A Church that is poor?

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a statement, that the “Catholic Church” encompasses the hundreds of individual Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools, social-service agencies, and other organisations that collectively employ thousands of people, and so is not prohibited from receiving taxpayer-backed federal aid.

Aug 01, 2020

By Massimo Faggioli
What to make of the fact that the Catholic Church received $1.4 billion from the US government’s Paycheck Protection Programme?

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a statement, that the “Catholic Church” encompasses the hundreds of individual Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools, social-service agencies, and other organisations that collectively employ thousands of people, and so is not prohibited from receiving taxpayer-backed federal aid.

"The Paycheck Protection Programme (PPP) 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,” his statement read in part. A range of Catholic media outlets have made the same observation, and it seems clear there is less to this “story” than meets the eye.

Yet at the same time, we should remain mindful about the constitutional and political issues concerning the relationship between Church and state, and the continued need for financial accountability and transparency in light of the links between the sexual abuse crisis and financial mismanagement in Catholic institutions. It seems that some of the objection to PPP funding for the Church arises from the belief that the money could be used to pay settlements and legal costs associated with sex abuse cases and other scandals. And this unfortunately speaks to the level of regard many people have for the Catholic Church today.

But we might also use the moment to think about the larger ecclesiological and theological issues raised by the increasingly decisive role of money in the life of the Church, especially the U.S. Catholic Church. As a result of changes in Catholic political culture since the twentieth century, wealthy donors have acquired the kind of legitimacy that the institutional Church might have once conferred on emperors, kings, and princes — as evidenced now in the expanding influence of conservative and traditionalist Catholic groups and Catholic business leaders. But this development itself arises in part from four decades of hostility to government spend ing and the dismantling of federal social service programmes, which has raised the pressure on Catholic organisations to provide more of these services than at any time since those programmes were implemented in the twentieth century.

The donations the Catholic Church gets from these private entities don’t necessarily come out of sympathy or support for the work it’s doing in these areas; rather, the contributions can sometimes be meant to influence the Church’s position on issues like immigration, the environment, and the economy. But in the case of the PPP payouts, we are talking about taxpayer money. And this should make us think about the complex meaning of “poor Church” in the recent Catholic tradition, and what that idea means going forward.

Contemporary Catholic teaching on this matter begins with Vatican II. The documents of the council were somewhat ambivalent on the subject of the relationship between the Church and the political, social, and economic status quo, as well as state support (financial and otherwise) for the Catholic Church. The ambivalence was a reflection of differing sensibilities evident at Vatican II — illustrated, for example, by the “Catacombs’ Pact of the Poor and Servant  Church” on the one hand,  and the more capitalist-friendly position of European and North American bishops.

French Dominican Yves Congar, probably the most influential theologian at the council, helped shape a new understanding of the “poor Church” with his 1963 book, For a Servant and Poor Church (republished in several languages since the election of Pope Francis). Congar described the essential vocation of the Church as service to a neighbour, in direct connection with a love for poverty. He referred to the contrast seen through history between a Church destined to be poor, like Christ, and one that through its representatives manifests outwardly as rich.

But his was not a materialistic concept: Congar understood the idea of poverty in the Church as Christological (the only wealth of the Church is Christ) and ecclesiological (the poor are a sacrament of our encounter with God). Congar never really addressed what it means in the literal financial sense to be a “poor Church.” Rather, Church-and-poverty was to be understood in a universal sense: all members of the Church are the poor.

The unresolved tension between “rich Church” and “Church for the poor” is evident in the conciliar constitution Lumen Gentium,  paragraph eight:

“Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution, so the Church is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to men. Christ Jesus, ‘though He was by nature God...emptied Himself, taking the nature of a slave,’ and ‘being rich, became poor’ for our sakes. Thus, the Church, although it needs human resources to carry out its mission, is not set up to seek earthly glory, but to proclaim, even by its own example, humility and self-sacrifice.”

The Church needs to follow Christ in poverty and persecution, but it also needs human resources to carry out its mission. The “both and” that is typical of Catholicism helps in articulating how the idea of “poor Church” can be understood.

As interpretations of Vatican II changed during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there was less emphasis on the idea of the poor Church, paralleling Vatican disavowals of liberation theology that had begun in the early 1980s. But suddenly, in 2013, the election of Pope Francis helped bring back the idea of a poor Church. The name the new pope took was itself an indication of this. “Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor,” he said a few days after his election, confirming he would resume the interrupted discourse of Vatican II. Francis’s relationship with liberation theology might be complicated, but he clearly speaks a different language than his predecessors on the idea of a poor Church.

There are some post-Vatican II dilemmas to deal with. In many countries, including the United States, the Catholic Church is not only an important advocate for the voiceless, but also literally a lifeline. What are the costs for the poor of having a poor Church? Though the Church cannot afford to be politicized, it retains the right and duty to be political, as is necessary for its prophetic mission. To be prophetic means renouncing the privileges granted through concordats or other unwritten clauses and edicts. But a radical withdrawal from the public square would mean losing the platform to speak in favour and on behalf of those excluded from or suffering under the economic system. ––Commonweal

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