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.”
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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