“I kept telling him the Church is not Walmart”

CARA responds to The Economist’s assessment of Church finances.

While The Economist’s recent article on the “poorly coordinated” and “sloppy” state of the American Catholic Church’s finances—which it cheekily dubs “an unholy mess”—has been widely circulated in Catholic and non-Catholic corners of the Internet, one social scientist interviewed for the piece has serious reservations about some of the piece’s conclusions.

Dr. Mark M. Gray is a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, and says he was contacted several times by a reporter doing research for the Economist article. At the time of the interviews, Gray writes at the CARA blog, he was concerned that the reporter “doesn’t quite get the Church.”

“He seemed stunned to find out that the Catholic Church in the United States doesn’t have a neat and tidy set of financials done annually,” Gray writes. “He felt the Church should be doing what any multinational corporation would do. I kept telling him the Church is not Walmart.”

Gray says that reading the final article, published this week, hasn’t improved his opinion of the reporter’s grasp on the subject, and “has shaken my opinion of the publication a bit”:

As an institution, the Church is nearly 2,000 years old and its structure was fashioned well before modern communication. This reality required significant local autonomy. Priests were responsible for parishes, bishops for dioceses. This same feudal-like structure persists. Add on to this the development of colleges, schools, hospitals, and charities that were often associated with religious orders. Separate aspects of the Church operate for the most part independently—with their own leadership, budgets, revenues, and obligations (perhaps some of the frustration from The Economist comes from the realization that financials do exist for each of these institutions and organizations but it would take forever to collect and tally them all).

What The Economist doesn’t appear to get is that the institutions of the Church are incredibly decentralized—operating as individual entities under the pastoral umbrella of the Church. The pope is not a CEO sitting in the Vatican with a big map saying “build a parish here, a hospital here, and close that school over there.” Yet this is what The Economist wants the Church to be (maybe they’ve watched The Da Vinci Code a few too many times?). Throughout The Economist’s story there is an underlying tone or belief by the reporter that the Church has this information but is withholding it—“the Church does not release such figures.”  The reporter fails to understand that the Church does not have these figures (e.g., aggregated annual spending by all entities of the Church, all donations to Church entities) because it has no apparatus to collect them. 

Gray notes that he doesn’t believe the problems with the Economist article stem from any particular anti-Catholic bias on the part of the reporters who worked on it, but that “the errors in the story are rooted in a lack of information and poor understanding of the data collected.” He also says that the reporter he spoke with for the piece “has written in the past about bishops needing to be more like CEOs, to get MBA-like training, and to treat their ministry like business instead of family.” Gray also states that while he believes the Church would benefit from “more financial oversight”

I’m not sure the effort that it would take to create an annual summary of the Church’s finances for every parish, school, hospital, and charity around the world would be the best use of its time… I also think that such a device would not prevent, reduce, or deter any illegal or abusive activity, just as it fails to do so in the corporate world.

The Economist article can be read here.

Gray’s response can be read here.

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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.