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The eleventh-grade catechism class I taught was looking forward to the big day. The confirmation mass would mark the culmination of twelve years of religious education and would be a kind of graduation ceremony inducting them into the responsibilities of a mature Christian life. Confirmands had been prepared to pray for a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit, for special grace that would strengthen them in their baptismal vows and help gird their loins for Christian battle. In his homily, the celebrant spelled out what these battles would entail: opposing welfare reform, standing firm against tax cuts on capital gains, petitioning lawmakers to increase funding for this and that social program–issues that are surely central to the moral struggles of eleventh graders everywhere. So it was. And so, I suspect, it is in many churches.

We are disheartened by anecdotes like this because they evidence confusion in pulpit and pew about distinctions between morality and advocacy, between charity and public policy, and, perhaps, sometimes between the City of God and the City of Man. This confusion can be heightened if a church’s own charitable institutions operate chiefly from government funds, engage in policy advocacy, and rely on the political system to enable their good works.

Were the effectiveness of religious charities truly to hinge on advocacy and politics, then the confirmation homily I heard would make perfect sense. Maybe a Good Samaritan today, when coming upon a broken man in a ditch, really ought to write his congressman.

I hope here to raise concerns about the effect of substantial taxpayer funding on the mission of religious charities, and also, significantly, about the possible effects of this on the hearts of the faithful themselves.

Troublesome Bedfellows

We know–history is clear–that church and state should not be wedded; indeed, they have always proved troublesome bedfellows. Now, it is a sensible rule of thumb that you ought not get into bed with someone who is not your spouse. Even if both parties have the best intentions of avoiding what we now call “an inappropriate relationship,” the very getting into bed poses dangers of … shall we say … excessive entanglement. Regardless of whether you are confident of sufficient goodwill to resist entanglement, you would do well to think twice.

How tempting is it for religious charitable organizations to view government as a prime source of support? What effect might such temptation have on charitable missions? The jury is still out, because the arrangement is a new one for many organizations. We must wait and see what happens.

A case for study, though, is provided by Catholic Charities usa, a venerable institution in its ninetieth year and now the nation’s largest private network of independent social service organizations. This case is suggestive because of the organization’s well-earned reputation for service, its longevity, its size, and the fact that it began working with government contracts and funds more than thirty years ago. “In 1974, Catholic Charities received 24 percent of its income from government,” pointed out Daniel Oliver and Vernon Kirby last year in the Capital Research Center’s Alternatives in Philanthropy. “By 1979, this figure had climbed to 52 percent. By the mid 1980s, it reached its current level of two-thirds of Catholic Charities’ overall support.”

One issue with Catholic Charities’ expanding reliance on government is the possibility that such reliance places restraints on its mission. In the early 1970s, after it began accepting government contracts, Catholic Charities came to define its mission in essentially secular terms: to “provide service for people in need” and to “advocate for justice.” For a Christian organization to define its mission in essentially secular terms, and to be required by law to separate government-funded activities from activities with religious content, is for it to risk confusing Christian charity with social work. Oliver and Kirby quote Father Philip Earley of a Boston affiliate: “When a person becomes an employee of Catholic Charities, I’m not sure they’re doing it because of any spiritual thing, or because of our mission. It’s a job. They’re a social worker and there’s a position available.” No denigration of social work is implied in insisting that it be distinguished from Christian charity.

Mother Teresa made this distinction, for secular media that did not know better, by declaring that she was not a social worker. She did not compartmentalize her activities into religious and nonreligious categories. Once, when a monk approached her to say that he sensed “a vocation to serve lepers,” Mother Teresa responded, “Brother, you are making a mistake. Your vocation is not to work for the lepers. Your vocation is to belong to Jesus. The work for the lepers is only your love for Christ in action and, therefore, it makes no difference to anyone as long as you are doing it to Him, as long as you are doing it with Him.” For Mother Teresa, what her church calls “corporal works of mercy” could never be shown to have a pervasively nonreligious purpose. Expressly integrating one’s life of faith and good works, so as better to be a vessel of the gratuitous love of God, cannot be construed in secular terms.

Excessive reliance on government can affect an organization’s posture toward government. Not unlike a longtime recipient of welfare, a charitable organization’s reliance on government can become dependence. Amy Sherman, writing in Policy Review, quotes the Reverend Eddie Edwards, who oversees a community development organization in east Detroit called Joy of Jesus: “When we are working with people in the community, helping them become self-sufficient, helping them get off welfare, it would be extremely difficult to tell them to get off welfare if we were on some kind of public assistance.” Compare the following observation of Father Fred Kammer, president of Catholic Charities: “frequently [our staff] are unable to bring about long-term positive change in troubled families [because of] a shortage of funds from federal and state agencies.”

The notion that more government dollars are needed to address problems easily translates into a position of political advocacy for expanded government. And indeed, as Oliver and Kirby report, “headquarters declares that a key part of Catholic Charities’ mission is ‘to improve societal systems’ through ‘social and economic policy development, involvement in legislative analysis [and] community organizing’–i.e., lobbying and advocacy for welfare programs.”

Joseph Doolin of Catholic Charities in Massachusetts expresses a concern that “virtually every [private social service] agency of any size at all does some business with the state. And, increasingly, any business becomes dominant business–and, hence, the whole disappearance of a truly voluntary sector.” From a civic perspective, we should share Doolin’s concern. If we are interested in the vitality of institutions that mediate between state and individual, then we should be interested in preserving their character truly as mediating institutions, truly as voluntary associations–voluntary here meaning, ideally, not only that membership is voluntary but that support is as well.

The Temptations of State Reliance

From a religious perspective, we should be most interested in the truly charitable character of charitable organizations, and concerned about over-reliance on government as it may affect that character. Pertinent remarks made by New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor in a 1995 homily have been oft quoted. “I believe a grave problem that can confront any institution today that tries to do good works is the problem of increasing dependence on government … I warned [ten years ago] that dependence on government is fraught with peril and that I saw this creeping dependence. I saw us going after the money, wherever the money is, to tailor programs accordingly, to fit our charity into the requirements of government regulatory procedures. Ten years have passed and what I feared, I think, is now an even greater peril.” The Cardinal was not condemning the limited use of public money for provision of services. He was warning against the temptation to substantially depend on such money, and against what such dependence can do to the character of a charity.

Father Kammer has objected to the use of Cardinal O’Connor’s remarks in the charity debate, responding that the Cardinal has said recently, “A tremendous number of things we believe are legitimately called Catholic have nothing to do with church liturgy or prayer or things of that sort but would certainly be Catholic in the sense of feeding the hungry and other works of the social gospel.…” Doubtless the Cardinal can, contrary to Father Kammer, hold this authentically Catholic view and at the same time hold his well-documented view that overreliance on government presents dangers to Christian charity.

In truth there are countless private Catholic charities that subscribe to both teachings of Cardinal O’Connor, and the Cardinal suggests that such has always been the way of the Church. Again from his 1995 homily: “[Overdependence on government budgets] was not the way of the Church for centuries. This was hardly the way of Christ, of the apostles, of the early missionaries.”

I think of Chicago’s Saint Martin de Porres House of Hope, from whose founder, Sister Connie Driscoll, I have learned much about Christian charity. The House of Hope is a homeless shelter for women and their children that provides many services for its approximately 150 residents, including drug rehabilitation and job training programs. Sister Connie proudly proclaims that the House accepts no government money, nor even money from the archdiocese. She has the best success rate in the city and operates on a fraction of the budget of shelters receiving government funds.

The approach of the House of Hope is to love the whole person–which can mean being tough as nails (“I run the toughest house in the city,” boasts Sister Connie). It certainly means being able to tailor services to the unique needs of residents without any unnecessary restrictions or red tape imposed from without. Sister Connie’s organization does not actively proselytize. Its Christian charitable endeavors are largely distinct from liturgy and the like. But sacred and secular purposes are not divided in the House of Hope and, there, they do not have to be. It will surprise no one who works to reclaim broken lives that Bible studies are among the House’s most popular voluntary activities and that Gospel choirs made up of residents and alumnae are a fixture.

Sister Connie takes no government funds, but she is hardly an antigovernment ideologue. She has worked closely with the city of Chicago and has served as the chairman of the mayor’s task force on homelessness. Sister Connie’s overall approach to addressing problems that naturally have a civic dimension is a shining example of what Catholic social teaching calls subsidiarity. While the House of Hope is closest to the task at hand in its own neighborhood, other supportive activities are needed from area churches, larger civic associations, and the city. Federal government involvement might even on rare occasions be demanded to meet unusually pressing needs. The classic Catholic definition of the subsidiary principle in the 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno states the following: Functions should not be transferred to higher collectivities “which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies.” The definition suggests that the inability of lesser bodies to provide for needed functions should be demonstrated before resort to higher collectivities is merited. Compare with this view one expressed by Father Kammer: The federal government should ensure that all Americans have “jobs, food, housing, health care, and education,” while “religious charities should supplement the role of government.” He views as erroneous “the claim … that local people know best.”

“Go and Do Likewise”

While it surely is sometimes the case that local people do not know what is best, it is almost always the case that local people know most about local situations. The principle of subsidiarity does not, I wish to emphasize, imply that persons and resources closest to tasks are always sufficient for carrying out those tasks. It does presume, however, in favor of those closest to a task first, before resorting to progressively higher collectivities for help. Why this presumption? Subsidiarity is concerned for the good of persons and concerned that the good of persons not be eclipsed by less personal involvements of larger-scale collectivities. Persons flourish in relationships of mutual responsibility, beginning with family and extending outward to broader circles of social relatedness. As Boston College professor of law Thomas Kohler has said of subsidiarity, “To be authentically responsible, social and political orders must be structured in a way that permits individuals the maximum opportunity to act responsibly. Persons, not institutions, are the end of any society worthy of the name.” Enabling persons to act responsibly is the goal.

If the bulk of participation by Americans in private charity comes to be the grudging signing of a check on April 15, then, I suggest, we will have lost sight of half the purpose of charity. Writing on “The Modern State as an Occasion of Sin,” Jennifer Roback Morse, a Catholic economist with the Hoover Institution, offers a pertinent analysis of Matthew 25:40, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”: “In this passage, our Lord does more than instruct us to practice the corporal works of mercy. For He promises to be present in the transaction, as the recipient. In this way, we might see the face of God in the face of the poor. This is at the heart of the Christian perspective on giving. The donor has the experience of participating, in some small way, in the endless mercy of God, from whom our very existence is a gift we can never repay or hope to deserve. The immediate recipient is only part of the point of the transaction. An equally important point is the impact of the act of unrequited generosity on the donor.”

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan and his free act of charity are the focus of the story. He was the one who acted as a neighbor to his neighbor. “Go and do likewise,” said Jesus to his hearers. When government becomes a major provider of private charity, are we more or less likely freely to “do likewise” with our time, our talent, and our treasure? Any complete discussion of charity and responsibility must include reflection not only on the welfare of our neighbor, but also on our own welfare as a neighbor.