Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Obama's executive order and the danger of reliance on federal contracts

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 22, 2014

Just as American Catholic bishops were volunteering to help President Obama—by handling the thousands of children from Central America who are entering the US illegally—the White House has announced that the President doesn’t want help from the Catholic Church.

How else should we interpret the peremptory executive order with which Obama cut off federal contracts for any organizations that discriminate against homosexual or “transgendered” persons. This executive order is not aimed solely at the Catholic Church; many others will lose federal contracts. But perhaps the “unprecedented and extreme” presidential action will help awaken the American hierarchy to the fact that this administration is not—to put it mildly—a reliable partner.

President Obama justified his brash initiative by assuring his lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgendered (LGBT) supporters of the “irrefutable rightness of your cause.” But as Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has pointed out, that “irrefutable rightness” was not so evident to the legislators who for almost 20 years, annually refused to approve similar LGBT protection in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). And even when that bill finally passed last year, Congress included a provision that exempted religious employers. There is no such exemption in the presidential order; by fiat, Obama has set a policy that Congress would not approve.

A statement from the US bishops’ conference boldly insists that the executive order “should be opposed.” Yes, but how? President Obama did this by himself. He did not ask for (and would not have received) Congressional approval. So there is no point in a lobbying campaign. Maybe the bishops could organize a letter-writing campaign, hoping to change the President’s mind, but anyone who has been watching this show for the past 6 years realizes that would be a waste of time and energy.

So how can the Church respond? That’s easy. Stop taking federal contracts. President Obama doesn’t want help from the Catholic Church. Say it’s a deal; don’t give him any.

What would that mean, in practical political terms? Let’s just take one major issue: those children flooding over the southern border. The US bishops’ office of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) estimates that about 90,000 unaccompanied minors will arrive in the US this year—up from an average of under 7,000 in previous years. The federal government is already straining to provide shelter for these children while their cases are processed. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if “the largest resettlement agency in the United States”—the bishops’ MRS office—withdrew from that effort.

But you might ask: What would happen to all those vulnerable children, if the US bishops didn’t help? It’s a good question. Whatever one might think about how and why the young migrants are pouring across the border, the fact remains that something must be done with them. Could the Church help to give them temporary shelter and support, while we wait for their cases to percolate through the immigration machinery?

And when we ask that question, we bump into an inconvenient truth about the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services. The last latest annual report from the MRS shows a total budget of just under $71 million, of which nearly $66 million—or nearly 93%—came from federal grants and contracts. For every dollar MRS raised in private donations, more than $1,000 came directly from Uncle Sam.

Without federal grants and contracts, then, the bishops’ program would shrivel to a tiny fraction of its current size. For now, the federal grants to the MRS are safe; the executive order of July 21 applies only to federal contracts. But how long will it be before the other shoe drops?

For decades, some concerned Catholics have warned that by accepting (and, more important, energetically lobbying for) government support, Catholic charities have compromised their independence. President Obama has now illustrated that point.

One consoling thought: If the bishops’ office of Migration and Refugee Services lost all its federal monies, the annual budget might plummet down to $5 million or less. But what would be left would be a recognizably Catholic charity, not a federal program administered through the bishops’ conference.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jul. 29, 2014 9:23 AM ET USA

    The moral authority of our Bishops was compromised by taking government money. Our Bishops have long played politics instead of being our spiritual leaders. We were not asked to pray to God for help on moral issues. What would have happened at Lepanto if this had happened? It can be said that God has slowly been sidelined by Catholic Bishops. Catholic faith has not been passed on to our children and Bishop Sheen knew that. Bishops, priests and lay will now have to sacrifice much.

  • Posted by: djr12 - Jul. 24, 2014 3:42 PM ET USA

    I agree that the Church and all associated ministries should divest themselves of government funding. Or, better yet, should take a stand and let the federal government know in no uncertain terms that if funding for any charitable work is contingent on conforming to government's debased morality, then that funding will be rejected. Let it be on Obama's head. Of course, our bishops (admirably) care more about living the Gospel than politics. Fortunately for many, they are bigger men than I.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Jul. 24, 2014 9:49 AM ET USA

    Perhaps practicing Catholics would then step up to the challenge and support Catholic Charitable causes that function within true Catholic Guidelines; i.e., without subsidizing abortion, birth control, LGBT causes, etc. Yes, we must be charitable to all and love our enemies, etc., but without compromising our own values; something our Bishops don't seem to understand. Stop taking Federal money and then do the best as we are able to do with what God provides. it will all work out if we trust God!

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Jul. 23, 2014 8:16 AM ET USA

    Agree completely. Bishops should not take money from any political organization or government as it inhibits their ability to speak the truth. Bishops should be concerned about preparing us to life a holy life here and merit acceptance into the next one.