Why do churches sometimes act like corporations? Isn’t there something fundamentally at odds between the ostensibly otherworldly business of saving souls and the dollars-and-cents mindset of 21st-century global capitalism? Questions of this kind these seem to undergird discussions of church finance, covering such matters as the property dealings of American Catholic dioceses, the uses of monies donated to Islamic charities, or the investment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a shopping mall across the street from historic Temple Square in Salt Lake City, or, now, a 32-story mixed-use structure in downtown Philadelphia.
From a (Western) historical point of view, the answer to the question of why churches act like corporations is that churches have not only been corporations for over 1600 years, but may even in some respect be corporations par excellence.
As we were all reminded by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, a corporation is a fictitious legal person. Such fictitious persons, as critics of the ruling like to point out, enjoy certain benefits that their flesh-and-blood counterparts do not. For present purposes, one relevant difference is that corporations, unlike people, have the innate potential to live forever.
I find it fitting that entities invested in the possibility of something after death are not subject to the same transience as their believers. If one test of any religious movement is whether it can outlive its founder, legal incorporation can be a useful tool in carrying the message forward through time, and messages that aspire to be deathless require institutions with at least a shadow of that potential.
This conjunction of mortal people and immortal churches actually gets to the heart of the matter, because the idea of churches as corporate persons arose in Roman law out of individual desires to will property to religious institutions—a right guaranteed by Constantine in 321 CE. Over the following centuries religious institutions acquired additional legal privileges. In 412 Honorius and Theodosius declared them free from impositions above and beyond the regular tax. Valentinian and Marcian decreed in 451 “that the privileges, which former emperors by general constitutions granted to all holy churches of the orthodox religion, shall be maintained in perpetuity,” thus giving churches a chance at institutional immortality. Then, in 470, Leo and Anthemius stripped all persons charged with the government of church property “in this imperial city” of the right to alienate it, meaning that property once granted to a religious institution must remain perpetually in its hands. These laws established the legal basis of ecclesiastical landholding for centuries to come.
Fast forward to thirteenth-century England, governed by feudal law as imported by the Normans: the monarch ultimately held all land under his jurisdiction, but he granted land to other people in exchange for services of various kinds—and this system continued down the social ranks.  When a landholder died, his estate owed relief—a kind of tax—to his feudal lord, upon receipt of which the lord might grant the land to the heir of the deceased. Using the basic framework established by the Romans, this tax might be diminished through a charitable donation, that is, by granting land to a religious institution in exchange for spiritual services such as the singing of masses in memory of the deceased.
Of course, immortal churches never have to pay estate taxes, with the consequence that, by the late thirteenth century, one third of the land of England was in religious hands, with little or none of the resulting revenue reverting to the ostensible overlords. This fact understandably troubled the one other entity in England that also enjoyed corporate status: the crown. Thus, Edward I issued a statute in 1279 forbidding such charitable donations without a license (which eventually came to require paying a fee to the crown). Part of the problem was economic: revenues from church lands often left the country, pinching the economy generally and crown finances in particular. The crown certainly valued spiritual services, and continued to grant lands to religious institutions, but from 1279 through the break with Rome in the 1530s it placed increasingly strong restrictions on charitable donations and the flow of revenues to Rome.
Though the present moment certainly differs from this medieval past more than it resembles it, something recognizable remains in the tensions related to church property-holding at that time. Like their modern counterparts, medieval religious institutions engaged in normal economic activities that helped to sustain their existence: they grew crops, made products (e.g., Trappist preserves or Christian Brothers brandy), and so on, thereby generating revenue. Without this revenue, they could not provide the spiritual services that were (or were at least supposed to be) their raison d’être, and yet the dedication of these revenues to spiritual purposes did not exempt these institutions from economic and political realities—including the potential for self-aggrandizement and abuse. Then as now, the balance between serving God and mammon can be difficult to strike.
The issue, therefore, is not with corporate status per se; nor is it with the engagement of religious institutions in “worldly” activities. Both of these are more or less inevitable consequences of existence as institutions in whose relative immortality so many mortals have an interest. The issue, rather, lies in working out an ethics of the “good life” for corporations, much as religions present ideals of the good life for their adherents.
My opening question grows out of two assumptions: the first, borne out by much recent experience, is that corporations all too often live by the narrow ethics of crabbed self-interest and boundless acquisition; and the second is that churches ought to answer to a higher standard. The problem is not that churches act like corporations, but that corporations all too often fail to act like churches, or at least fail to act as churches ought. Thus, it seems that churches need to take an interest in the salvation of fictitious persons, too, by modeling responsible corporate existence. In this way, profoundly, churches might realize their own assurances that a good life is in fact possible amidst the mundane realities of temporal existence.
 Fred H. Blume, Annotated Justinian Code, ed. Timothy Kearley, 2nd ed., University of Wyoming George W. Hopper Law Library, 1.2.1. The text of this and the statutes cited subsequently can be read here. I refer to “religious institutions” rather than “the church” because these entities, while related, often had separate legal existences. That is, one typically granted property to X abbey, rather than to “the church,” although legal provisions existed for circumstances when such specificity was lacking; see 1.2.25.
 Ibid., 1.2.5; modified by 1.2.7.
 Ibid., 1.2.12.
 Ibid., 1.2.14.
 See A. W. B. Simpson, A History of the Land Law, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 1-6. Simpson, 3, observes that “in England alone was feudalism so universalized.”
 On the complexities of how the corporate fiction developed in relation to ecclesiastical and political entities during the Middle Ages, see Ernst Kantorowicz’s magisterial The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).
 The information in this and the preceding paragraph is drawn from Sandra Raban, Mortmain Legislation and the English Church, 1279-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).