As Jorge Bergoglio ascended to the role of Pope, he not only became the sole spiritual leader of one of the world’s largest religions, but also the head of what might be the wealthiest organization in the world.
Ignoring proverbs about “camels” and “pin heads” and “it is as hard for a camel to get through a pin’s head as it is for a rich man to enter heaven,” the Catholic Church has accrued, through its 2,000-year history, enormous assets. But assessing this wealth is tricky. First, this might be because in many areas, religious organizations are exempt from taxes and financial disclosures that they would otherwise have to report—as many nonprofit and corporations do. This is the case in the United States, which is one of the strongest branches of the Church in terms of cash flow. With its network of schools, hospitals, charities, clients, and wealth donors, the Church oversees an enormous cash flow.
Our best window into the overall financial picture of American Catholicism comes from a 2012 investigation by the Economist, which offered a rough-and-ready estimate of $170 billion in annual spending, of which almost $150 billion is associated with church-affiliated hospitals and institutions of higher education. The operating budget for ordinary parishes, at around $11 billion a year, is a relatively small share, and Catholic Charities is a smaller share still.
Apple and General Motors, by way of comparison, each had revenue of about $150 billion worldwide in Fiscal Year 2012. Legally speaking, there is no such thing as “the Catholic Church,” which is why these finances get so complicated. As far as the law is concerned, each diocese is a separate legal entity, incorporated in the states where it operates. Generally speaking, they are organized as what’s known as a corporation sole—a legal corporation wholly controlled by the individual bishop rather than a board of directors—and not officially part of any larger transnational spiritual organization. This has led to conflicts during the sex abuse scandals. Lawsuits have caused disputes about how deep the church’s pockets go and who should pay.
The few instances of parish bankruptcy shed surprisingly little light on the financial strength of the Church. Parishes operate under a specific diocese and Bishop, who organize finances with differing levels of autonomy. When donors give to parishes, chances are that part of their donation goes back into a pool of funds for the diocese. And no clear rule in Canon Law dictates how these finances are supposed to be used or divided, so in some cases pooled funds end up drained because of individual parishes actions. The financial and First Amendment difficulties of addressing these mingling finances poses a challenge as religious organizations are becoming more politicized and secularized.
However, as Matthew Yglesias at Slate notes, the Catholic Church is only the biggest player in a game played by many religious-financial networks:
Given America’s diverse religious landscape, the Catholic Church is hardly unique in taking advantage of the First Amendment to engage in some opaque accounting. It’s simply the largest player in this game. Lawrence Wright’s recent Scientology exposé, Going Clear, reveals egregious exploitation of religious privileges for the personal financial benefit of church leaders. Or consider the case of the Tennessee pastor arrested on money laundering and drug charges only because a local TV news investigation revealed that he was using donations to pay off what amounted to personal debts.