What to make of the fact that the Catholic Church received $1.4 billion from the U.S. government’s Paycheck Protection Program? The remarks from Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, seem to suffice. As he put it in a statement, the “Catholic Church” in this case encompasses the hundreds of individual Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools, social-service agencies, and other organizations that collectively employ thousands of people, and so is not prohibited from receiving taxpayer-backed federal aid. “The Paycheck Protection Program was designed to protect the jobs of Americans from all walks of life, regardless of whether they work for for-profit or non-profit employers, faith-based or secular,” his statement read in part. A range of Catholic media outlets have made the same observation, and it seems clear there is less to this “story” than meets the eye.
Yet at the same time, we should remain mindful about the constitutional and political issues concerning the relationship between Church and state, and the continued need for financial accountability and transparency in light of the links between the sexual-abuse crisis and financial mismanagement in Catholic institutions. It seems that some of the objection to PPP funding for the Church arises from the belief that the money could be used to pay settlements and legal costs associated with sex-abuse cases and other scandals. And this unfortunately speaks to the level of regard many people have for the Catholic Church today.
But we might also use the moment to think about the larger ecclesiological and theological issues raised by the increasingly decisive role of money in the life of the Church, especially the U.S. Catholic Church. As a result of changes in Catholic political culture since the twentieth century, wealthy donors have acquired the kind of legitimacy that the institutional Church might have once conferred on emperors, kings, and princes—as evidenced now in the expanding influence of conservative and traditionalist Catholic groups and Catholic business leaders. But this development itself arises in part from four decades of hostility to government spending and the dismantling of federal social-service programs, which has raised the pressure on Catholic organizations to provide more of these services than at any time since those programs were implemented in the twentieth century. The donations the Catholic Church gets from these private entities don’t necessarily come out of sympathy or support for the work it’s doing in these areas; rather, the contributions can sometimes be meant to influence the Church’s position on issues like immigration, the environment, and the economy. But in the case of the PPP payouts, we are talking about taxpayer money. And this should make us think about the complex meaning of “poor Church” in the recent Catholic tradition, and what that idea means going forward.
Contemporary Catholic teaching on this matter begins with Vatican II. The documents of the council were somewhat ambivalent on the subject of the relationship between the Church and the political, social, and economic status quo, as well as state support (financial and otherwise) for the Catholic Church. The ambivalence was a reflection of differing sensibilities evident at Vatican II—illustrated, for example, by the “Catacombs’ Pact of the Poor and Servant Church” on the one hand, and the more capitalist-friendly position of European and North American bishops.