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.
On several occasions, abuse-related litigation has inspired dioceses to declare bankruptcy, which offers a rare window into the internal financial organization of the institution. Individual parishes, though operating under the umbrella of the relevant bishop, have a fair degree of financial autonomy. They conduct separate fundraising and maintain separate expenses. That way, parish donors can feel they’re bolstering their particular community and not an impersonal bureaucracy. But it’s common for parish investment funds within a single diocese to be pooled. When a diocese declares bankruptcy, this raises the question of whether pooled parish investment funds are available to be seized by the bishop’s creditors or whether they exist separately.