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Wards of the State: The Danger of Church Involvement in Government Programs

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Jun 25, 2009

If you're drowning, and someone throws you a rope, you're not likely to spend much time worrying about where the rope was manufactured. You grab the rope, and cling to it gratefully.

Someone in desperate need is not in a position to question a benefactor. But when the need is no longer so desperate, the questions are bound to come. Who are you, and why did you help me? Were you acting out of pure Christian charity, or were you just doing your job? Were you motivated by compassion, or were you, perhaps, simply carrying out the requirements of a government grant?

In my native Boston, the archdiocesan health-care agency, Caritas Christi, recently won a government grant to provide health services for low-income residents, under the terms of a new state program. Cardinal Sean O'Malley has expressed delight that the Church will be able to provide this service to the poor. But really the Church won't be providing any charitable service in this program. The state will be footing the bill, and Catholic hospitals will be acting as agents of the government.

From the perspective of the patients who receive care in Caritas Christi hospitals, this distinction might not be important. One way or another they will see their doctors; one way or another their bills will be paid. What does it matter whether the funding ultimately comes from Catholic donors or ordinary taxpayers?

But for the Church, the difference between contract work and charitable endeavor is like the difference between night and day. In one case services are provided in exchange for payment; it's a job. In the other case services are donated freely, out of charitable impulses; it's a gift. In one case it's a job well done; in the other it's a reflection of God's love.

More and more often, the charitable agencies run by American Catholic dioceses are doing business with the government, providing contract services to fill various social needs. The offices of Catholic Charities, at both the local and national levels, receive the lion's share of their funding from government programs. They have become agencies of the welfare bureaucracy. The agencies themselves are no longer truly acting for the Church, carrying out the corporate charity of the faithful. They are now wards of the state.

There are three distinct reasons why the Church should not act as an arm of the government--even when the programs serve laudable goals.

First, the expansion of government programs puts additional burdens on the taxpayers, making it more difficult for families to make ends meet. Catholic social teaching emphasizes the importance of public policies that support healthy family life; high tax rates place undue strain on families of modest means. Moreover the steady rise in tax rates, coupled with the constant expansion of government programs, dry up support for independent charitable ventures-- which invariably are more efficient than the government efforts. The dollars required for tax payments are no longer available to be donated to local civic organizations-- or, for that matter, to the support of the Church.

Second, government funds always come with strings attached. To secure and retain government contracts, Catholic agencies must fulfill the terms set out by public officials: terms that might not match the objectives of the Church. In most cases the terms of the government contract will probably not be onerous; they will amount to little more than friction in the machinery. But at times there may be serious moral questions involved, and the leaders of Catholic agencies will be tempted to compromise on matters of principle in order to ensure the continued flow of government dollars.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. If the government provides funding for Church-run adoption agencies, the government has the authority to stipulate that same-sex couples receive equal treatment in adoption services. Then the Catholic agencies are forced to choose whether they comply with the government mandate (thus violating Church teaching and doing a grave injustice to children), close down their adoption services, or look for some clever way to carry out the government's demand while shirking responsibility for what is taking place.

In Boston, Caritas Christi joined with a secular partner to pursue the government's health-care contract, knowing from the outset that the contract required coverage for abortion, contraception, sterilization, and other immoral services. Cardinal O'Malley has promised that Caritas Christi will not be involved with abortions or abortion referrals, yet the newly created health-care partnership promises just as solemnly that women will receive abortion coverage. With the contract set to take effect on July 1, we still do not know how the Boston archdiocese proposes to square that moral circle.

The temptation toward moral compromise can stretch beyond the charitable agencies, too. Church lobbyists may be tempted to curry favor with politicians who support the "culture of death," in an effort to secure the votes necessary to protect contracts for Catholic Charities. When San Francisco's Archbishop George Niederauer called Speaker Nancy Pelosi to task for supporting legal abortion, Pelosi pointedly called attention to the fact that she had previously spoken with the archbishop "about immigration and needs of the poor"-- a gentle reminder that Church officials could count on her vote when charitable spending was involved, when Catholic agencies were looking for government support.

There is one more important reason-- in my view, the most important reason of all-- for avoiding Church entanglement with government. When Church agencies act as arms of the government, they lose their distinctive Catholic identity. They serve the body politic rather than the Body of Christ.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta never accepted government support for the many charitable ventures undertaken by her Missionaries of Charity. It's true that she was prudent enough to recognize the dangers of depending on state support. But she had another reason for her policy as well. She wanted to be certain that she and her sisters were motivated by nothing other than the love of God. She wanted no distractions: no elaborate schemes for social change, no ambitious plans for government partnerships. She sought to ensure that in each needy person they helped, her sisters saw the face of Christ, and nothing else. That was, and is, the only goal of her religious order: to serve Christ in others. And that, of course, is the essence of Christian charity.

It is instructive, too, to notice that many enemies of the Catholic faith, unlike Mother Teresa, are delighted to see the Church engaged in government welfare programs. Confirmed atheists and dogged anti-Catholics join in applause for Church-administered social programs; they are happy to confirm that the Catholic Church provides many valuable services to society. If the Church could be reduced to a charitable enterprise, and stripped of transcendent purposes, they would be happier still.

When Catholic agencies work for the state, all the pressures of the political world can be brought to bear on the Church: pressures to tone down unpopular doctrines, to accept immoral behavior, to bow to conventional wisdom. Church leaders would be wise to remember that when Church agencies become the vehicles for government programs, they put the government-- not the hierarchy, not the Lord-- in the driver's seat.

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