Table: The U.S. Catholic Church: How It Works

Business Week
April 15, 2002

The Roman Catholic Church, with some 64 million members and thousands of affiliated operations, is the largest and most influential nongovernment organization in the U.S. But the Church is not a unified corporation: It is a decentralized organization with thousands of legally and financially separate entities. Its 20,000 Catholic churches raise some $7.5 billion annually. A primer on the Church's hierarchy:

The Pope appoints the bishops who run the U.S. Church and sets policies--including rules on who may become a priest. The U.S. is one of the wealthiest Catholic countries and a top contributor to the Vatican. Legally, the Vatican is a sovereign state, beyond the reach of U.S. law.

The Nuncio, who cannot be an American, is the Papal representative to the U.S. Based in Washington, he reviews all U.S. priests nominated for bishop before forwarding names to Rome for final approval.

The Conference is a kind of steering committee for the U.S. Church, made up of the 375 U.S. Bishops. With a budget of some $150 million, it speaks for the U.S. Church on policy matters such as abortion and welfare and has committees on everything from worship to domestic policy. The Conference, funded by the dioceses, does not have any authority over them.

These so-called princes of the Church have the ultimate power over its future, since they elect the Pope. But the U.S. has a small role in the College of Cardinals.

The key administrative unit of the Church, it comprises many local parishes and is headed by a bishop, archbishop, or cardinal. Everything from ordinations of priests to education is run at the diocesan level. There are 194 in the U.S. Although each diocese is a separate legal entity, abusive priests shuffled from parish to parish may extend the trail of liability.

The U.S. has some 20,000 parishes, and each individual church depends on its members' weekly donations, the major source of funding. Congregations are growing larger, averaging 3,000 members, even as the number of priests is falling, straining resources. At the same time, the ranks of U.S. Catholics are increasing with the arrival of new immigrants.


The Church is the largest operator of private schools in the U.S., with over 2.6 million students enrolled in its 6,900 elementary schools and some 1,200 high schools, costing roughly $10 billion a year. Most of the elementary schools are attached to local parishes, while high schools are often run by a Catholic religious order, such as the Jesuits or Christian Brothers. Although tuition has been rising sharply, schools still receive large subsidies from the Church.

There are 230 Catholic colleges and universities with a combined total of 670,000 students. Most colleges are sponsored by a religious congregation, like the Jesuits, who have 28 colleges--including Georgetown, Boston College, and Holy Cross. Just 11 are sponsored by a diocese, and only Catholic University in Washington is directly sponsored by the Church. There are few direct financial ties between most Catholic colleges and the Church. Most are run by a lay board of trustees. Like other private colleges, tuition is the primary source of revenue, though some have sizable endowments, like Notre Dame's $2.8 billion.

The nonprofit health-care system includes 637 hospitals, accounting for 17% of all U.S. hospital admissions. The Church also runs 122 home health-care agencies and nearly 700 other service providers, including assisted living, adult day care, and senior housing. The hospitals alone have annual expenses of $65 billion and account for 5% of U.S. health-care spending.

Catholic Charities USA consists of 1,400 agencies that run soup kitchens, temporary shelters, child care, and refugee resettlement. In 1999, Catholic Charities had collective revenues of $2.34 billion. Most of that comes from state and local governments and from program fees. The Church accounts for only about 12% of income.

Data: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University; National Catholic Educational Assn.; Catholic Health Assn.; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Catholic Charities USA


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.