It is no surprise that Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools and organizations have been profoundly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. With unemployment impacting so many Catholic families, as well as the canceling of Masses and their offertory collections, many Catholic institutions and the communities they serve are in precarious shape.
A recent survey of bishops by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that nearly 50% of Catholic dioceses have eliminated or considered eliminating diocesan programs. The Archdiocese of New York has announced the closing of 20 schools, and other dioceses may soon follow suit. CARA reported 17% of dioceses have been forced to furlough or lay off workers, and more shoes are likely to drop if this crisis lasts into the fall.
These statistics — like all the statistics coming from this relentless pandemic — can be numbing. Yet what we are talking about is our neighbors and their families: teachers, maintenance workers, secretaries, workers in Catholic Charities agencies, bookkeepers. We are talking about families that are suffering not just from the threat of the disease but also the threat of unemployment or reduced income.
All of which is why Catholics have been upset about a July 10 Associated Press story suggesting that it was somehow wrong for Catholic organizations, dioceses and parishes to receive emergency loans under the government’s Paycheck Protection Plan. The AP published a long article detailing the Catholic Church’s “special and unprecedented exemption” to “amass at least $1.4 billion in taxpayer-backed coronavirus aid, with millions going to dioceses that have paid huge settlements … because of clergy sexual abuse cover-ups.”
The AP stitched together a wealth of implications: That the church should not receive government funds, while also implying that it was somehow bailing out the church from its sex abuse liabilities.
What was unsaid was that the “special exemption” was afforded to all religious groups, an exemption approved by Congress and signed by the president. Nor did the law that was passed say that any company or organization facing lawsuits was to be excluded. The loans were intended to help meet payrolls and keep organizations and companies afloat, and that is just what they did.
It felt like a cheap shot by the AP at a favorite punching bag, overlooking the reality of this pandemic and the needs of parishes and dioceses, but also overlooking all the ways that Catholic organizations have been helping communities suffering the impact of the pandemic.
“The Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental supplier of social services in the United States,” said Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic policy committee in response to the AP story. He said the loans allowed “essential ministries to continue to function in a time of national emergency.”
“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,” he added.
Many jobs were saved by the PPP loans, but thousands continue to be at risk. Catholics have been slow to return to Mass because of the continued threat of the pandemic, and churches are closing again in California and elsewhere.
There are two lessons from all of this. The first is that your parish, your diocese, your school, your Catholic Charities office need your help. If you can give, please give. The crisis is far from over.
The second is that the AP story is exactly why we need a dynamic, responsive Catholic press. We need to be able to tell our story, honestly and fully. We can’t count on others to get it right.
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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.