AP report on the Catholic Church and COVID relief is misleading and biased

Unfortunately, the many dubious or incorrect claims presented by the Associated Press are being used by some Catholics to unfairly attack the U.S. bishops.

President Donald Trump signs the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act at the White House in Washington April 24, 2020. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

On February 3rd, the Associated Press took a second bite out of the apple by returning to their biased and deliberately misleading article of July 10, 2020, expressing outrage that Catholic institutions received loans and grants from the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) as part of the CARES Act. On February 5th, Dr. Taylor Marshall, on his regular podcast, weighed in on the side of the AP. For those who don’t recognize the name, Marshall presents himself as a “traditional” or “traditionalist” Catholic (even a “Radtrad”). I believe we should all be “traditional” Catholics; truth be told, I don’t know of any other real brand of Catholic. Unfortunately, Marshall’s brand often leads him into very anti-institutional waters. His presentation on this past Friday is a prime example.

Marshall begins by indicating that he will be sharing with his viewers a synopsis of the AP story of the previous day. Very honestly, he acknowledges that AP is not always reliable, however, he says he will nonetheless rely on their data; if, however, there are any inaccuracies, they are not his, but theirs. Is this a responsible approach to the matter? 

Lest anyone be deceived into thinking that the article would be fair and balanced, within the first half-dozen paragraphs, we learn that Catholic institutions benefitted from the PPP – a program “created to keep Main Street and Americans employed.” The problem is that the Diocese of Orange, with its “sparkling glass cathedral” and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, whose former bishop “embezzled funds,” were beneficiaries. Reese Dunklin and Michael Rezendes1 allege that the Catholic Church got “preferential treatment” since no organization with more than 500 employees was eligible and dioceses do have more than 500 employees. The problem with the statement is that it is false, from both a civil and canonical standpoint. The reporters have taken all Catholic workers within a diocese and amassed the numbers, which is incorrect. Under civil law, parishes and schools and dioceses are separately incorporated, even while they do, of course, have real and ongoing relationships and connections with each other. [Editor’s note: For a more detailed explanation, see “A society, not a monolith: What the Catholic Church is, and is not” at The Pillar.]

The writers go on to complain that the Catholic Church was “among the major beneficiaries in the PPP.” And rightly so, since the Catholic Church through its schools and social services is the largest non-governmental employer in the country. And those Catholic programs benefit the entire society, without regard for religious affiliation. Dunklin and Rezendes grudgingly admit that Catholic schools were particularly hard-hit because many parents could not maintain tuition payments (due to being laid off), thus affecting the school’s ability to pay its teachers (most of whom continued to work, unlike all too many of their government school counterparts). Well, isn’t that the very rationale for the PPP?2

We are told that Catholic institutions don’t deserve that assistance, however, because of the former Cardinal McCarrick, sex abuse claims, and the (much disputed) Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. Once more, the authors admit that the PPP enabled the Church to retain “at least 407,000 jobs.” Then, in a classic effort to “divide and conquer,” the article goes on to note that not all Catholic dioceses applied for PPP, highlighting the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford, Connecticut, because “parishioners responded generously with donations.” With all due respect to the Eparchy, which has about 15,000 Catholics, it does not have the massive social footprint of even a mid-size Latin Rite diocese.

Next, we learn that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Catholic Charities USA “lobbied” Congress for inclusion of “non-profits.” Are Catholics now banned from that all-American activity of lobbying? Is lobbying a sin? A crime? Apparently, only worse than the lobbying was the April teleconference between Catholic educational leaders and President Trump (I was privileged to be one of the participants). With one fell swoop, Catholics and Trump are condemned by association with each other.

Of course, no piece like this would be complete without pulling out of the fire the old chestnut of “the wall of separation between church and state.” To add insult to injury, religious groups don’t deserve any assistance because they already benefit from tax-exemption, we are told. Anticipating the logical response, “Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and attorney who has represented clergy abuse victims on constitutional issues during bankruptcy proceedings” is brought out of the stable with her insight: “At this point, the argument is you’re anti-religious if in fact you would say the Catholic Church shouldn’t be getting government funding.”

The next mortal sin of the Church: She “assembled how-to guides to help their affiliates apply. The national Catholic fiscal conference also hosted multiple webinars with legal and financial experts to help coach along local leaders.” Was it sinful for the civil rights leaders of the 1960s to educate their people on ways to achieve their rightful aspirations? No, only if Catholics do it, it would seem.

Finally, to leave their readers with the punch-line, Catholic institutions are undeserving of any assistance because the Church has “a troubling record on sex abuse.” Needless to say, no consideration is given to public school teachers or Protestant clergy; no, that would provide perspective.

Several Catholic leaders responded to the AP broadside. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York noted:

Make no mistake, the money that the Archdiocese of New York received was used solely for the purposes outlined in the law, that is to continue to pay employees their salaries and benefits. Not one penny of that money was used in any way to settle lawsuits or pay victim-survivors of abuse. We have none of this money left. It has all been distributed to our workers, and the government is carefully auditing it.

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the US bishops’ committee on domestic justice and human development, also wrote a response to the July AP story: “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.” He went on, expanding on a point I made earlier:

The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental supplier of social services in the United States. Each year, our parishes, schools and ministries serve millions of people in need, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. The novel coronavirus only intensified the needs of the people we serve and the demand for our ministries. The loans we applied for enabled our essential ministries to continue to function in a time of national emergency. In addition, shutdown orders and economic fallout associated with the virus have affected everyone, including the thousands of Catholic ministries — churches, schools, healthcare and social services — that employ about 1 million people in the United States.

Further: “These loans have been an essential lifeline to keep hundreds of thousands of employees on payroll, ensure families maintain their health insurance, and enable lay workers to continue serving their brothers and sisters during this crisis.”

That is the article that I submit Marshall had a moral obligation to read thoroughly and critically before recommending AP’s follow-up piece, along with Catholic reactions to it.

The most recent effort of AP reprises much of the same material as the earlier. The new piece, however, attempts to appear more serious and professional as it presents data (although often misinterpreting it or skewing it through ignorance or malice).

The bias against the Catholic Church3 surfaces rather quickly:

. . . Catholic entities amassed at least $3 billion — roughly the same as the combined total of recipients from the other faiths that rounded out the top five, AP found. Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Jewish faith-based recipients also totaled at least $3 billion. Catholics account for about a fifth of the U.S. religious population while members of Protestant and Jewish denominations are nearly half, according to the Pew Research Center.

While the statement is true, it fails to take into account that, although comprising only about 20% of the population, the Catholic Church’s outreach is out-sized.

The central premise of the new AP story is that Catholic institutions didn’t “need” the PPP; after all, the Church is a real estate magnate and loaded with disposal cash; I suppose a Catholic cemetery could be sold off to make up for the short-fall in tuition payments. The authors bring to their side a priest who, in a previous incarnation, was an accountant. Father James Connell lays aside his accountancy skills and dons his theologian’s biretta, insisting repeatedly that while the Church may have “wanted” the aid, she didn’t “need” it, thus rendering her application and acceptance of the financial assistance immoral. When your first premise is wrong, your conclusion will necessarily be wrong. To lend an air of professionalism, the independent ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service is enlisted to analyze diocesan finances.

The piece concludes with a broadside against the Archdiocese of Boston for accepting PPP funds for four schools it eventually closed, apparently ignoring the fact that the funds were needed to pay the teachers for the semester that had concluded before closure.

Marshall begins his podcast by asserting that the churches don’t deserve any aid because they were all shut down for months. If you don’t work, why should you be paid? Makes sense, except that the reality is quite different. Marshall conflates the availability of Sunday Mass with the total work of a parish. The vast majority of parishes offered “virtual” Masses (which I would not have done for various reasons, but that’s a topic for another time), devotions, phone calls to shut-ins; food banks went into overdrive. While it is shamefully true that some (some, not all, not even many) priests essentially closed down, most priests will tell you that their ministry was actually more burdened during the shut-downs due to the necessity of making so many adjustments to their normal practice.

Marshall piggy-backs on the claims of Father Connell and repeats countless times that the Church did not “need” the assistance and thereby, in effect, stole the resources from truly needy persons or small businesses. Very uncritically, he also assumes the validity of the AP assault on the Archdiocese of Boston for having accepted PPP funds for schools that eventually closed. In a total non sequitur, he argues that since churches do not pay taxes (he approves of that exemption), they should not receive any governmental assistance. Millions of Americans do not pay tax for a variety of reasons, but that does not thereby exclude them from obtaining necessary benefits. Marshall likens the American bishops’ request for and reception of aid to the situation of the Church in Germany; he is quite correct in condemning the German episcopate’s chowing down at the public trough, but that is not what is operative here. Distinctions are important.

Marshall expresses distress that many dioceses not only complied with state restrictions on public worship but even went beyond in certain instances. My reading of the situation is this: Bishops did a pre-emptive strike by anticipating potential regulations, precisely to avoid the image of cow-towing to the State. Beyond that, a legitimate fear underlay it all, namely, that in our litigious culture lawsuits for “wrongful death” could be brought forth. It is not far-fetched to imagine a grandson (who hadn’t seen his grandmother in years) suing a parish or diocese because Granny died from COVID-19, allegedly contracted because she went to church. It seems to me that these are reasonable explanations, which Marshall never entertains.

The second AP article endeavors to show that many dioceses did rather well, overall, in spite of losses sustained due to the pandemic. Marshall uses that information to suggest that some bishops may decide to prolong the closures, precisely for financial gain. This is calumny, pure and simple, unworthy of a Christian gentleman. In a most ludicrous speculation, he hypothesizes that Biden might purchase episcopal support by bribing them with further financial incentives. But President Biden is completely in the other camp: he is opposed to any school choice programs; he wants to renew the attack on the Little Sisters of the Poor; he has already acted against the sanctity of human life and the natural meaning of human sexuality. This is the man who would buy Catholic endorsement? Indeed, everything that Archbishop Gomez cautioned about in his statement on Inauguration Day has already proven true.

Taylor Marshall is an intelligent young man, theologically astute. Of late, I am afraid that he has allowed his disapproval of Pope Francis to cloud his judgment and fairness. I get it; I understand the problem and am quite sympathetic. However, to lob a broadside against the American hierarchy is to take aim at the wrong target. A wise adage has circulated for the past few years, and it is worth adopting here: “Just because someone commits spiritual murder, you shouldn’t commit spiritual suicide.”

Endnotes:

1Rezendes was part of the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe that did everything possible to bloody the Church at the time of the sexual abuse crisis.

2In this context, I am thinking of my own home parish where I went to high school. The parish is responsible for an elementary school with more than 600 children and a high school with over 700 students. Counting up administrators, faculty and staff, we come to nearly 150 employees for the two schools alone. Those people needed to be paid as a matter of justice. PPP accomplished that.

3The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. characterized prejudice against Catholics as “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” It is still alive and well.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 200 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

22 Comments

  1. Marshall’s podcasts are usually sensationalist hit pieces against the Church, that do nothing but foment discord among the faithful. He attracts attention by his high school drama queen rhetoric. His opinions, presented as fact, should to be held up against the light of the catechism and taken with a grain of salt.

  2. While I am sure that the AP article was a hit piece and totally unfair.

    And I will admit I didn’t read Marshall’s post.

    I would guess Marshall’s objection, which is also my own, is that money corrupts. While totally legal and perhaps even arguably prudent in this case getting money from the state often makes you less likely to speak truth to power, more likely to compromise and deny the Faith to appease those who hold the purse (and in the case of the state perhaps popular opinion), and creates peverse incentives to act in particular ways.

    Without PPP would bishops have protected people’s jobs by pushing back on dumb lock downs? Would Catholic school students been back in school late last year and been left unmolested by the state this year improving BOTH their intellectual/ mental/ spiritual health and the likelihood that their public school peers would have returned to school feeling the prophetic witness of the Church. Would they have led (instead of following as the money encourages) a dialogue about risk and the theology and morality of risk taking that considered things other than the 2019 cold with a slightly elevated death rate (0.6 overall, less than 0.02 for our students)? If we weren’t getting money would we have denied people access to the sacraments wholesale for three months. Not having read what Marshall said, rejecting the notion of a legal separation between Church and State (except non-establishment), and admitting the anti-Catholic bias of the AP–I still think taking the money will serve the American Church as poorly as government handouts have in Germany and Italy.

    • FrRon: Interesting points, deserving of a clear article on the topic: Does the Church acceptance of Government fund result in Bishops unwillingly kowtowing to the state. The general lack of pushback by Bishops against goverment mandates on mass attendance etc. is disturbing.

      In general think the main stream press is hostile to the Catholic Church and are anti Catholic bigots.

      • “My reading of the situation is this: Bishops did a pre-emptive strike by anticipating potential regulations, precisely to avoid the image of cow-towing to the State. ” Such thinking could justify the most cowardly subservience we see the Chinese patriotic church performing for the china communist party.

        Father Ron is right. There are lockdown suicides on the hands of the bishops who could have put refusal of ppp funds to work as moral lobbying credit for the opening of churches and schools, if not for all small businesses. Instead they have squandered their authority and consigned american Catholics to their own “patriotic” church, and all of america to a communist society.

        It will be harder now that they have already pinched incense, but they must put their foot down against any vax carding for mass in future. Otherwise they may have a large number of bare ruined choirs on their hands.

    • Excellent comment! I agree wholeheartedly. I’d add only one thing, and that is that I don’t know of a single bishop who offered to give up something in solidarity with the millions who lost jobs. Say, give up their paycheck, or sell some possession, you know, a work of charity. All they did was close the churches and lecture us about cleanliness, AND have their attorneys and bankers file for federal money.

  3. The MSM’s attitude to religion ranges from indifferent/clueless to outright hostile. I highly recommend Terry Mattingly’s website, “get religion”.

  4. Government money has helped corrupt the Church in this country for decades. Every effort should be made to end the addiction, not deepen it. I will concede one point to Father S, however: the bureaucrats at the diocesan headquarters “needed” Federal money in the same way as other government dependents. It beats doing honest work for a living. Finally, I am astonished to read a defense of the self-imposed Mass shutdowns and restrictions that continue to this day in most places on the grounds of a fear of lawsuits, of all things. Perhaps, we should not take any chances and just close down shop forever. If only the fear of legal liability and other more serious consequences would weighed more heavily in the decision-making of the bishops when it came to other matters over the last sixty years.

  5. My take on Taylor Marshall’s podcast was that he was too restrained.

    Nowhere here does Fr. Stravinskas mention the hundreds of millions in endowments and other resources that the US Catholic dioceses have. I wonder if he would care to research that before our tax dollars are further doled out.

  6. Guys like Marshall exist to promote themselves. Marshall even went so far as to promote an inaccurate AP article because it fit his anti-episcopal narrative. Why are we listening to people who sit in their basements and dish advice to the people who have real world responsibilities?! Honest question, how does Marshall make a living? I could be wrong but he has a rich kid vibe.

  7. Whoa! Surely there’s word for this technique of obfuscation by straw man. Perhaps it’s called “Obsfuscataion by Straw Man.”

    Church isn’t an appendage of the State. It shouldn’t act like one.

  8. Nobody can prevent a priest from confessing and giving communion, nobody has the right to stop him. The sacrament must be respected. So even if it is not possible to attend Masses, the faithful can ask to be confessed and to receive Communion. +RS https://t.co/ZvwjSoTpuo

    Cardinal Sarah

  9. The article seems to have missed the main point. I am a Catholic small biz owner, and know many others.
    We wanted to stay open, but couldn’t, because people were locked down. None of us “chose”
    to close, or intentionally turned our customers away. The bishops did just that, before they were mandated to, they just slammed the doors. Any biz that has resources to pay employers to stay home should do so, if they can’t, the employee is “furloughed”. These bishops seemed to think they should be abler to pay employees, using tax dollars, to stay home and watch Netflix, while not serving “customers” their parishioners. Biz owners just wanted to survive, which meant paying the rent. Bishops wanted to hand out free money without providing any services.

  10. As others have said already this article misses the point.

    People are upset that these churches took money that could have gone to small business that were forced to close and feed families. Instead they took money, despite having millions in the bank, laid off employees (a violation of taking the money), and most egregiously closed down the Church! Where is the supernatural faith God will provide? Certainly not in government programs meant for others.

    If these Bishops had the same passion to lobby the government against abortion it would probably be outlawed! Lobbying is not a crime but taking Jesus away from your sheep and not teaching the faith certainly is.

    The fact the Church took money and takes any money from the government is disgusting and a disgrace. By that very taking of the money they are beholden to the powers at be, which beyond a shadow of a doubt, are anti-God and anti-Catholic Church.

    Not to mention the absolute silence by the majority of Bishops against Biden claiming to be Catholic when he promotes abortion among other grave sins. Maybe if you did NOT take his money you would have the courage to speak the TRUTH to him in love for his soul!

    Whatever the slant of the A.P. is immaterial as the fact that the Bishops put the Church in that position of scrutiny to begin with is already in error.

    It is a simple equation. Feed the faithful, the faithful feed the Church. Close and lockout the faithful, they give money elsewhere or look to something else to be fed (not all but most).

    Please don’t defend the insanity.

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