In early 2020, a pandemic came to America. We started staying home, then we were ordered to stay home. The market tanked. The economy tanked. Unemployment soared.
You remember all this, because you lived it. We all did.
Congress created a program to keep people in their jobs. (It was something of a miracle that Congress did something, by the way). The program would help businesses and nonprofits make payroll. Keep people buying groceries. Help us get through this.
Federal law set eligibility requirements for the program. It set specific criteria for churches. Some churches applied for money, got the money, and kept people at work.
End of story, right?
Not for the Associated Press. For the Associated Press, this story is a scoop. A massive investigation, the AP reports, proves that religious zealots conspired together to perpetrate an indecent fleecing of honest Americans by — get this — participating in a government program. A program for which they were eligible. For which they applied. For which they were approved.
Stop the presses.
Actually, it gets a bit worse. The AP has reported this scoop, not once, but twice.
In July, the AP reported that Catholic institutions had “amassed” more than $1 billion in coronavirus aid by lobbying for “preferential treatment” from the Trump administration — treatment that ensured that diocesan offices, parishes, and institutions such as seminaries or high schools wouldn’t see their employees lumped together, and thus counted over a 500-person cap.
But what the AP called an “exemption” was really just clarity on basic corporate law. Parishes, dioceses, and other Catholic institutions are separately incorporated in civil law. But as PPP rules were being written, it became clear that Catholics entities in proximity to each other, which sometimes have contractual relationships allowing them to centralize infrastructure, were in danger of being inaccurately counted by the Small Business Administration (SBA) as one organization.
Lobbyists for the U.S. bishops’ conference intervened with the SBA to explain that the separate civil organization of Catholic institutions wasn’t just a legal fiction, but was, in fact, a reflection of the Catholic Church’s theological and canonical self-understanding.
While the AP saw the Catholic Church as a monolithic structure with some creative legal arrangements, the Catholic Church understands itself as a communion — both of persons and of institutions — connected, but distinct. The AP saw parishes as branch offices of a singular diocesan reality, while the Church sees them as “portions of the People of God” — true communities, under the governance of a bishop, but distinguishable, religiously significant in their own right, and neither administered nor easily closed by a bishop. (The Vatican has affirmed this fact more often than most bishops would like.)
But that kind of theological nuance stands in the way of the kind of lurid soft-core anti-Catholicism peddled by the AP’s July report, which took pains to connect — however vaguely — Church financial pressures amid the pandemic to the salacious sex scandals of disgraced bishops Theodore McCarrick and Michael Bransfield.
Apparently not satisfied with just one bite at the apple, the AP reported Thursday on the same subject. The reporting bore the same mistaken assumptions about Catholic theology and organization as last July. But this time, the AP also drew from the 2019–2020 financial statements of some dioceses to suggest that, while the Catholic Church was taking money from taxpayers, it was also sitting on piles of cash.
Of course, it didn’t matter that those reports address a fiscal year in which only a few months were affected by the pandemic. Nor did it matter that it would be illegal — to say nothing of immoral, unethical, and sometimes impossible — for bishops to unilaterally move money from Catholic organizations doing well to Catholic organizations in danger of laying people off.
It also didn’t make a difference that parishes, schools, and dioceses across the country actually did lay people off during the pandemic, and would have made much deeper cuts were it not for the PPP. And the AP breezed by the fact that many of the assets it flagged in diocesan fiscal reports were restricted funds, in some cases legally bound to particular and inalterable uses.
And finally, the AP report didn’t quite mention, though it got close, that PPP money remains available — that no business or nonprofit has been turned away for lack of funds, and that interest in the program is actually waning.
In short, that Catholic schools and homeless shelters got money did not keep predatory payday lenders or Hooters restaurants from picking up their own pieces of the pie.
No, the Associated Press did not let any of those facts stand in the way of a good old-fashioned muckraking “scandal.”
With the dogged gumshoe reporting that comes from googling a few things, the AP learned that somewhere in America during 2020, some Catholic institutions had some cash. And at the same time, Catholic institutions — the kinds of places that serve meals to the homeless and visit the elderly — had the nerve to get help from the government to stay afloat.
We should all be grateful that the AP is looking out for the little guy. Thank God for that dedication, if you like. Just don’t let Him borrow any government cash.