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Rome’s big business in the US

24 August 2012


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 Commissioners.

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 Economist says.

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 cardinal.

"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.


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