Yes, the Church received relief funds, and that’s fair

A volunteer in New York City looks on as people receive free food at a food pantry for needy residents run by Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens April 24, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Mike Segar, Reuters)

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The headlines were hostile, but subtly so. “Catholic Church lobbied for taxpayer funds, got $1.4B” read the one from the Associated Press story that broke the news. “As Millions Suffer From Unemployment, The Catholic Church Gets $1.4 Billion In Relief Funds” stated another from Refinery 29.

The Church got the money, AP reports in a 2,300-word story (long for AP), using what the news service calls “breaks.” The first let religious institutions get money from the Small Business Administration through the Paycheck Protection Program, when they otherwise can’t. The second let them get the money even though they had over the program’s limit of 500 employees. The Church lobbied for the second.

The writers, investigative journalists Reese Dunklin and Michael Rezendes, call the Church “among the major beneficiaries” of the program. It estimates the Church’s total take may have been $3.5 billion. That’s about .05% of the program’s $659 billion. Not major.

I asked the priest of a nearby parish about his experience. Father David Poecking has three churches in his parish, one in a poor neighborhood, and a school serving all of them. The parish got about $200,000 and the school $374,000.

His parish asked only what any other nonprofit could ask — and for what could be called secular reasons. Catholic schools and their employees pay a huge amount in payroll tax, he said. The Church isn’t getting back more than it pays in.

“Much of the money went to pay school teachers,” he said, “an expense that would have been incurred by the public were it not for the fact that Catholic parents and parishes pay extravagantly for Catholic education. That they must bear the full financial burden is yet another injustice, to which we ought to sustain our objection.”

The AP story was as subtly critical as the headline. The Church, the writers pointed out, would have more money had it not paid hundreds of millions to victims of abusive priests. Several dioceses that had gone bankrupt got money, it noted. The West Virginia diocese whose bishops embezzled money got at least $2 million. The writers also pointed to the Church’s great wealth. The Diocese of Orange, for example, had spent $70 million on its cathedral and got $3 million in loans.

The story mentioned the world’s 1 billion Catholics. The news service fretted about the separation of church and state. It worried that the Church had an unfair advantage because it is so well-organized. It suggested that the Church had cozied up to President Trump to get the money. The AP even noted the tiny Ukrainian Catholic Church didn’t ask for any money.

Some of that was fair. The AP hit fairly in its implied criticism of the Church’s self-induced financial problems and the spending on grand projects. Many Catholics say the same thing. But much of the story wasn’t so fair.

It mentioned the Ukrainian Catholics without noting that unlike Catholic parishes and dioceses, they don’t run any schools or hospitals or social work agencies. When it pointed to the Church’s wealth, it didn’t note how much of its wealth is in its buildings, which can’t be sold if the Church is to do what she does. While the president quickly claimed to be the “best [president] the Catholic Church has ever seen,” the aid doesn’t seem to have gained him anything. And what the world’s other Catholics have to do with this, who knows.

Most significantly, the story left out three important things. First, it avoided the fact that almost all the money obtained went to support working people, except at the very end of the story when it quoted one of the bishops’ spokesmen, who said that an estimated 407,900 workers had benefited.

Second, the story avoided the fact that a diocese may indeed have more than 500 people in its institutions, but these institutions are financially independent. People work for the school or the parish or the apostolate, not the diocese.

Third, the story assumes the Church asked for the money simply for itself. It says nothing about all the work the Church does for the poor and sick. All the food pantries, soup kitchens, hospitals, clinics; all the help with rent and health care; all the children educated and taken care of — work that our country needs, and work that saves the government tens of billions.

This is the world we live in. Much of our elites dislike or hate the Church. We have given them some reason to oppose us, but they also fight for public space and public funds they don’t want us to have. They push the “separation of church and state” far beyond what the founding fathers intended, to mean the separation of religion from public life.

Fair is fair. Other nonprofits push a kind of gospel of their own and are hardly “viewpoint neutral” even if they’re not overtly religious. The abortion-advocate Planned Parenthood got money. If they can receive funding needed to survive, the Church can, too.

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.

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