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Story Publication logo March 11, 2013

Religious Funding in Italy and America

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Cardinals in Rome ordered two investigations of American nuns. Is this a modern-day Inquisition...

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Nuns visiting Apostolic Palace for cardinals’ reception. Image by Jason Berry. Vatican City, 2012.

The deepening priest shortage has had a severe financial impact on the Roman Catholic Church. Pastors are the fundraisers for each parish. Twenty percent of U.S. parishes operate without a priest. Heavy losses from sex abuse lawsuits, moving north of $3 billion now, have taken a heavy toll. So have demographic trends. Old urban cores where ethnic Catholics of yesteryear raised large families have given way to smaller families who settle in suburbs or more affluent neighborhoods. Since 1995, bishops have closed more than 1400 churches – that's in excess of one church per week for eighteen years.

As I learned on assignment for GlobalPost and National Catholic Reporter, with assistance from the Pulitzer Center, many nuns are filling the gap as parish administrators. Sisters are running food pantries, outreach for the sick and elderly – in short, doing everything but saying Mass.

But religious sisters face their own downsizing issues. Far fewer young women are entering convents, while the Vatican II generation of sisters is aging. Congregations are selling property and investing proceeds to cover projected elder care costs.

These realities were on my mind in late November, when I visited Casa di Santa Brigida – House of Saint Bridgit – the mother house of the Bridgitine order at Piazza Farnese in Rome. When I finished interviewing Mother Tekla Famiglietti, the Abbess General who presides over a network of religious residential hotels, she said: "You must stay for lunch. How else can you write about what we do?"

A double room at Casa di Santa Brigida costs 140 euro, or roughly $200 a night, which includes a meal. That is well below the rate for medium-range hotels in Rome or any major European city.

As I sat at a table in the understated dining room, my server was in the full religious habit which so few American nuns wear, and she was young, about 30. It felt odd having a religious sister half my age present spaghetti Milanese (a meal in itself) to me and say, "Bon appetito." I had little room for the pork chop with broccoli that followed. Wine came. I had a half-glass to be polite, sipping more of the coffee after the meal when I turned down an enormous piece of cake. The sunlit room had six other people, including two priests, enjoying lunch.

The meal, though quite good, left me feeling uneasy. One thinks of nuns as women making great sacrifices for others, particularly the poor. That's not to pass judgment on sisters who as college professors, health care administrators, nurses or therapists interact with middle class people. But a nun serving as a waitress? By the Bridgitine lights, she was part of the ministry of hospitality. And, saving labor cost for the hotel. The Bridgitines' rationale is that affordable hospitality to middle class travelers gives them a religious ambience and the opportunity for Mass in the small chapels of these houses.

Italy does not tax the many convents and religious houses that offer these services. This cottage industry of religious orders has roots going back many centuries, as pilgrims who traveled to the Eternal City needed lodging. Yet today, with many religious orders facing the issues of economic retrenchment as in America, there is nothing of comparable scope in the U.S.

In October 2012, when I interviewed Sister Patricia Farrell at the Franciscan complex in Dubuque, Iowa, I stayed in a former convent school that is now a retreat and conference center, at the nominal rate of $30 a night. Of course, people don't drive to the middle of Iowa as tourists seeking something akin to the glory that was Rome. But the contrast with the Bridgitine convent got me wondering about the fate of old religious buildings in major American cities.

To Americans, the idea of nuns making money by renting out rooms sends off a flare. Is this a charity or a business? A religion or some kind of hybrid company? Do they have an unfair competitive advantage?

In the late 1970s I interviewed an executive at the NBC affiliate TV station in New Orleans who railed about the unfair advantage held by the CBS affiliate, WWL, which was owned by Loyola University. Legislation crafted by the late Senator Russell Long gave WWL (and the Jesuits) a unique exemption from federal taxes. That is the kind of bill only a potentate like Senator Long (son of Huey) could pass. You could never pass a bill like that in today's schizophrenic Congress. The NBC executive fumed about how easily WWL upgraded cameras and editing systems. Loyola later sold the station to beef up its endowment, which ended the argument, if not the larger legal question.

The Italian parliament's resistance to a tax on religious orders for property revenue owes to the Vatican's enduring influence in politics of the state. But something else is at work, as a Vatican archbishop told me in a background interview. Italians consider "historical and artistical churches," as he called them, "a part of national patrimony" – facilities that anchor culture and historical memory. As the cost to maintain them escalates, "people must make adjustments in their thinking."

The American reality is different. The possibility of religious hotels in cities with a tourism economy might make some difference to the economic survival of some orders. But the attrition rate works against that. Women's religious orders that pioneered medical care for the poor lay the groundwork for Catholic hospitals. The American health care system with its skyrocketing costs is controlled by insurance companies that seem to have the support of Congress. That economic force is one reason why nuns are selling buildings that in some cases developers will turn into condos, schools or commercial space. Ironically, the sisters are doing so to afford elder care and medical needs for their aging members.



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