THERE are two stories I will ignore this week: Pussy Riot, and
the row provoked by a Missouri politician who believes that women
don't get pregnant when they are the victims of "legitimate rape",
by which he means "properly illegitimate". They have both been
carpet-bombed across the media.
Instead, there is one piece of first-rate reporting in a
reputable magazine, which was largely ignored because it seemed to
leave nothing else to say. This was The Economist's story on the finances of
the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
We tend to think of the US RC Church as composed of parishes and
dioceses; but, from a purely economic standpoint, it is actually a
large health-care business with a sideline in education. The
magazine estimates the annual spending of RC enterprises in the US
to be $170 billion, or about 25 times all the assets of the Church
More than half of this, though, is spent on health care, and
roughly $50 billion on colleges and universities. The university of
Notre Dame alone had about $7.7 billion in assets in 2010, and an
annual budget of $1.2 billion.
The operations of the RC Church's visible part - the parishes
and dioceses - account for no more than six per cent of its
spending, while a further 2.7 per cent goes on national charitable
activities. What's more, the greater part of this charitable
spending comes from government funds - 62 per cent, The
These figures do a great deal more than mere theology can to
explain the political positions of the RC Church, such as its fight
against Obama's health-care plan.
They won't be entirely accurate. The Church keeps no central
accounts. Much of the information comes from the forensic
examination of dioceses that went bankrupt under the weight of
settlements in child-abuse cases. Some of the manoeuvring to
minimise these payments, or avoid them at all, was morally
disgusting. The diocese of Boston, for instance, paid nothing at
all into its clergy-retirement fund between 1986 and 2002; The
Economist reckons that, over that period, parishioners gave
$70 million to $90 million in Easter and Christmas collections that
they believed were going to fund their priests' retirement.
"In a public company, this type of thing would attract
regulatory scrutiny. In the Church, retirement is still largely in
the gift of the bishop. Retirement plans for priests are typically
set up as diocesan trusts rather than proper pension funds with
structured benefits. They do not fall under the Employee Retirement
Income Security Act of 1974, the law that establishes standards for
plan trustees and remedies for beneficiaries, including access to
federal courts. Priests thus have no recourse to law if they are
hard done by. Nor, as a matter of course, can they take their
pensions with them if they leave for another diocese."
The conservative blogger Rod Dreher added his own sidelight on
these figures: "A decade ago, when the Boston blow-up was spreading
across the country, I spoke to some very senior laymen in a large
arch- diocese who were scrambling to shield money that had been
raised and earmarked for the local Catholic school system from the
"Why? Because they all were convinced that he would spend
anything he could to protect himself from the abuse scandal, and to
cover his own behavior up. They believed he would take all the
money the schools had and pay them out to victims to keep himself
out of court and off the witness stand."
There was very much more, and the whole piece (free on the web)
is well worth reading. It is journalism that changes the way you
see the world.
There were two RC reactions I found. The first was from John
Allen, the National Catholic Reporter's man in Rome, who
blogged: "In the United States, more than 90 per cent of revenues
collected by parishes remains there. Those funds are not centrally
collected, and they're not really even centrally tracked, either by
the bishops' conference or by Rome. Nobody in the Vatican could
tell you how much a parish in Dubuque, Iowa, spent this month on
coffee and donuts after mass."
This does not, so far as I can see, alter the point that even
100 per cent of the revenue collected by parishes is a very small
amount of the spending of bodies controlled by the Roman Catholic
Church. Allen himself reckons that the top ten Catholic
universities spent three times as much as all the dioceses put
together, while the health care system spends ten times as much as
the parishes (including parish schools).
Although the Economist piece was criticised by Mark
Gray, of Georgetown University, who had supplied the figure for
parish giving, this was because he thought it mistook the Roman
Catholic Church for a centralised organisation. But the shocks in
the report came not where the figures were uncertain or
uncollected. They were in some of the hard numbers unearthed.