BY FRANCIS LEE, JUNE 19, 2020
“Judas was the first Catholic Bishop to accept a government grant.” — Peter Kreeft
An integral part of Pope Paul VI’s vision of a more “synodal” Church, his muto proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae called for the establishment of national bishops’ conferences. These conferences would advise the Holy See with mundane administrative tasks (e.g., determining priests’ salaries) as well as more spiritual matters, such as recommending episcopal appointments and determining diocesan boundaries.
Ecclesiae Sanctae was promulgated in 1966. Later that year, the American bishops formed themselves into the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2001, the NCCB changed its name to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Today, according to its website, the USCCB’s mission statement is “to promote the greater good which the Catholic Church offers humankind, especially through forms and programs of the apostolate fittingly adapted to the circumstances of time and place.” The Conference employs over three hundred souls; laymen, deacons, priests, and religious staff the various departments, which include Migration and Refugee Services, Cultural Diversity in the Church, Domestic Social Development, International Justice and Peace, Resettlement Services, and Customer and Client Relations—to name just a few.
The daily operations of any vast bureaucracy require enormous sums to continue its mission and remain active in the public square, and the USCCB is no exception. In the latest financial report (which dates to only 2018), the audit disclosed total assets of the USCCB and its affiliates of $365 million, with “total operating revenues, gains, and other supports” of $203 million.
As listed previously, there are many offices—a grand total of thirty-three—which make up the Bishops’ Conference. It can be said that certain departments require more funding than others, as determined by forecasted operating budgets, but as the most recent financial report suggests, the institution is financially stable and even prosperous. Yet the Conference has in recent years sought out and successfully received millions in federal funds.
By far the largest recipient of taxpayer money within the USCCB is the umbrella of the “Resettlement Services” office. According to usaspending.gov, the USCCB received over $2 billion from the federal government between 2008 and 2015 for the purpose of refugee resettlement. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was one of nine major recipients to have been contracted by the federal government to “resettle refugees and asylums,” as stated by James Simpson of Foundation Watch in a piece for the Capital Research Center.
Speaking on the perhaps distorted nature of these massive funding recipients (designated as NGOs), Mr. Simpson further commented: “While six of the nine contractors are affiliated with religious groups, the false notion that they are charitable organizations just doing the Lord’s work needs to be corrected. They are federal contractors, relying on the government for most, and sometimes most all, of their income. This is big business. They do the government’s bidding, whether it honors religious principles or not.”
Deal W. Hudson, former Crisis editor and advisor to President George W. Bush on Catholic policy issues, expressed his own concerns in an interview with LifeSiteNews. “How can either institution call itself ‘Catholic’ when they have created financial dependency of the federal government?” Mr. Hudson asked. “Doesn’t this level of funding make the USCCB hesitant to publicly criticize the Congress and the administration on abortion, same-sex marriage, fetal stem cell research, and euthanasia?”
In response to several questions he received regarding whether the Acton Institute would apply for the small business administration loans under the paycheck protection program during the pandemic, Father Robert Sirico—a parish priest and founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty—gave much-needed advice on “the dangers of accepting government money, even in crisis.” Father Sirico said, “What is pertinent here, and what is of great concern to me, is the way in which government money can cause a mission shift or a mission drift.” He spoke of “the distinct possibility of government intervention that could shift our focus into a different direction than the mission with which we began our endeavors.”
Likewise, we have seen the “mission drift” of the USCCB over the years. The organization seems to be principally a social justice advocacy group—not an instrument for the salvation of souls. The millions in government funding practically forced the Catholic Church to endorse an open border policy on the issue of immigration with virtually none of the nation’s 267 active bishops willing to criticize the government-funded Groupthink.
We are exposed once again in full force to the radical “mission drift” of the Catholic Church hierarchy in recent days. On June 8, Archbishop Gregory of Washington urged his priests to “assemble at Lafayette Park,” emphasizing the importance of the clergy and religious to “please wear cassock,” for a protest near the White House. Many Catholic protesters, including clergy, were seen carrying signs displaying solidarity with Black Lives Matter, an organization which aims to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” requirement and “demand reproductive justice that gives us autonomy over our bodies,” as stated in bold, large-font letters on their website.
Yet liberating the U.S. bishops from the federal government’s purse will not be enough. The decisive action which will guarantee the Church’s full autonomy and sovereignty would be for the USCCB to forfeit its tax-exempt status.
Under the Internal Revenue Service, all Catholic parishes in the United States are classified as tax-exempt and attain recognized 501(c)(3) status since their parent organization, the USCCB, falls under a group exemption status. For the Bishops’ Conference and its subordinate parishes to qualify for its monetary dispensation, they are required by the IRS to “not be an action organization,” which forbids attempts “to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities” and to “participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” 501(c)(3) organizations are also “restricted in how much political and legislative (lobbying) activities they may conduct.”
These binding rules, enforced by the federal government or diocesan bishops, altogether restricts the Catholic Church from professing the totality of the Christian faith in the public square. The fundamental mission of the Church is to save souls, and this requires a public voice, either from the pulpit or on the streets, on subjects ranging from religion to economics and politics. For every debate concerning an objective good or evil, the Church has a definitive answer as taught by Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Church’s centuries-old tradition. But due to its tax-exempt status, the clergy is prohibited from proclaiming this truth. When parishioners seek answers from their pastors in political affairs, their questions remain unanswered, and they instead turn to the various hyper-sensational biased media platforms.
During his brief tilt at the Democratic nomination for president last year, Beto O’Rourke spoke on the issue of churches and mosques opposing same-sex marriage. Mr. O’Rourke insisted, “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution or organization in America that denies the full human rights, and the full civil rights, of everyone in America.” He later rescinded that comment and clarified that “a church would put its tax-exempt status at risk for practices found to be discriminatory when delivering public services, such as adoption services, based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and for engaging in unequal treatment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”
What seemed an empty threat is now a plausible likelihood with the recent Supreme Court ruling of Bostock v. Clayton County, where Justice Neil Gorsuch—bypassing the legislative process—in his majority opinion declared that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts, which “outlawed the discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” must be extended to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, Justice Gorsuch declared that it is “a necessary consequence of that legislative choice” that “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
To object to this ruling and any slight deviation from its full implementation, primarily in employment practices, would most likely entail swift removal of the Church’s tax-exempt status. This day has not arrived yet, though it is a matter of when and not if. The majority opinion stated, “How the doctrines protecting religious liberty interact with Title VII are questions for future cases.”
In his blunt, straightforward response to Bostock v. Clayton County on the Senate floor, Senator Joshua Hawley urgently reminded people of faith that “it’s not time for religious conservatives to shut up. No, we’ve done that for too long. No, it’s time for religious conservatives to stand up and speak out.” The extent to which the USCCB will take heed of this call to duty remains questionable. Will the Church be forced by the federal government to give up its tax-exempt status, as first proposed by Beto O’Rourke, or will it rescind its tax-exempt status out of free will, realizing that the current political reality poses a grave threat to Catholic social doctrine?
To rescue the remnants of the USCCB’s integrity, the time has come for the bishops institution to end their submissive relationship with the federal government.
Once their taxpayer-subsidized budgets are lost, the current number of thirty-three offices will decrease to the basic number required to evangelize. Bishops will be forced to give up their mansion homes and lavish lifestyles and live in solidarity with the brother priests in their charge. In return, our pastors will not be hindered from speaking the truth of Our Lord Jesus Christ out of fear of the federal government.
Given the high probability that our shepherds will not initiate the divorce, it is now incumbent on the government to do so. A friendly president—Donald Trump, for instance—would be doing the Church a great service by ending its 501(c)(3) status. He could, for instance, point to the bishops’ extensive lobbying for open borders immigration. (Of course, religious leaders “preaching politics” is perfectly acceptable to the Left, provided it’s their politics being preached.) Such a landmark decision will serve as a reality check to the institution which has suffered a massive “mission drift” and free its lungs so that it may breathe the full truth of the Gospel once again.
Francis Lee is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He has served on two deployments in the South China Sea as part of Forward Deployed Naval Forces-Japan. His writing has appeared in The Imaginative Conservative, Catholic World Report, and OnePeterFive. The views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Department of Defense (DoD).