What’s Main Street without a Steeple? Responding to the Associated Press

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by Kyle J. Rosser, John Carroll University

When I think of the Catholic Church “winning” or “amassing” anything I generally imagine her “winning” and “amassing” souls for God, but a recent article from the Associated Press (AP) uses these words to present the Church as if she were a dragon perched atop her pile of stolen gold, ready to strike anyone who dares to remove but a single coin. In an effort to strike at the heel of the Church, AP published this “exclusive” article on the fact that many Catholic parishes, charities and dioceses have sought government funds to keep people employed during the pandemic. It was so exclusive that only those with 27 MB of storage space on their computer could find and download the zip file made public by the U.S. Small Business Administration which contains information on all businesses who received a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan over $150,000. Yet as was seen in two Supreme Court cases (Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and Little Sisters of the Poor Saint Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, et al.) just days before the publication of the article, the cultural battle against Catholic values was beginning to turn in our favor. This necessitated an offensive from the enemy.

The Associated Press tried in vain to draw a connection between the payroll loans, offered to alleviate economic issues as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and cover-ups of clergy sexual abuse. To give any credence to such conspiracies is ludicrous. Yet, anyone who has seen the replies and comments surrounding this article on social media will see that there are many who have allowed their disdain for the Catholic Church to obscure their good judgement.

While never claiming outright that it occurred, AP wants the unsuspecting American reader to believe that federal loans – earmarked for paying employees who would otherwise be without pay – are being used by the “U.S. Roman Catholic Church” and its affiliates to cover up the holes in their coffers from settlements and legal fees related to the sexual abuse crisis. If it weren’t for its financial mismanagement, hypocrisy, and the rampant sexual misconduct of its priests, the U.S. Roman Catholic Church wouldn’t need to steal taxpayer money that ought to be going to help businesses pay their employees [so one might conclude after reading the AP article].

However, those who have kept an eye on the doings of the Church will notice that the available coffers (likely quite shallow) of dioceses were quickly emptied in order to find a solution to the dramatic and painful clergy sexual abuse scandal. But what did the dioceses do once their easily available funds ran dry? Despite the general thought that the Church has a secret vault full of millions of dollars taken from the faithful, dioceses found it necessary to cut costs anywhere they reasonably could. In a matter of years, we saw chancery offices shrink, parishes merge or close, schools shrink, and even the sale of what little liquidable property dioceses may have had available.

Some dioceses have been hit harder than others (with some finding it necessary to declare bankruptcy), while others have been able to establish funds reserved for the handling of future abuse cases that may surface. This is all to say that dioceses have been struggling with the financial impact made by the sexual abuse crisis for years, and that, if the whole experience has shown us anything it is that bishops are more concerned with the healing and well-being of the faithful than with lining their own pockets.

The estimated $1.4 to $3.5 billion given to Catholic entities from the PPP appears to be both an astonishing figure when viewed on its own, and a drop-in-the-bucket compared to the $659 billion made available for small businesses (500 employees or less). When one realizes that Catholic entities in the U.S. employ over one million Americans and that they provide the largest amount of non-governmental social assistance, one may ask why such important organizations did not receive more funds so as to aid the ever-growing number of people in need. But we must not be greedy.

What appears to be at the heart of AP’s argument is that religious groups, but most especially the “U.S. Roman Catholic Church,” should not have access to tax-based funds given that they do not pay taxes themselves. These loans were, after all, “created to keep Main Street open and Americans employed.” However, what would Main Street America be without a steeple rising above her bustling streets and the chiming of church bells ringing out the time? Do the one million American employees of Catholic entities not deserve to remain employed as their neighbors in the private sector do? Further, do those Americans who devote their lives to non-profit organizations not deserve the income needed to sustain their families in this time of crisis?

If the AP’s alienation of these valuable American workers does not say enough about their rampant journalistic bias, then perhaps an analysis of some of their deceptive and inaccurate data points will. The authors claim that “St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue was approved for at least $1 million,” however that is not the case according to the data from the SBA. According to the data made available, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, whose address is listed as being on Madison Avenue according to the report, only received a loan in the $350,000 to $1 million range. It was in fact the Trustees of St. Patrick Cathedral, listed at 1011 First Avenue with other archdiocesan offices, that received a loan ranging from $1 to $2 million to retain 102 employees. The Trustees of St. Patrick Cathedral, according to the cathedral website and Bloomberg business profiles, overlooks a number of archdiocesan properties, principally the Catholic cemeteries. Such a simple mistake at the hands of AP makes one wonder about the accuracy of the data suggested by the authors and it necessitates a further investigation into the AP’s findings.

The AP closes its article unusually, with a quote that diverges from the tone of the rest of the piece. The inclusion of this quote, which present the Church in kinder light, is likely an attempt by the authors to cover their tracks in the hope that Catholics will be more sympathetic to an article that is otherwise reminiscent of the anti-Catholic propaganda that plagued secular newspapers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie, Pennsylvania wisely notes that the Church helps those most in need while simultaneously keeping Americans employed. The popular reaction might be better characterized in terms of shock and outrage as opposed to the bishop’s prediction of “surprise.” Any Catholic who has dared to enter the valley of the shadow of death which is the comment section on social media, they will know that the AP article has brought forth the disdain, rage, and hatred that many have for Holy Mother Church.

These days, it seems that Catholics are often overly concerned with interior squabbles between the “conservatives/traditionalists” and the “liberals/progressives.” But, if there is one thing that we as Catholics can learn from the recent Associated Press article, it is that eventually we must realize that the enemy is not within our ranks. Instead, he is outside our walls, trying to rally others against us. No matter your political leanings, we, as Catholics, must recognize and defend the great good that the Church does for our communities. What would our parishes, schools, and charities (and local businesses) be without aid during these very difficult times? Consider all of the families who have been able to remain secure thanks to the payroll loans available to Catholic entities; and consider all of the families who have been able to look to these Catholic entities for assistance. It is at times like these, when we are under threat from the outside, that we Catholics ought to band together and work with Christ and His Bride, the Church, to crush the serpent biting at our heel and win souls for the Lord.

(PS If you still think that Catholic organizations are important but should not have received money from the government, then might I suggest looking for ways that you can volunteer at your local parish or Catholic charity to help them lower labor costs going forward; or alternatively, reassess how much you give to your parish or Catholic charity, maybe if we all increased our charitable giving in relation to the rise of costs and wages then we can help our parishes and charities out of the rough spots in which some are.) 

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