Skip links

A society, not a monolith: What the Catholic Church is, and is not

On Thursday morning, Associated Press ran a report accusing “the Roman Catholic Church” in the United States of “sitting on billions” while it “amassed taxpayer aid” through the Paycheck Protection Program. 

The AP article, which follows a similar AP report published in July 2020, takes as a whole the assets and investments of the Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools, and other charitable institutions affiliated with the Church in the United States and treats them as a parts of a singular whole.

“Overall, the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses, where bishops and cardinals govern, and other Catholic institutions received at least $3 billion. That makes the Roman Catholic Church perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the paycheck program,” AP concluded.

What is the “Roman Catholic Church,” and can its dioceses, parishes, and other institutions be treated as one single institution? 

Here are the highlights:

  • The Catholic Church is a society, not a monolith. The Catholic Church understands itself to be a communion of people and institutions, not a singular organization. Its legal structures are designed to reflect that theology.
  • Many news reports fail to understand the legal and theological distinctions between a diocese, a parish, a Catholic school, and other Catholic institutions like a cemetery. Those organizations are canonically distinct, and almost always distinct in civil law as well. Bishops don’t control the cash of most organizations within their jurisdiction – and for theological reasons connected to the Church’s basic self-understanding.
  • The Vatican has insisted for more than a century that U.S. Catholic bishops ensure the legal and financial organization of Catholic institutions reflect Catholic theology, and that distinct realities are not treated in law or practice as a single organization.
  • Many dioceses are associated with affiliated but independent Catholic foundations, that exist to make grants to Catholic institutions and projects from the revenue of investments. While those foundations are often asset-heavy, their cash is restricted by the intentions — often legally binding — of the donors who gave the money, and the agreements spelling out its use.

Want to know more? The Pillar takes a deeper look at how the Catholic Church in the United States is organized:

Read more at The Pillar

Share with Friends: