break down, though, 99 billion was money spent by Catholic hospitals, 49 billion was money spent by Catholic colleges and universities, and 5 billion was spent by Catholic Charities.  If you remove those from under the umbrella of the Catholic Church, which our country is trying to do right now, then the "Catholic Church" is a far smaller cash cow than the Economist would have us believe.

3) The Economist also laments that federal money (money obtained from people, and not originally the government's money) is going to Catholic hospitals, Catholic schools, and loans to students attending Catholic universities.  The word they use is that the Fed is "bankrolling" the Medicare and Medicaid of patients, "bankrolling" students (through vouchers) and "bankrolling" students who attend Catholic universities through federal student loans.  IS THAT THE CHURCH'S FAULT?  What do they want the Church to do, to stop accepting patients who have Medicare or Medicaid or to turn away voucher students?  This is a ridiculous claim.

4)  Another big point of the article is worth examining: there is a real confusion, not just outside but within the Church as well, about who precisely owns Church property.  According to Canon Law the Bishop of a diocese technically owns all diocesan property, but there is also a sense in which the parish owns things as well because in Canon Law each parish has rights.

This question is HUGELY important in this era of lawsuits over sexual abuse.  If a person sues the Archdiocese and wins, can Bishop Coyne be forced to sell my parish in Brazil to pay for the costs?  In one sense the diocese owns my parish's property in Brazil, so why not? 

There is confusion on this question not just in the non-Catholic world, but canon lawyers themselves are trying to figure out how to translate the situation of a Bishop and parishes in Canon Law into public law as well.  Fr. Stan Pondo of the Archdiocese actually just wrote his doctoral dissertation on how best to make the public situation line up with Church law, and his conclusion is that Catholic parishes ought to move towards a situation where parishes are made into corporations, a practice that the Archdiocese has put into action.  The Bishop is still placed as the "CEO" of each parish, but again, how best to handle this is being discussed.

5)  The article oscillates, again, between lamenting that the diocese can pool its money and then, on the other hand, wishing dioceses would do more to pool their money by leaving it in each parish.  The article seems unable to decide which it wants the Church to do.

The article later laments "The Church does shift between considering all assets as part of a single pool when that suits, and claiming that funds have always been separate and ring-fenced when they are exposed to claims."  The thing the article doesn't seem to grasp is that in order to protect the parishes and get as much money for plaintiffs as possible isn't possible.  You can either protect the parishes, or liquidate everything and give the victims all the assets of the diocese.  You can't have it both ways.

6)  The article also gets wrong the idea that dioceses can close a parish and can transfer the assets to the diocese.  Dioceses have been specifically forbidden from doing that by Rome.  The assets of a closed parish can only go to the parish that is merged with the closing parish. 

7) Surely the article jests when it notes that prosecutors fear prosecuting the Church for fear of political consequences.  The fastest way to get reelected right now would be to prosecute the Church.

8) The article notes that if lawsuits against the Church continue, then schools might have to close, thus "putting taxpayers on the hook" because they would suddenly have to foot the bill for more students into public schools (Catholic schools save the public 9 billion a year in taxes because of the kids who aren't in the public school system).  So whereas earlier in the article, the fact that the government helps subsidize some students is lamented, here it is lamented if Catholic schools were to close? 

Dear Economist, on most of these issues you need to do something next time you write about this stuff - make up your mind on what you want the Church to do, and stick with it.