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The hidden tithes of faith-based social services

Religious charities have been replacing state aid both nationally and internationally. Religious bodies are eager to take over, as they get their expenses paid by the state and can reap additional benefits through "hidden tithes".

Back to the alms of the Middle Ages.

How curious to watch faith-based social services being touted as the new way forward, when this is actually a reversion to the Church-run schools, hospitals and almshouses of the period before people were entitled to human rights. The Catholic social doctrine of “subsidiarity”, that social services should be administered by the smallest unit that can, was designed to leave people dependent on their patriarchal families or on the parish priest who dispensed the alms. The Church was — and remains — implacably opposed to social services being delivered by the state, because this threatened its local control.

In fact, in many countries the struggle to bring in national social service programmes lasted until well into the 20th century. In Ireland, for example, the Church has managed to this day to keep the state from establishing a national system of primary education. [1] And now even states which had a good network of social services seem eager to shed their responsibilities and give many social services back to the churches. As a Church of England bishop explained, “The new direction of the state, it seems, is to be a commissioning state, rather than one that has extensive institutions providing welfare.” [2] And in 2016 his Archbishop noted that there were more than 1,000,000 children in Church of England schools and that the Church is also “involved in almost all the food banks.” [3]

The attraction of this mediaeval arrangement to politicians — even to ones who are not personally concerned to spread religion and who do not need the “religious vote” — is that it is supposed to save the government money. Seizing on the opportunity posed by the underfunded, overstretched British health system, the Church of England announced that it would help to plug the gaps. It intends to get involved with “general health and wellbeing, mental health, perinatal care, loneliness and isolation, dementia and accident and emergency response”. [4] This will provide access to people when they are most vulnerable to suggestion,

But what are the actual savings to the government? The lack of transparency means that the religious organisations’ figures on expenses may be impossible to verify. Government auditors, (if they dare to tackle church accounts at all), can have a hard time, because the religious institutions’ accounting practices may be “faith-based”.

Also difficult to gauge are the “hidden tithes”, that is to say, the concealed contributions to the church by both its employees and its clients.

Church employees can be forced to subsidise religious organisations in three different ways: through their donations to the church (after all, their jobs are on the line), through poor working conditions and through uncompetitive wages. Take the case of an employee of a Catholic social service agency in Germany. He didn’t dare leave the Church, since German courts uphold the right of churches to fire employees who no longer pay “church tax”. [5] He also helped his employer illegally cut costs. He had to do his paperwork in his bedsit, as the office for him — which the state was paying for — was a purely “spiritual entity”. And he even subsidised his employer through his wages, for where faith-based social services are well entrenched, as in Germany, the churches are able to deny their employees the right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. This is because religious institutions in Germany are not covered by the country’s labour laws, including those that prohibit religious discrimination, set minimum wages, protect against dismissal and permit collective bargaining. [6]

The profit in proselytising

And it's not just the employees who can end up subsidising religious organisations. They can find it even easier to turn a profit at the expense of their clients, because they’re often still more dependent than the employees. Despite the fact that church-run homes for the aged are well subsidised by the taxpayer, they can be tempted to tap their residents for still more income. In 2001 Germany was obliged to change a law to try to protect residents from pressure to leave the home a legacy. [7]

The quickest financial gain from converts probably comes from those who make deathbed bequests to church homes. However, the most financially valuable converts over a lifetime are likely to be children who have been surrounded by the unquestioning piety of religious schools. And if it’s an elite school, so much the better: these high-earning graduates may eventually provide the church not only with substantial tithes, but often with politically useful “friends in high places”. (An online search for “elite Catholic school” will indicate the emphasis laid here.)

The high return on the “investment” in conversion can make faith-based social services very profitable for the organisations administering it. And this is especially true when the state can be got to pay for almost the whole thing. It’s been estimated — and the churches have not disputed these figures — that the contribution of the German churches to the social services that they administer is less than 2%. The rest is subsidised by the taxpayers. [8] Yet despite all the state funding, the Vatican claims that its worldwide charity, Caritas, is dispensing “the Pope’s charity”. [9]

Furthermore, when cases of abuse in religious institutions occur — and these are likely to be highly profitable for the church — it is exceptional to find whistleblowers. This should come as no surprise, given the insecurity of church employees, compared with either civil servants or regular private-sector employees. Workers at religious institutions must conform to its “ethos”. Many lay employees of religious institutions not only feel pressure to attend church, but are even forced to arrange their private lives in accordance with religious doctrine: no remarriage, no gay relationships and certainly no “living in sin”. All this makes employees of religious institutions relatively powerlessness compared to other workers and less likely to speak up.

Even when abuse is finally uncovered — generally due to the victims themselves — the Catholic Church often manages to escape financial accountability. The Magdalene Laundries run by nuns in Ireland until the late 20th century profited from what was effectively slave labour, and they are still turning a profit on their faith-based enterprise. At the height of the real estate boom, the religious orders that ran these gulags earned millions of pounds by selling off lands to developers. [10] However, four orders of nuns refused to contribute to the survivors' fund and no one could make them do so. [11] A separate indemnity scheme was signed in 2002 to cover all the children sent to Church-run industrial schools, reformatories and other residential institutions, but 15 years later, the Church had not yet transferred all the properties it had agreed to. [12]

Another case of enrichment of Catholic orders through brutal child labour involved what are known as the Duplessis orphans. During the mid-20th century at least eight Roman Catholic orders which operated orphanages in Quebec earned millions of dollars at the cost of these children. Yet, though the survivors have been seeking compensation from the Catholic Church since the 1990s, no one can force the Church to pay. [13]

The lack of accountability enjoyed by faith-based social services should come as no surprise. Few would expect to increase transparency by inserting closed, profit-making, ideologically unified groups between state funders and some of society's most vulnerable people.

Reining in international Catholic charities

This handover of state services to religious interests is often done by stealth. President George W. Bush was careful to group together religious and local groups “Faith-Based and Community Initiatives”, which let the funding of a few local groups distract attention from that of the many religious institutions. And who would guess from the name of the British “charter schools” that many of these are religion-based? [14]

Yet the privatisation of British government services and the American “Presidential Initiatives to Rally the Armies of Compassion” are posing an increasing threat to hard-won rights. [15] Caritas Internationalis, a global confederation of 162 national Catholic charities, has been reined in. As of 2004 it is no longer a public juridical personality, but is part of the Holy See, under increased Vatican control. [16] Pope Benedict's encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) underlines this by insisting that social services and international aid “charity” must be in the service of “truth”  (Vatican doctrine). The Vatican even investigated the dedicated American nuns, and in 2012 Pope Benedict appointed three bishops to reform the largest group of nuns and bring them into total conformity with Vatican doctrine. [17] This aroused indignation in many American Catholics and three years later, Pope Francis finished the job in a much more adroit manner. He got the nuns to rewrite their rules, submit to unspecified "measures" to prevent heresy and ensure that speakers at their events showed "due regard for the Church’s faith" and toed the Vatican line. [18] And to make sure that no discordant details got out to spoil the official picture of harmony, the nuns were forbidden to speak to the press for 30 days until the news cycle had moved on. [19]

During the shake-up of Caritas, a key Cardinal made it clear in 2011 that feeding people should no longer be the primary aim: “The task before us is to re-establish the ‘link between evangelization and charity. The Church’s charity is not directed solely at social progress, but wants to draw man toward God [...]” [20] Finally Benedict issued a detailed set of norms placing Catholic charities firmly under the control of the bishops and forbidding dealings with any organisation that did not conform to official Catholic teaching. [21] He also told Caritas employees which doctrines were “non-negotiable” and warned then that they will be more closely monitored by Church authorities. [22] Conservative laymen are also reporting hospitals that deviate in any way from Church teaching. [23]

According to new rules announced in 2012 all statements by Caritas Internationalis will have to be cleared in advance by the Vatican, which will also will closely oversee the dealings of Caritas with foreign governments. [24] Vatican control is increasing here, even though governments often give their national Caritas organisations massive support through taxes, in accordance with the clauses in many concordats about equal state funding for governmental and Catholic charities alike.

Even this, apparently, does not go far enough for the Pope Emeritus, who can't seem to stay “hidden from the world”. Benedict publicly supported the launch of a competitor to Caritas, one that would make proselytising even more prominent. [25]

The state pays, but the Vatican has the say.

See also: Church-run home for the aged goes to court for an inheritance


1. Fintan O'Toole, “Lessons in the power of the church”, Irish Times, 6 June 2009.

2. The Lord Bishop of Carlisle, House of Lords, 24 Jan 2008.

3. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, "Primates 2016: Archbishop of Canterbury’s address On January 11, 2016", Canterbury.

4. "Research Into The Church’s Impact on Health and Care" [no date]
"More than 3,500 churches and 200,000 volunteers are helping overstretched NHS, says study", Guardian, 30 May 2018.
"The Church's Impact on Health and Care Research Launch", 16 May 2018.

5. “How far can German churches discriminate against 2.5 million employees?”, Concordat Watch

6. Annette Jensen, “Under God’s roof”, Concordat Watch. (German original: “Unter Gottes Dach”, Publik, April 2008)

7. “Church-run home for the aged goes to court for an inheritance”, Concordat Watch.

8. Carsten Frerk, “German taxpayers subsidise 98% of faith-based social services”, Concordat Watch. (German original: “Vorfahrt für Gott”, Jungle World, Nr. 14, 7 April 2005)

9. An Instrument for the Pope's Charity, Zenit, 2012-03-28

10. Conor Ryan, "Site by laundry grave sold for €61.8m", Irish Examiner, 05 July 2011.

11. "Kenny: I can't force orders to contribute to Magdalenes redress fund", Breaking News IE, 17 July 2013.

12. "Religious orders clinging on to properties within abuse deal", Times, 17 November 2017.

13. Petition concerning the Duplessis Orphans, presented to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, on behalf of the Duplessis Orphans, by Dr. Jonathan Levy and Rod Vienneau, 15 April 2011. This is a reliable summary, as any factual inaccuracies would expose this human rights lawyer to charges of perjury, as explained at the end of the document.

14. Julie Ingersoll, “Religious Right Dream of Privatized Public Education Gets Boost”, Religion Dispatches, 14 January 2011.

15. “The Quiet Revolution: the President’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative: A Seven-Year Progress Report”,The White House, February 2008

16. Michel Roy, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, quoted in H. Sergio Mora, “An Instrument for the Pope's Charity”, Zenit, 27 March 2012.

17. Laurie Goodstein, “Vatican Reprimands a Group of U.S. Nuns and Plans Changes”, New York Times, 18 April 2012.

Nicholas D. Kristof, “We Are All Nuns”, New York Times, 28 April 2012.

18. Laurie Goodstein, “Vatican Ends Battle With U.S. Catholic Nuns’ Group”, New York Times, 16 April 2015.

19. “LCWR Agrees to Abide by Vatican’s Corrections”, National Catholic Register, 16 April 2015.

20. Peter Turkson, Cardinal and head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Address to the 19th General Assembly of Caritas, quoted in Hilary White, “Catholic charitable works cannot preclude evangelisation: top Vatican Justice and Peace official”, Life Site News, 27 May 2011.

21. Benedict XVI, apostolic letter ""The Church's Deepest Nature: On the service of charity" (motu proprio “Intima Ecclesiae natura: De caritate ministranda”), 1 December 2012, Art. 10 § 3.

This is summarised here: " Pope decrees: Catholic charities must always act in accordance with Catholic teaching", Life Site News, 2 December 2012.

22. John Flynn, “Conscience and Public Policy, Catholic Institutions Under Pressure”, Zenit, 22 November 2009.

23. “Catholic hospital obeys Church teaching on sterilizations”, Life Site News, 21 March 2012.

See also the website which reported on the sterilisations performed by US Catholic hospitals at This investigation was so extensive that it earned its author a Phd.

24. Alessandro Speciale, “Vatican issues new guidelines for Catholic charities”, Religion News Service, 2 May 2012.

25. “‘Charity without faith is useless’: Benedict XVI lauds Catholic organization that links charity and evangelization”, Life Site News, 27 November 2014.


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