Governance and Trust

(Why The Bishops Are Wrong, Part I)

A few posts ago, we learned that the bishops' opposition to the abuse reform Bill 1523 boiled down to three points. The MCC claimed that the bill would:
1) upset the reasonable balance of rights and interests struck by current legislative and judicial policies governing civil statutes of limitations;
2) destroy the protections of charitable immunity which exists for legitimate reasons based on the social contributions generally provided by non-profit, religious, and other charitable organizations;
3) inflict “no-fault” punishment contrary to reason and justice.
In the coming posts we will examine these objections. For now it's enough to point out that # 1 is a defense of the status quo (it assumes that the current balance of rights between victims and perpetrators is just).
# 2 rests largely on an argument that has unfortunately become very familiar –"We are too big to fail."
# 3 asserts that a corporation should not be punished for the actions of its employees.

Many of the arguments of the MCC have merit when viewed in isolation. But, if one takes the time to study the issues it becomes clear that there is a larger picture which the objections do not address.

In the previous post, we suggested that the MCC, though it claims to speak for the entire church, actually speaks only for the bishops. Specifically, the MCC does not solicit the views of the laity prior to giving testimony before committees of the legislature. Nor does it encourage discussion within the church in order to arrive at the conclusions claimed to represent the Catholic position on public policy.

By these actions, the MCC slights the canonical body, the true church, in favor of the corporations of the respective dioceses. To be sure, the corporations are necessary, since the church could not operate in the civil arena without this license. But even though the corporations are important, they are not the church.

Thus, it is not only the content of the bishops' objections to the reform bill that is wrong – the way that these objections are arrived at, and how they are expressed, is also wrong. It is telling that when testimony is actually made in front of the joint committee, the language is unabashedly corporate. Gone is the pretense that "giving witness to spiritual values" or adherence to a "moral vision" are what that MCC is after. Instead, this is legal hardball – and sounds like it. Where does this disconnect from the simple message of the Man from Galilee come from? The problem can be summed up in one word: governance.

The bishops justify their preference for centralized power on a hierarchical understanding of the church. There are many problems with this approach, but the most serious is that it tends to favor centralization at the expense of community. Catholicism could survive without corporations, but not without community.

Those wielding centralized power occupy the "pointy end of the pyramid". But, they are only some of the many. The center of gravity should arguably be in the opposite direction, toward the bottom of the pyramid.

In church doctrine, the pope is the figurehead, but he is also described as the "servant of the servants", i.e., of the bishops. This ends in mystery because now the highest point of the pyramid is also the lowest. But, the church as Mystery is another perfectly respectable way to look at the church, and is itself more aligned with authentic Catholic values than centralization. At any rate, the more we look at corporate structure, the less it resembles what the church needs to be, a point not lost on canon law scholars who deplore the use of corporate structures in the church. See for example page 1457 of the "New Commentary on Canon Law" (2000) by Beal and others.

But, if we talked about church doctrine more, we would probably never find our way back to the Boston Common, so let's move on to the church/state dynamic.

According to the James Madison Center on Free Speech:
Almost all churches are exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code on the basis that they are “operated exclusively for religious, charitable . . . or educational purposes.” As a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, a church:

(1) is exempt from paying corporate income taxes and donations to it are tax deductible for federal income tax purposes, and

(2) may expend funds for religious, charitable and educational purposes and an insubstantial amount on lobbying to promote legislation.
The amount spent on lobbying referred to in (2) cannot be too much. Generally, this "insubstantial" amount is judged to be between 5 and 20% of "funds".

More important is the opening definition, which suggests that it is the "exclusive" nature of the mission (religious, charitable, or educational) that makes it worthy of protection. Charities must be charities and cannot cross the line into political advocacy, nor can they become for-profit enterprises without losing their charitable status.

Taken together, these rules have been interpreted to mean that a charity must be generous toward all citizens: it is not allowed to discriminate, for example, by limiting services to its own adherents.

By furnishing desirable goods and service, the charity relieves the state of those burdens – and in return, the charitable organization is tax exempt. The church and state may be separate, but they don't operate in isolation. If it's reasonable to give the church a break (a tax break) it is no less reasonable to expect that the church will offer charity to all citizens, regardless of religious affiliation.

And yet, because the church is non-profit, the support of its adherents is crucial. To gain and keep this support, trust between adherents and officials must be maintained. Without that trust, the very existence of the church would be in doubt. Indeed, some commentators feel that the Roman Catholic church may have already reached that stage.

A key objection of the MCC to the abuse reform bill is that it would strip away the charitable immunity law which protects the church from large damage awards. But, this is not the only way that the church could go under. The church is just as vulnerable to a gradual loss of funding caused by a slow but discernible loss of trust among its adherents.

It's important to keep this trust issue in mind as we proceed. We next examine the first objection that the MCC raises to Bill 1523: the crucial importance of statute of limitations.

(to be continued)