Should Catholic Dioceses Lose Their Tax Exempt Status Because of Political Involvement?

July 24, 2012

A law professor at Duquesne University, a Catholic campus in Pittsburgh, is arguing that certain bishops have overstepped the boundaries of their tax exempt status and entered the world of politics in their zeal for opposing the Health and Human Services mandate on contraception and a marriage equality initiative.

In an essay in America magazine, Nicholas P. Cafardi explains his case:

“During a sermon in the cathedral church of St. Mary’s in Peoria, Ill., on April 14, Bishop Daniel Jenky compared what he called the “extreme secularist agenda” of President Obama with the anti-Catholic programs of, among others, Hitler and Stalin, two of the 20th century’s worst mass murderers. In the same month, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, Wash., launched a signature drive in every parish of his archdiocese to put Referendum 74 on the statewide ballot. The referendum would repeal Washing-ton’s new same-sex marriage law.

“What Bishop Jenky did is called ‘electioneering.’ He intervened in a political campaign in opposition to one of the candidates. What Archbishop Sartain did is called “lobbying.” He intervened in an attempt to pass legislation. Both men did so using their episcopal office. Bishop Jenky spoke from the pulpit of his cathedral during Mass. Archbishop Sartain sent his Referendum 74 letter out on archdiocesan stationery. There is no doubt that both men were acting in their official capacities on behalf of the church and not as Citizen Jenky and Citizen Sartain.

“Why does that make a difference? Quite simply because tax-exempt churches—on whose behalf Bishop Jenky and Archbishop Sartain were acting—are under serious legal restrictions when it comes to electioneering and lobbying activities. Churches cannot electioneer at all. The prohibition is absolute. They may not intervene in any way in a campaign for political office either in favor of a candidate or in opposition to one. With lobbying, an attempt to influence legislation, there is some wiggle room. There the law allows churches to lobby, but only to an ‘insubstantial’ degree.”

Cafardi goes on to explain, in lay people’s terms,  the origin of the Internal Revenue Service tax code which prohibits such activity, and then explains the difficulty of pinning such violations on bishops and dioceses:

“Churches can certainly advocate on social issues they perceive to have a moral component without violating the tax code. But once a church’s advocacy goes beyond issues and, without a legitimizing invitation from the legislature itself, addresses a pending law—urging voters directly (called grassroots lobbying) or urging legislators to act (called direct lobbying)—a line has been crossed. Advocacy for or against pending laws and referendums is lobbying, pure and simple, and tax-exempt churches may not use tax-exempt dollars to affect the legislative process, except ‘insubstantially.’

“There is the rub for Archbishop Sartain. Depending upon how many church resources he is using (staff time, church publications, advertisements and so on, backed by tax-exempt church dollars) to get Referendum 74 on the statewide ballot, what he is doing may or may not be considered ‘substantial’ lobbying. Using even one tax-exempt church dollar, though, to stir up opposition to the legally recognized civil rights of others is objectionable, no matter what the tax code says about it.”

Nicholas Cafardi

What’s more, Cafardi points out, is the difficulty in assigning a penalty to such violations:

“A practical problem with our bishops’ violating the tax code’s restrictions on political activities is that the Internal Revenue Service has only limited means to stop them. The I.R.S. can either use the nuclear option and revoke the archdiocese’s tax exemption, which is so drastic as to be unthinkable, or it can use the fly-swatter option and fine the diocese for the amount it spent on the prohibited political activity under Section 4955 of the tax code. For example, what was the cost to the Diocese of Peoria of Bishop Jenky’s political homily? The cost of opening up the cathedral that day? The utility costs? A prorated portion of the bishop’s salary? We are talking about a small amount, hardly the kind of fine that hurts. So legal penalties do not work in such cases. Most Americans might think the simple fact that this is the law would restrain politically overzealous bishops, but that has not worked either.”

But Cafardi suggests that the bishops might be applying their own penalty to themselves with their political involvement because polls continually show that most Catholics, particularly young Catholics, are increasingly alienated from the church when the bishops speak and act politically:

“In a survey conducted among 16- to 29-year-olds by the Barna Group in 2007, nine of this age cohort’s top 12 perceptions of Christianity were not good ones. They found Christianity to be judgmental (87 percent), hypocritical (85 percent) and too involved in politics (75 percent). That is some troika.

“In another 2012 survey of college-age millennials (18- to 24-year-olds) conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, it was found that 64 percent think that ‘anti-gay’ is an accurate description of Christianity today. An almost equal portion in this survey, 62 percent, also find modern Christianity to be ‘judgmental.’ Now some readers might opine that religion is supposed to be judgmental; it is supposed to distinguish right from wrong and that these surveys reveal only that young people prefer the relativism of their own generation to the church’s rules. Maybe. But perhaps we should also recall that we worship a Lord who said, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’ (Mt 7:1).

“In 2008, during the last presidential election, the Pew Research Center conducted a study on church endorsement of candidates for political office. The results are revealing. When asked if churches should endorse one candidate over another, the Pew poll found that in the total population of those polled, 29 percent said yes, but 66 percent said no. When the breakdown was by faiths, among all Catholics, 30 percent said yes and 67 percent said no. Among white, non-Hispanic Catholics, 26 percent said yes and 70 percent said no. Those are rather overwhelming numbers, indicating that bishops who intervene in politics are working against their own interests. Their people are not going to hear them.

“If the bishops’ politics are keeping people, especially young people, out of the pews, then perhaps they need to ask themselves a critical question: What is more important to them, political goals or the salvation of souls? If our bishops choose to ignore the law’s restrictions on their political activity, they should at least listen to the Lord, who talked about leaving the 99 sheep to go find the lost one (Lk 15:5). In the final analysis, our bishops will not be judged on how many presidents they helped to elect or how many laws they helped to pass, but on how many of those lost sheep they rescued.”

What is even more troubling has been that the response of many bishops to such questions about their tax-exempt status has been to grandstand that their religious liberty is being attacked.  As the statistics Cafardi notes show, it’s time that bishops worry less about religious liberty and more about the crumbling faith of the next generation.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 


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