The Secularization of Philanthropy: Examining the Potential Revocation of the Roman Catholic Church’s Charitable Status

  • November 07, 2023

by Robert Johnstone, winner of the 2023 Charities and Not-for-Profit Law Section's student essay contest.


Robert Johnstone is a student at Robson Hall, Faculty of Law, University of Manitoba and a summer law student at MLT Aikins LLP. He continues to develop his analytical skills as a legal research assistant and assistant editor of the Banking and Finance Law Review. Robert has volunteered with Pro Bono Students Canada on projects involving Manitoba's Indigenous community and has worked over four years under golf course management at Elmhurst Golf and Country Club. He is a member of the St. Paul’s High School graduating class of 2017.

The 13th century saint Thomas Aquinas stated that “charity in its purest form means love that encompasses our love for God and love for our fellow people” and esteemed it as “the most excellent of virtues”.1 This act of almsgiving features as a prominent theme in the canonical verses of Corinthians I, Colossians, and Acts of the Apostles. Christian theology, and specifically, the Roman Catholic Church, has encouraged its adherents to practice charitable giving to various marginalized communities in the same manner that Christ demonstrated throughout his ministry. During the Middle Ages, both the clergy and Catholic laity became critical for providing medical, educational, and public services to individuals throughout Europe’s marginalized socioeconomic classes. This donation of time and resources has continued in the modern day, where the Roman Catholic Church remains one of the largest charitable organizations in the world and whose financial support is vital to the operation of thousands of charities, many of which serve a multitude of causes. Due to the Papacy emphasizing the principle of subsidiary following the Second Vatican Council, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), a national assembly of the Bishops in Canada, has almost complete oversight for financial, organizational, and charitable matters surrounding the Catholic Church in Canada. Tax implications have severe impacts on how non-profits and registered charities operate, meaning the Church and its associated subsidiaries have long relied on the “charitable status” distinction as defined under section 149(1) of the Income Tax Act.2 With the Church contributing to a varying role in each individual charity, the question of whether these organizations would survive if the Church’s institutional grasp dissolved is overwhelmingly present. Due to the modern world attaining rapid secularization for most institutions and with it the calls for acknowledgment of historical traumas caused by religious organizations, many are calling for the revocation of the Catholic Church’s distinction as a registered charity in Canada. To examine this from an objective perspective, the first matter to be considered is the history behind Canadian Catholicism and charity, what tax benefits the Church receives and why the Church partners with affiliated charities. Secondly, arguments for why the charitable status of the Church is at risk will be acknowledged, including addressing the modern scandals of sexual abuse by clergy and the atrocities committed during the operation of Canadian residential schools. The question of whether the common law purpose of “advancement of religion” remains appropriate as a head of charity will also be considered. Lastly, three charitable establishments that possess fundamental connections to the Catholic Church will be examined, along with the potential consequences that each might face if the revocation were to occur. Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital, the first hospital built in Western Canada, and which was historically overseen by the Sisters of Charity will have its funding sources and executive board analyzed. Secondly, the impact of revocation on the Manitoba Catholic Schools Board will be assessed. Lastly, the Knights of Columbus is a fraternity of nearly 229,000 Canadian members whose mission is to provide financial aid and assistance to the sick, disabled, and poor. Sources of financing relied upon by this charity will be explored. The examination of the revocation of the Roman Catholic Church’s charitable status is currently based on a hypothetical scenario, but with the secularization of Canadian society, it is within the realm of possibility. This essay will examine whether revocation of charitable status is an appropriate measure as stated by some, and why as this paper will conclude, it is not.

The Church’s Relationship with Caritas, Taxes and Charities

With over 1.2 billion followers globally and 13 million in Canada alone, the Roman Catholic Church is one of the most influential organizations in the world.3 Its theology is rooted upon the biblical scriptures of the Old and New Testament, along with numerous works by theologians throughout the centuries. A commonality between these works is the term caritas, or Latin for charity, and has been proclaimed one the three theological virtues. Along with being included in the title of two Papal encyclicals, the word finds meaning in the actions of adherence to the proclamations of Jesus Christ. This central figure of Christianity professes the importance of caring for the sick, suffering, and marginalized.4 The idea of almsgiving in a Catholic framework arrived in New France with the French monastic orders. In 1625, the Jesuits instituted Canada’s first hospitals, schools, and social welfare programs with the idea of assisting with both French settlers and converting the local Indigenous population.5 Although consequences occurred from European expansion, Catholic values would continue to influence the French populations of Quebec, Irish of the Maritimes, and the Central European settlers on the Canadian Prairies. In 2022, Catholicism continues to have a notable presence amongst newcomers, as countries that contribute to most of Canada’s modern immigration such as the Philippines, D.R. Congo, and Mexico, are predominantly Catholic, and will ensure that Canada remains a stronghold for the faith. Despite this, most newsworthy topics surrounding the Catholic Church are based upon controversial grounds. Atheists, agnostics, and those from other faiths often show distaste for the Papacy or Catholicism’s “religious excess”, while its followers often view the Church as a beacon of familiarity in a divided society. According to the latest data polling, many Westerners feel little need for the formalities of religion but understand that the Church and its subsidiary orders have a beneficial impact in alleviating poverty and fostering community initiative.6 In Canada, the testimonies of the residential school survivors and the Church's decades-long conservative stances on same-sex marriage, birth control, and women’s roles have troubled it's public relationship. In response, the CCCB has reiterated its focus on both community and charity in the encyclicals of various Pontiffs, such as the encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”) by Pope Leo XIII, the updated Catholic Social Teachings and Caritas in Veritate by Pope Benedict XVI, which states:

“Charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law… Only in “charity, illumined by the light of reason and faith”, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value. The sharing of goods and resources, from which authentic development proceeds, is not guaranteed by merely technical progress and relationships of utility, but by the potential of love that overcomes evil with good.”7

As demonstrated, the Catholic Church has had a profound relationship with charity from the moment it arrived on Canadian shores. Charity remains a foundational concept found throughout the Church’s theology and continues to be reiterated from leadership in both Rome and the CCCB, as well as validates how the organization became one of Canada’s largest charities. With this understanding of the intertwined history between Catholicism and providing aid to others, the registration process for a charity and the accompanying tax implications can now be examined.

Section 149(1)(f) of the Income Tax Act (ITA) is the statutory basis for the registered charitable status of the Catholic Church in Canada. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) grants the registration of charities and ensures that these organizations meet any legal and administrative requirements.8 To be registered as a charity under the ITA, the statute requires that an organization’s purposes be exclusively charitable. The 1891 decision of Pemsel v Special Commissioners of Income Tax entrenched the four heads of charity, which includes relief of poverty, advancement of religion, advancement of education and other purposes which provide benefit to the public.9 The Catholic Church, while aiding organizations that assist with all four of these categories, is acutely connected to the advancement of religion as prescribed under common law precedent. According to the CRA, the advancement of religion can consist of promoting the spiritual teachings or maintenance of doctrine as well as taking positive steps to sustain and increase religious belief.10 Further, the courts have reasoned that it is possible to advance religion by conducting activities that supplement other charitable purposes such as providing education (secular or religious), relieving poverty, or benefiting the greater community. Activities that have fallen under these headings include providing healthcare, humanitarian relief, caring for the sick or elderly and feeding the poor.11 The Church partners with a multitude of independently registered charities that provide these public services. Canadian courts state that to be deemed charitable, a religious organization’s activities must benefit a sufficient portion of the public. In the cases of Re Compton12 and Oppenheim v. Tobacco Securities Trust Co.,13 it was determined that the beneficiaries of a charity must not be numerically negligible.14 Importantly, in the English decision of “Application for Registration as a Charity by the Church of Scientology (England and Wales)”, the commission stated that “in the absence of evidence to the contrary, public benefit is presumed”.15 This common law sentiment holds firm in Canada, where the assumption of public good has allowed for religious convents and other “worship-oriented” organizations to retain their charitable status, despite their purpose not being to aid those in need.

It is important to distinguish that the “Church” itself is not a registered charity for income tax purposes. Individual churches fall under a Roman Catholic diocese (geographic area or a group of churches under the supervision of a bishop) and individually register with the CRA to claim charitable status.16 Each church also receives its own charitable registration number, which it can use to issue tax receipts for gifts received. Organizations that govern the Catholic Church in Canada, such as the CCCB or the Archdiocese, also fall within this category and register through identical merits. The CRA has also determined that for something to fall under the category of a gift it must be donated, received, and bestow no right, privilege, or benefit on the donor.17 Gifts can include art, stocks, bonds, cash, or other transfers of property that the individual church can use for maintenance, renovations, church events or send to other charities. Due to the official designation of an individual church as a charity, it can receive many benefits that are not available to most corporations or non-profits. This includes the ability to issue official donation receipts, an exemption of paying tax as listed under Part I of the ITA and being able to receive gifts from other charities.18 Receipts incentivize donations through both reducing the amount payable on a parishioner’s individual annual income tax.19 It should also be noted that official registration denotes a sense of increased credibility with the public, since registration ensures that these organizations must follow certain guidelines to retain their designation.20 The accumulation of these factors has helped build the Canadian Catholic Church into the charitable powerhouse it is today and also exposes the potential for setback if these benefits were to be revoked by the CRA.

With all 3,446 registered Roman Catholic churches pooled together, it is estimated that the Church received over $886 million in 2019.21 Further, the Church has accumulated $1.2 billion through investments and $3.3 billion in property. Through fundraising revenue the Catholic Church is Canada’s largest charity by a wide margin and receives around 5% of all Canadian donations.22 To ensure transparency all Catholic charities file T3010 tax returns which document total assets, liabilities and donations received for the coinciding year.23 Although tax returns provide some degree of clarity, it is oblivious to deny that sums of this magnitude allowed to go tax-free result in loss of overall tax revenue. In 2018, the district of Saanich, British Columbia gave property tax-breaks to 46 churches which resulted in the loss of over $550,000 in taxes.24 In cities such as Vancouver or Winnipeg, with large Catholic populations, this total would be considerably greater. In 2022, many provincial governments across Canada have been forced to cut billions of dollars from provincial budgets, including valuable sectors such as education, healthcare, and social services. Suffice to say, politicians and the public alike are looking for ways to increase revenue without drastically increasing income and corporate taxation rates. Many propose that the taxation of individual Catholic churches could raise this revenue. However, if the Church’s capacity to provide public benefit were to be negatively impacted and many of these churches were bankrupted it could be argued that the harm done would negate any increase in revenue. Another question that presents itself is whether the government is more competent with tax revenue then a charity regarding donations. Predicated through the concept of subsidiarity, one could argue that organizations such as the Church are fundamentally closer to the “ground level” and have proven experience in alleviating suffering in the local community, meaning aid can be methodically directed without the complications of bureaucracy.

Claims of Church poverty have been stated in multiple reports, with the decline of mass attendance usually being pointed too as the culprit. The pandemic has had a drastic impact on the ability of many to donate, whether it be parishioners not physically attending the services or not having the spare funds to give. Nearly a half of churches in the Archdiocese of Winnipeg received government support during the pandemic.25 Partnered organizations were also coincidingly impacted, with those serving the homeless and elderly faring better than groups such as summer camps, which remained closed.26 Many continue to argue that support could come through funds stockpiled by the Church. The redistribution of Church wealth is not the core subject of this examination despite its potential impact remaining a valid argument behind the appropriateness of charitable status revocation. From Canada, Ireland, Australia and beyond, many non-Catholics have suggested that the organization could support congregational annual income and property taxes. The issue surrounding this proposal is that the Canadian Church’s wealth is not contained by a central governing body. The CCCB, dioceses and individual churches have distinct financial circumstances. It has been stated that “the Church is notoriously secret about, and protective of, its wealth. Church leaders have repeatedly publicly underestimated Church wealth and resisted greater financial transparency.”27 This claim is not unfounded, but the impact of revocation might not be as straight forward as it appears nor does it account for how Church donations are currently used.

The relationship between a local church and its associated charities is best described as intertwined through a mirage of tax implications and practical association. Individual churches receive gifts from their parishioners, which is then used to support both the physical church itself and other organizations. St. Theresa’s Parish, located in West St. Paul, Manitoba, is partnered with Catholic affiliated organizations such as Middlechurch Home (care home for the elderly), Villa Rosa (prenatal and postnatal residence for women), Agape Table (providing meals for the disadvantaged) and secular charities such as Winnipeg Harvest, Chez Nous and the Rossbrook House (centre for Winnipeg’s inner-city youth).28 The variety of charities assisted and their differing demographics demonstrates the Church’s universal goal of alleviating suffering regardless if a Catholic connection is present. It should be noted that there is a pattern for Catholic churches to partner or perhaps favor other Catholic organizations. While many have labelled this as a criticism, it should be first explored how these smaller organizations receive enough donations to remain operational. There are only a finite number of practicing Catholics, and they are more likely to donate to their local church than to another Catholic charity with limited public coverage. As will be discussed in the charity analysis, smaller Catholic charities are heavily reliant on the gifts of local parishes to stay operational. There are also national Catholic charities such as the Knights of Columbus, Development and Peace Canada or World Youth Day Canada29 that receive substantially more gifts from members and corporations, which is then used to assist struggling parishes or further donate to associated charities. To demonstrate the impact that the revocation of charitable status would have on every level of the Roman Catholic hierarchical structure, three charities will be examined following the argument to why some members of the public view revocation as an appropriate response.

Sins of the Past and Modern Secularism: Examining the Arguments for Revocation

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once called Christianity the “one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, and the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are venomous enough, or secret, subterranean and small enough – I call it the one immortal blemish on the human race”.30 Elaborating further, he asserted that the religion and its doctrinal system of morality which is foundational to the Western world is flawed due to its inversion of natural instinct, hostility to outsiders and is falsely predicated on alleviating suffering. Many Canadians now share a similar distaste when it comes to the public perception of the Roman Catholic Church. Once seen as a capsule of community and support, the Church now faces a plague of backlash that has caused many of its former followers to no longer associate with it. This can be likened to both the public awareness of the atrocities that occurred in the residential school system and the secularization of Western societies. On the former matter, many Canadians argue that the Catholic Church no longer “deserves” charitable status designation after what has come to light in recent years. For over 90 years, the Christian churches of Canada, including the Roman Catholic, United, Anglican, and Presbyterian, with financial backing from the federal government, removed First Nations children from their communities and put them into Euro-centric schools.31 These schools were operated by clergy, nuns and deacons, whose purpose was to assimilate the children into Anglo-Canadian society. Under the direction of Duncan Scott of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1920, who stated “our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed”, the churches gave many theological justifications for the pain they were inflicting.32 Survivors of these schools suffered from emotional, physical and spiritual abuse due to being forcibly separated from their families and were punished for expressing their culture, local language or religious practices.33 In 2015, it was documented that Canadian authorities had received 37951 claims of physical and sexual abuse from the schools, which amounts to nearly half of all children that attended.34 Malnutrition was commonplace, and the children suffered from numerous illnesses due to the crowded conditions. In recent years, unmarked graves have been found outside of these schools, where it is determined that thousands of children were killed or allowed to die. The stories of survivors have attained international headlines and caused immense backlash to the historic behavior of Christianity during the colonization of Canada. In the modern day, it is notable when visiting reserves or Winnipeg’s inner city, that the residential school system and thereby the Church has caused detrimental impacts that continue to remain with these communities despite the last residential school closing in 1998.35 Intergenerational trauma is correlated with rampant cases of alcoholism, drug use, sexual abuse, and unemployment rates. Until relatively recently, only the United, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches had offered official apologies to Canada’s Indigenous peoples regarding their role in the operation of the residential schools. However, on Pope Francis’ visit to Edmonton in 2022, he outwardly apologized on behalf of the Church’s involvement and the everlasting trauma it caused. Many Canadian Catholics, Prime Minister Trudeau and Indigenous leaders had been calling for this Papal apology for years, and the calls were finally received. So why is the resentment for the Church continuing to grow? Many Canadians view the Pope’s statements as disingenuous. Leaving some to request that members of the CCCB, those who lead the Church in Canada and whose organization had a direct link to the operation of these schools, apologize instead. Regardless of if the CCCB announces a formal apology, there are those who look to enact “revenge” on the Church for their historic misdeeds or those who seek to limit its influence on society.

In 2021, Iqaluit mayor Kenny Bell sought to revoke the tax-free status of churches within the city limits. Specifically, the municipal proposal would enact the removal of property tax exemptions. He stated, “we’re not retaliating against them; they killed literally thousands of children”.36 While his statements are true, they do not address how this attempt at taxing religious institutions does not qualify as punishing the Church for historic misdeeds or how this revocation benefits the public. Considering the proposal in Iqaluit, it is apparent that retaliation through removing property tax exemptions would negatively affect other religious institutions that had no part of the residential school system such as the local Mosque or Hindu temple. If these perceptions were adopted in large and diverse population centres such as Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal, one could see how this would detrimentally impact more than just the directed target. Regardless, is seeking to limit the Catholic Church’s ability to serve the community a justifiable response for horrific actions committed in the past? From a pragmatic perspective, if the charitable status of the Church were to be removed based on historical grounds it would punish the multitude of charities that currently assist with various demographics of Canadian society. This includes organizations such as Alpha House and Northern Missions, who primarily serve Indigenous communities throughout Manitoba.37 The current incentives of the ITA allow for the Church to gift millions of dollars per year, a total matched by only the wealthiest of corporations. Therefore, it appears that removing the designation would greatly reduce the amount of donations received and further impact charities who are vital to providing necessary food, supplies and educational opportunities to impoverished reserves. It would also affect practicing Indigenous Catholics, who constitute the majority of the population in Northern dioceses, and who would likely lose many of their places of worship if these individual churches had to pay property and income taxes. Lastly, the CCCB and individual Roman Catholic churches of Canada partnered in 2021 to announce a $30 million National Financial Pledge to support healing and reconciliation initiatives for residential school survivors and their communities.38 The Archdiocese of Winnipeg, for example, pledged to donate $662,500 for the initiative. In one year, the individual churches collected $94,891 from individual donors, and then donated another $220,000 by the end of 2021. The funds were retained by the Archdiocese who then invested this total into its portfolio for growth. The funds will be released to the National Solidarity Fund in the winter of 2022.39 Although the Catholic Church certainly benefits from its status as a registered charity, it appears more likely that the current work done through assisting Indigenous communities would ensure that any revenge extracted on the Church remains fruitless.

As previously described, common law precedent certifies that the advancement of religion is an appropriate purpose for charitable registration. The CRA requires a form of theistic worship to be documented, with this definition including advancing the spiritual teachings of a faith through preaching or education, carrying out spiritual observances or maintaining buildings for religious worship.40 These activities can be distinct from one religious’ group to the next and the requirements ensure that the purpose is met by having religious significance. However, there is a growing sentiment amongst the Canadian public that the advancement of religion should no longer qualify as an appropriate purpose for charitable status. It is no surprise that religiosity amongst the Canadian public is waning. Across most of the Western world, those professing the Christian faith have been in decline for decades, with numbers only increasing due to immigration from impoverished but heavily Catholic nations. Younger generations in Canada are particularly distraught with the idea of a central authority describing what should and shouldn’t be done based upon scriptures dated to over two millennium prior. The conservative and “outdated” nature of certain Catholic doctrines which conflict with public policy foster the argument that advancing religion is not sufficient to demonstrating the “public benefit” that a charitable organization must demonstrate in order to receive tax-breaks. Further, many argue that the Catholic Church actively discriminates against women and LGBTQ+ members within their hiring and hierarchical systems.41 It is a longstanding practice that biological men are the only members of a congregation that can undergo the sacrament of Holy Orders and be ordained as a priest. Other Christian denominations have changed this requirement, but the Catholic Church remains steadfast. Proponents of the change state that same-sex marriage couples are not able to consummate their marriage in a Catholic ceremony. Catholic scripture describes rigid moral doctrine which infrequently changes despite the modern recognition of human rights and personal freedoms. The Charter right of freedom to (and from) religion further complicates the matter, as in numerous instances (such as with St. Boniface Hospital) conflicting views have left those requiring assistance to forego their needs due to the stances of a Catholic charity. Advocates of this change have proposed that all charitable causes can be served through secular organizations instead.42 It is claimed that the advancement of religion is the primary goal of any Catholic charity, with the actual public benefit being merely secondary. Secular charities purportedly persevere more to fulfill the needs of the people they serve, which might hold true if Catholic charities denied those needing services on the grounds that they did not hold Catholic beliefs. Despite this not being the case, a hypothetical result would be secular charities having to serve more people and creating a greater financial strain on the organization. Lastly, it has been argued that indirect forms of control by the state constitutes coercion, through using revenue to subsidize religious charities and forcing Canadians who are not in agreement to support Catholic causes.43 This idea of state coercion was ultimately rejected in the Manitoba Court of Appeal case of Re Mackay.44 Caselaw has certified that a “charity’s activities must be legal and must not be contrary to public policy”.45 Therefore, the Catholic Church could theoretically have its charitable status retracted if the CRA found that its actions were contrary to administrative law.46

Catholicism does not have a monopoly on altruism; however, it is evident that the Roman Catholic community is exceedingly generous in its donations to charity. The acts of an individual church are usually notable across the local community through the many assisted causes. If all donation incentives are removed, not only will the charities subsidized by the Catholic Church be harmed, but all religious backed charities will be as well. The Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu communities of Canada continue to assist with similar charities on a local, national, and international level. The Canadian courts have clarified that “religion can and does have a significant role in identifying and promoting values that advocate and encourage personal attitudes towards others and conduct between citizens which, even in a non-legal sense, is charitable.”47 For the advancement of religion to provide a public benefit, Catholics must be allowed to engage in manifestations of their faith.48 Catholic doctrine has cemented the notion that practicing scriptural virtues is just as important as prayer and therefore donation to the local parish or its associated charities is one of the prominent vehicles for Catholics to assist in the community. Further, the decision of Re Mackay cemented the court’s opinion that an individual’s 2(a) Charter rights are only found to be infringed when a religious belief is directly interfered with through government means, and “for state-imposed cost or burden to be proscribed by s.2(a) it must be capable of interfering with religious belief or practice”.49 This conclusion confirms that any indirect government subsidization of Roman Catholic charities does not “constitute an affirmation by the state that one religious view is superior to another, especially if charitable status is being granted indiscriminately to any religious organization meeting the criteria of “advancing religion””.50 The government is not infringing an individual’s Charter rights despite that individual not supporting the causes or views of the Catholic Church.51 This appears to resolve the worry from secularists that the “advancement of religion” would cause some members of the public to lose out on charitable services provided through religious organizations. Ultimately, no extra burden is placed on the public and contrary to frequently held beliefs, Catholic charities support millions of people each year who do not assign themselves to the faith. Evidently, it appears appropriate for the CRA to continue to provide tax breaks and subsidize donations to religious organizations. Through the continuance of the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose, the government has determined that benefits associated with faith-based charity have value within a modern and secularized society.

The Impact of Revocation on Three Charities: Differing Conclusions

To explore the result of the Church’s charitable status revocation in Canada, it is appropriate to consider the effects on associated organizations. For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church and its numerous orders have established and maintained the operation of hospitals in almost every country in the world. St. Boniface Hospital, located adjacent to downtown Winnipeg, was founded as a work of charity by the Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns) in 1871.52 At first just a small room with four beds under the guidance of Marguerite d’Youville, the hospital has grown into one of Canada’s leading research centres for cardiology while serving the provinces of Manitoba, Eastern Saskatchewan and North-Western Ontario. It is considered a tertiary Catholic hospital, meaning that although ran by the laity, the board of director’s goal is to preserve fundamental Catholic values in the organization and maintain relationships with agencies of the Grey Nuns.53 St. Boniface Hospital continues to offer spiritual care 24 hours a day, as well as offering clinical pastoral education for hospital chaplains.54 Mass is celebrated daily, allowing practicing Catholics to receive the sacrament of communion without needing to leave the facility.55 However, the most influential effect that the Catholic Church has on the hospital appears to be through its governance. In 2016, medical assistance in dying (MAID) was legalized and implemented in most hospitals across the country. The initial vote resulted in the hospital not granting the procedure to patients. On May 29, 2017, the hospital’s board of directors voted to approve allowing medically assisted deaths but only under “rare circumstances”.56 The Catholic Health Corporation of Manitoba, who owns the physical assets and many facilities of the hospital, then appointed 10 new members to the board, while asking for a re-vote.57 The previous decision was then overturned, meaning that the procedure cannot take place at the hospital but patient assessments for the qualification of the procedure can be conducted. If the patient meets all requirements, they will be transported to another facility where the operation can be completed. Suicide is considered a mortal sin according to Catholic doctrine and St. Boniface has signed agreements wherein the province has promised to respect the autonomy of the hospital when procedures violate their guiding principles.58 Internal reports indicate that a patient who requested MAID died “many hours” after they were being transported to a nearby facility.59 The hospital responded by stating that the patients who meet the requirements for MAID are ill and can deteriorate at any time. Arthur Schafer, a director at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics stated:

“The idea that dying patients will be forced to leave, at the end of their life, may temporarily be their home in order to receive a medical service is unacceptable. Medical ethics says the life and health of a patient comes first, that and the well-being of patients trumps other considerations.”60

There is a contentious ethical dilemma between the secularized health care system and the Catholic board that owns many of the assets of the hospital. If revocation of the charitable status occurred, would there be much change? Truthfully, the hospital's operations would not be much different than they are today. If the revocation financially impacted hospital ownership or the Catholic Health Corporation of Manitoba, a possibility could be to sell remaining assets to the government. The research and patientcare programs, however, would continue to be funded and operated by the province. The faith-based principles that founded St. Boniface would disappear in favor of secularized ethical approaches found at hospitals such as the Health Sciences Centre. MAID would be granted to all that passed accompanying assessment, along with any other program that was not aligned with Catholic doctrine. Financially, the Roman Catholic Church does not fund the hospital in any meaningful capacity. This does not mean that generous Catholics haven’t made important contributions or that the Church has never made any substantial private donations. However, Canadian healthcare is funded primarily by the provincial and federal governments. In 2022, the federal government funded approximately $1.7 billion (21%) of the approximately $7.2 billion required for provincial health costs.61 The rest of this total has been an expenditure of the provincial government. St. Boniface Hospital would likely continue to operate as normal, with slight organizational changes to its board of directors and secularized values, but it would not be impacted financially by the revocation.

The second case to be examined is Manitoba Catholic Schools (MCS) and the effects if the Church’s charitable status were to be revoked. In Manitoba, Catholic schools at all stages of education are partially funded by the provincial government.62 In 1996, the Province of Manitoba revised the “Fair Funding Agreement” on behalf of all private schools, which secured a 50% operating grant of a public school per pupil expenditures of two years prior.63 Private schools would also receive a circular material grant equal to public schools and the potential of full funding for special needs students.64 The agreement did not include capital funding, and Catholic schools continue to not receive this sum. Due to partial funding, schools that fall under the Manitoba Catholic Schools Commission charge a tuition for the cost of enrollment. The board of directors change the tuition rate on an annual basis, and therefore, it varies across the individual schools.65 Tuition at Catholic schools is notoriously expensive, with some, such as St. Paul’s High school charging nearly $9000 per year.66 To account for this, Catholic schools annually provide bursaries to children whose families are not able to cover the full costs of tuition. Arguably, it is not the intention of MCS to keep costs from limiting students from certain socioeconomic backgrounds, and these bursaries assist parents by allowing them to provide a Catholic education for their children. However, tuition remains essential to keeping the schools operational.67 The majority of donations gifted to these schools come from alumni or their corporations, but many come from Catholic sources. The Catholic Foundation of Manitoba and the Archdiocese of Winnipeg both provide scholarships for students that attend Catholic schools across the province.68 Without these Church-funded bursaries, it may be impossible for some students to attend these schools. It is also important to note that MCS only receives a 50% grant on certain conditions. One of which is that the school teaches enough courses approved under The Education Administration Act69 to ensure that children enrolled in Catholic schools receive an education of a standard equivalent to that received by children in public schools.70 Prior to referendums, it was debated in provinces such as Newfoundland and Quebec whether Catholic Schools should be funded at all by the provincial system. Many argue that taxpayers should not have to subsidize education that is taught with a religious worldview that is not their own. Although many points from this assertion are logical, the current system in Manitoba appears to be reasonable and effective. Catholic schools are required to teach courses that follow the same curriculums as public schools, including science, math, and French. In addition, at the high school level, the study of indigenous history, including the trauma inflicted by residential schools is mandatory.71 The cost of having religious distinction is met with the need for tuition, and demonstrating that the price of enrollment has yet to act as a barrier to the operation of MCS schools. It must be acknowledged that the Church does not directly contribute financially to the operation of any schools in the MCS. If the Church was unable to continue its relationship with MCS, the impact would most likely be felt in a structural manner, such as board members, the religious curriculum, and any association with the faith. Fundamentally, the Catholic aspect of these schools is financially distinct from the surrounding diocese, and it could theoretically survive the revocation, but the impact would be structural in nature. Catholic schools continue to operate because enough parents see MCS as being able to provide a unique and valuable educative experience to their children, one that warrants a fee of thousands of dollars per year. Many children who go to these schools are Catholic, as are their parents, therefore, although the schools could survive if the Church does not, it should be asked for how long? The Church remains essential to the faiths wellbeing in a secular society and if its impact were to wane any further the result could be disastrous to the future enrollment of MCS schools.

The last charity to be examined for potential effects of revocation is the Knights of Columbus, an American fraternal order founded by Father McGivney in 1882.72 The organization has become international in scope with over two million members and continues to have a strong presence in Canada. The purpose of the order was to create an organized outlet for charity, unity, fraternity, and patriotism through the difficult periods that persisted throughout the 20th century.73 The Knights of Columbus have been successfully registered as a charity through both the American tax system and under the CRA. Today, the organization has committed millions of dollars over the past decade to initiatives such as the Ukrainian solidarity effort to support displaced refugees and fund the rebuilding of homes, a disaster relief team which sends equipped volunteers to international localities and the Columbus Ultrasound Program, which since 2009 has funded more than 1500 ultrasound machines to allow moms to view their unborn children.74 These initiatives are solely funded through the donations of members, the public and the sale of insurance packages. The organization also offers exchange traded funds (ETFs) securities managed by Catholic investors who are committed to socially responsible investment policies, mutual funds, and charitable donor advised funds.75 The Knights of Columbus also partners with local Catholic charities in a variety of ways. For example, Winnipeg’s Knights of Columbus assisted in organizing various fundraising events such as the Spiritual Baby Shower where all proceeds are donated to Villa Rosa, a pre-natal and post-natal safehouse for women and their children.76 The issue of revocation of charitable status for the Church might not be as pressing for an organization that is supported by international membership and has achieved success through the fundraising of selling insurance and mutual funds. Organizations of the magnitude of the Knights of Columbus would have to adapt their mission statement if they were to survive the removal of the advancement of religion as a head of charity, as the preserving of Catholic values is evident in their organization’s intention. This Catholic element is vital to their identity, but because they remain a distinct entity from the Church and have attained international security, their operations would survive elsewhere. There is also the potential that if the Church itself lost charitable status, the Knights of Columbus and other Catholic orders could receive a larger portion of donations from the public due to their continued tax exemption and ability to issue receipts for income tax purposes. The local Catholic charities that do not have this financial backing and membership commitments might not be as lucky. The Archdiocese of Winnipeg and its associated churches directly sponsor many Catholic charities in the area, including examples such as the Aurora Family Therapy Centre, Hospitality House Refugee Ministry Inc., Thrive Thrift Shop, Missionaries of Charity Soup Kitchen, and Recovery of Hope Counselling Services.77 If these smaller charities lose the financial support of the Church, they might not be able to provide the same services to those in need, or operate at all. Overall, it appears that longstanding, large or publicly funded Catholic charities might be able to operate without the Church’s financial support and might simply face organizational or structural changes. It is the smaller, local, and lesser-known charities that are reliant on both the awareness aspect and funding from the Church, which could mean tragic loss if revocation occurred.

Final Thoughts

Despite the past atrocities that have been committed under the banner of Catholicism and the growth of secularism throughout Canadian society, this essay has attempted to answer whether the harm done through the revocation of the Church’s charitable status would surpass any benefit that comes from eliminating government spending through tax write-offs or punishing the Church for historical actions. Realistically, the notable group being burdened are those who are still in need of these charitable services, regardless of if Catholic organizations are providing them or not. The number of children needing an education, homeless needing to be clothed or sick needing care will not change if these charities lose their primary source of funding. The secularist argument that it is more economical to have all programs under one banner can be undermined by acknowledging that although the manpower and resources can be theoretically replaced through an increase in government spending, the Catholic standard of hospitality that is served, along with providing the individual sense of spiritual familiarity, cannot be matched with any secular program. Further, the question remains as to the extent a Catholic charity is branded as a part of the Church and how this might cause issues for those looking to secularize charity. For example, the Catholic Foundation of Manitoba is an independently registered organization that is closely associated with the Church but is incorporated as a distinct entity. Would this have its charitable status revoked and on what grounds? Even if the advancement of the religion were to be removed as a head of charity, a Catholic institution might register with the purpose of relieving poverty if intending to operate soup kitchens. Similarly, a Catholic charity could seek to register under the advancement of education if the intention was to provide bursaries for children going to Catholic schools. However, it appears most likely that only the Church itself, meaning the individual churches that consist of the diocese or the CCCB would lose its charitable status. The Church has always been a beacon of hope for the poor, the sick and the marginalized, something that continues to be true in the modern day. Fundamental to Catholic doctrine is the idea that assisting with charity is not only an important part of the faith, but an essential one. To live the Catholic faith means to provide charity at the local and international levels, while prioritizing the spirit in giving donations of time or resources. The Church has begun the process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, so why is limiting their ability to help those in the community, including Indigenous peoples in need, the appropriate thing to do? The “eye for an eye” philosophy of reciprocal justice results in harming every party, while benefiting none. Although the Church is an organization based on spirituality, its structures and decision-making capabilities have always been fundamentally human, meaning mistakes are unavoidable. A more effective solution would be to put pressure on the Church to commit additional resources to Indigenous initiatives, rather than punishing their ability to help those in need. Further, the Church must continue to acknowledge its involvement with past atrocities and contribute to educative initiatives relating to public awareness. Through the secularization of Canadian society, religion’s place in shared values has waned considerably, but as demonstrated here, it remains a prominent force in the world of charity. Revocation of the Church’s charitable status would be a detriment to the marginalized and those in need, essentially going against the inherent purpose of charity. Therefore, based on the examples provided and the potential ramifications of this measure, the revocation of the Roman Catholic Church’s charitable status is not an effective course of action.



The Education Administration Act, CCSM, c E10.

Income Tax Act, RSC 1985, c 1.


Edward Books and Art Ltd. et al. v. the Queen, [1986] 2 S.C.R 713 at 34.

Oppenheim v. Tobacco Securities Trust Co., [1951] A.C. 297 (U.K H.L.)

Re Compton, [1945] Ch.123; [1945] 1 All E.R. 198 (C.A.).

Re Mackay v Manitoba (1986), 24 D.L.R. 4th 587 (Man. C.A.).


Alan Hayes, “Indigenous and Settler Christianity’s in Canada” online: University of Toronto.

Archdiocese of Winnipeg, “Social Services” (2022), online: Archdiocese of Winnipeg.

Archdiocese of Winnipeg, “2021 Financial Report” (August 1 2022), online: Archdiocese of Winnipeg.

Canada Revenue Agency, “Advancement of Religion”, online: Government of Canada.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The Catholic Church in Canada: Associated Organizations”, online: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Catholic Foundation of Manitoba, “Grants” (2022), online: The Catholic Foundation of Manitoba.

Charitable Status and Charitable Receipting” online: The Diocese of Ontario Anglican Church of Canada.

Friedrich Nietzsche, “Delphi Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (Illustrated)”: Friedrich Nietzsche (UK: Delphi Classics, 2015).

Government of Canada, “Advantages of Registration” online: Government of Canada .

Government of Canada, “Employee Speech CES-001: Registering a Charity for Income Tax Purposes” (January 30 1997), online: Government of Canada at 6.

Jessica Mundie, “The State of the Catholic Church in Canada, Amid Scandals and Declining Attendance” (July 18 2022), online: The National Post.

John Longhurst, “Faith Groups Weather Donation-draining COVID-19 Storm” (March 19 2021), online: Winnipeg Free Press.

John Robson, “Churches should not be Tax-Exempt (but not because of Residential Schools)” (July 7 2021), online: The National Post.

Jose Maximiano, “Catholic Church: World’s Biggest Charitable Organization” (September 27 2018), online: The Inquirer.

Josh Crabb, ““It is just incredibly troubling”: Decision to allow assisted dying at St. Boniface Hospital overturned” (June 19 2017), online: CTV News.

Karen Kerr & Markus Wilhelm, “Should Churches be Tax Exempt?” (December 1 2020), online: Alberta Views.

Knights of Columbus, “Catholic Investment Opportunities” (2022), online: Knights of Columbus.

Knights of Columbus, “Our Mission” (2022), online: Knights of Columbus.

Kristofer Rhude, “Case Study: Residential Schools in Canada” (2018), online: Harvard Divinity School.

Manitoba Catholic Schools, “Funding” (2022), online: Manitoba Catholic Schools.

Mark Blumberg “CRA’s Draft Guidance “Advancement of Religion and Charitable Registration” is Released through ATIP” (October 24 2017), online: Blumbergs.

Pope Benedict XVI “Cartias in Veritae” (June 29 2019), online: Vatican Archives.

Randall Bartlett & Dominique Lapointe, “Past, Present, Future: Health Care Costs in Manitoba” (2017), online (pdf): University of Ottawa.

Robert Meakin, “What are the Implications of Being a Church-Controlled Charity in the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church?” (2016), online (pdf): Law and Justice.

Sarah Fitzpatrick, “What is a Charitable Purpose?” (February 10 2022), online: Miller Thomson LLP.

Shawn Floyd, “Thomas Aquinas: Moral Philosophy”, online: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sorensen, H.R. & A.K. Thompson. “The Advancement of Religion is Still a Valid Charitable Object in 2001” (Queensland: Centre for Philanthropy and Non-Profit Studies, Queensland University of Technology, 2000).

St. Boniface Hospital, “About Us”, online: St. Boniface Hospital.

St. Boniface Hospital, “Spiritual Care”, online: St. Boniface Hospital.

St. Theresa’s Parish, “Fundraising” (2021), online: St. Theresa’s Parish.

St. Theresa’s Parish, “Outreach Ministries” (2021), online: St. Theresa’s Parish.

St. Paul’s High School, “Academics” (2022), online: St. Paul’s High School.

St. Paul’s High School, “Tuition and Financial Aid” (2022), online: St. Paul’s High School.

Terrance Carter, “Advancing Religion as a Head of Charity: What Are the Boundaries?” (January 1 2007), online: The Philanthropist.

Tom Cardoso & Tavia Grant, “How Rich is the Catholic Church in Canada?” (August 12 2021), online: Charity Intelligence Canada.

U.K. Charity Commission, “Application for Registration as a Charity by the Church of Scientology” (England & Wales, November 1999).


1 Shawn Floyd, “Thomas Aquinas: Moral Philosophy”, online: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
2 Income Tax Act, RSC 1985, c 1, s 149(1).
3 Jessica Mundie, “The State of the Catholic Church in Canada, Amid Scandals and Declining Attendance” (July 18 2022), online: The National Post
4 Jose Maximiano, “Catholic Church: World’s Biggest Charitable Organization” (September 27 2018), online: The Inquirer
5 Alan Hayes, “Indigenous and Settler Christianity’s in Canada” online: University of Toronto
7 Pope Benedict XVI “Cartias in Veritae” (June 29 2019), online: Vatican Archives at para 5.
9 Sarah Fitzpatrick, “What is a Charitable Purpose?” (February 10 2022), online: Miller Thomson LLP.
10 Supra note 8 at 10.
11 Ibid at 13.
12 Re Compton, [1945] Ch.123; [1945] 1 All E.R. 198 (C.A.).
13 Oppenheim v. Tobacco Securities Trust Co., [1951] A.C. 297 (U.K H.L.)
14 Terrance Carter, “Advancing Religion as a Head of Charity: What Are the Boundaries?” (January 1 2007), online: The Philanthropist.
15 U.K. Charity Commission, “Application for Registration as a Charity by the Church of Scientology” (England & Wales, November 1999).
16Charitable Status and Charitable Receipting” online: The Diocese of Ontario Anglican Church of Canada.
17 Ibid.
18 Government of Canada, “Advantages of Registration” online: Government of Canada.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 Tom Cardoso & Tavia Grant, “How Rich is the Catholic Church in Canada?” (August 12 2021), online: Charity Intelligence Canada.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid.
24 Karen Kerr & Markus Wilhelm, “Should Churches be Tax Exempt?” (December 1 2020), online: Alberta Views.
25 John Longhurst, “Faith Groups Weather Donation-draining COVID-19 Storm” (March 19 2021), online: Winnipeg Free Press.
26 Ibid.
27 Supra note 21.
28 St. Theresa’s Parish, “Outreach Ministries” (2021), online: St. Theresa’s Parish.
29 Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The Catholic Church in Canada: Associated Organizations”, online: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
30 Friedrich Nietzsche, “Delphi Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (Illustrated): Friedrich Nietzsche” (UK: Delphi Classics, 2015).
31 Kristofer Rhude, “Case Study: Residential Schools in Canada” (2018), online: Harvard Divinity School.
32 Ibid.
33 Ibid.
34 Ibid.
35 Ibid.
36 John Robson, “Churches should not be Tax-Exempt (but not because of Residential Schools)” (July 7 2021), online: The National Post.
37 St. Theresa’s Parish, “Fundraising” (2021), online: St. Theresa’s Parish.
38 Archdiocese of Winnipeg, “2021 Financial Report” (August 1 2022), online: Archdiocese of Winnipeg.
39 Ibid.
40 Canada Revenue Agency, “Advancement of Religion”, online: Government of Canada.
41 Supra note 24.
42 Ibid.
43 Supra note 14.
44 Re Mackay v Manitoba (1986), 24 D.L.R. 4th 587 (Man. C.A.).
45 Government of Canada, “Employee Speech CES-001: Registering a Charity for Income Tax Purposes” (January 30 1997), online: Government of Canada at 6.
46 Supra note 14.
47 Sorensen, H.R. & A.K. Thompson. “The Advancement of Religion is Still a Valid Charitable Object in 2001” (Queensland: Centre for Philanthropy and Non-Profit Studies, Queensland University of Technology, 2000) at 15.
48 Supra note 14.
49 Edward Books and Art Ltd. et al. v. the Queen, [1986] 2 S.C.R 713 at 34.
50 Supra note 14.
51 Ibid.
52 St. Boniface Hospital, “About Us”, online: St. Boniface Hospital at para 4.
53 Ibid at para 7.
54 St. Boniface Hospital, “Spiritual Care”, online: St. Boniface Hospital at para 3.
55 Ibid at para 8.
57 Ibid.
58 Ibid.
59 Ibid.
60 Ibid.
61 Randall Bartlett & Dominique Lapointe, “Past, Present, Future: Health Care Costs in Manitoba” (2017), online (pdf): University of Ottawa.
62 Manitoba Catholic Schools, “Funding” (2022), online: Manitoba Catholic Schools at para 1.
63 Ibid.
64 Ibid.
65 Ibid at para 2.
66 St. Paul’s High School, “Tuition and Financial Aid” (2022), online: St. Paul’s High School.
67 Supra note 62.
68 The Catholic Foundation of Manitoba, “Grants” (2022), online: The Catholic Foundation of Manitoba.
69 The Education Administration Act, CCSM, c E10.
70 Supra note 62.
71 St. Paul’s High School, “Academics” (2022), online: St. Paul’s High School.
72 Knights of Columbus, “Our Mission” (2022), online: Knights of Columbus.
73 Ibid.
74 Ibid.
75 Knights of Columbus, “Catholic Investment Opportunities” (2022), online: Knights of Columbus.
76 Supra note 28.
77 Archdiocese of Winnipeg, “Social Services” (2022), online: Archdiocese of Winnipeg.