New Orleanians may remember the turmoil when the Archdiocese of New Orleans announced it would close St. Augustine's Church following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Not just St. Augustine's congregation was outraged, but before the church assented to keep the parish open, the widely popular Father Jerome LeDoux moved to Texas. The archdiocese had suffered economic losses due to flooding, and there was an outcry as other parishes were shuttered. Archbishop Alfred Hughes' handling of the situation showed ways in which the church could be at best out of touch with its flock and at worst uninclined to be accountable to it.
That saga is briefly recounted in Jason Berry's Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church (Random House). The focus of the book is how the church handles its money. Even without scandal, how a global organization manages its finances is an interesting question. The church has an estimated 1.2 billion members worldwide and massive wealth and assets, yet it is largely free to disclose only what it chooses about its income and spending. As the church has had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle clergy sexual abuse lawsuits — and at the same time close parishes — Berry examines how such a large financial entity accounts for itself.
The book is another installment in Berry's reporting on the Catholic church, and it picks up on issues and church figures he's covered previously, including clergy abuse (Lead Us Not Into Temptation) and Father Marcial Maciel, a major fundraiser for the church who was involved in both abuse scandals and money issues (Vows of Silence).
Berry introduces many Catholic parishioners, some who became disillusioned with the church and others who became more involved in addressing its monetary management. Given the costs of the clergy abuse scandals, the church's actual wealth is an intriguing subject. With the way the church chronically failed to handle its problem with pedophile priests, frequently "recycling" them to different parishes, one isn't inspired with confidence that money is better managed. The book investigates the church's fundraising and various monetary arms, including the secretive Vatican Bank. Other areas of seemingly failed oversight include a Philadelphia cardinal who spent $5 million renovating a church-owned vacation home. Berry also analyzes the way scandals and parish closings depress contributions.
He tenaciously follows various money trails, including court cases, reports made public and stories told by church insiders. Ultimately, the question is what does the church owe its followers, especially when it asks for their support every Sunday? — Will Coviello
Jason Berry signs Render Unto Rome
5:30 p.m. Wednesday
Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania St., 895-2266; www.gardendistrictbookshop.com