Don't Underestimate Religion's Economic Gifts

EDITORIAL: The Church, of course, is more than a mere religious nonprofit. Our work in society is born not out of a desire to generate economic growth but a desire to witness to Christ in the world.

Bambino Gesu Hospital in Rome.
Bambino Gesu Hospital in Rome. (photo: CNA/Bohumil Petrik)

It would be difficult to convince the staff of a Catholic soup kitchen feeding the homeless that they are actually helping the U.S. economy, but that is exactly what an academic journal reports in its study on the economic impact of America’s churches. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion found that religious communities contribute $1.2 trillion each year to the American economy.

These contributions range from the traditional economic drivers of any business to charitable giving, caring for the sick and poor, education and other kinds of services. That is more than the annual revenues of the top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon and Google, combined. And if the $1.2 trillion is viewed in terms of the Gross Domestic Product, religion in the U.S. would be ranked as the 15th-largest national economy in the world.

The study looked at the 344,894 congregations in the country, from 236 religious denominations (217 are Christian, and the rest include everything from Shinto to Zoroastrianism). What it discovered was that believers are not only contributing massively to the economy, but they are incredibly generous, too. Despite declining religious affiliation in the U.S. population, religious communities have actually tripled the amount of money spent on social programs in the last 15 years, donating $9 billion to the cause.

At a time when the relevance of faith is being questioned by media elites and the government, and when believers — Christians, above all — are being ridiculed and pushed out of the public square, there is now tangible evidence of the practical value that the mere presence of faith offers to America. Believers are a vital and vibrant part of the economic and social life of the United States, as vital and vibrant as at any time in American history.

The raw economic gifts to the country, however noteworthy as they are, tell only part of the tale. The economic influence of churches disproves the notion that the Church plays a marginal role in society and that what Catholics do is mostly destructive or opposed to progress and a stable, decent country. Christians in general, but the Church in particular, provide a staggering number of positive contributions to the common good of America. One in six patients in America is cared for in a Catholic hospital. According to the Catholic Health Association, there were more than 19 million emergency-room visits and nearly 101 million outpatient visits in Catholic hospitals last year. Catholic health-care systems and facilities provide acute care, skilled nursing, hospice, home health, assisted living and senior housing in every state. There are also more than 1,000 daycare centers and orphanages, as well as some 3,000 social-service centers to feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless.

According to The Economist, the Church spends around $170 billion each year on health-care networks, colleges, parishes and day-to-day operations. Catholic institutions also employ more than 1 million people. This makes the Church one of the largest nonprofit employers in the country.

The Church, of course, is more than a mere religious nonprofit. Our work in society is born not out of a desire to generate economic growth but a desire to witness to Christ in the world. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), “The Christian’s program — the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus — is ‘a heart which sees.’ This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly.”

Acting accordingly means that the Church’s members embrace fully Catholic social teachings that proclaim the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death, promote solidarity with the sick and vulnerable and give witness to subsidiarity that keeps services at the local level, where people-to-people interactions are possible and personal transformation can be fostered.

This commitment to the “program of Jesus” is why the Church, why Catholics, fight for the defense of religious liberty. The ability of the Church and her members to be such a powerful and positive contributor to the common good of America requires the freedom and the space to do so. Note well the key difference between the freedom of worship that is often proposed for churches and the freedom to practice our religion. The program does not end when we walk out of the doors of our churches and shrines. It impels us to bring Christ into the world. Pope Francis said bluntly to a meeting of Caritas leadership in Rome, “There is no Church without charity.”

As we have seen, too, the state can be a good partner in serving the poor and the sick, but there are also great risks. As the HHS mandate crisis has proven, the state can try to force people of faith and their institutions to become spiritually dead homunculi — mere copies of secular agencies. And when the Church refuses, the full weight of the state’s levers of pressure and intimidation are brought to bear against it.

We can celebrate the economic contributions of believers to America, but in doing so, we should resist the temptation to place our stress purely in dollars and cents or embrace the mistaken effort to conform to the culture to maximize our influence. We must never forget who we are. “The Church’s deepest nature,” Benedict XVI wrote, “is expressed in her threefold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable.”

That is far more enduring than contributing to economic growth, and of far greater benefit to everyone.