The Catholic Church has a long and honorable history of working with the poor. From ancient times to modern, it has built hospitals and orphanages, supported widows and the destitute, and sought inclusion of the marginalized. When Catholics began arriving in America in large numbers, they rapidly created a variety of philanthropic institutions that did remarkable work under difficult circumstances, all the while contending with no small amount of prejudice.
It is ironic, then, that the greatest challenge to Catholic philanthropies only began much later, during the New Deal. Aloisius Muench, bishop of Fargo, North Dakota, famously remarked at the time, “The poor belong to us. . . . We will not let them be taken away,” meaning that growing secular programs threatened the old institutional mission. A few years later, another Catholic leader warned that trends towards taking charitable efforts out of the parishes and centralizing them in diocesan offices might lead to a loss of “both the interest and the support of the clergy and the laity.” Even worse, he feared a future “when parish priests and their people cease to say ‘our poor’ and speak rather of ‘your cases.’”
That day seems to have arrived. In 1996, the most recent year for which figures are available, Catholic Charities helped almost 13 million people. As the authors of this volume acknowledge, it has become “the largest system of private social provision in the nation.” Yet this somewhat misstates the case. Though Catholic Charities draws on the services of 237,000 volunteers, $1.3 billion out of its $2.1 billion budget comes straight from government, making it less of a private organization than a conduit for public relief efforts. Most recipients of Catholic services today are not Catholic, nor are services radically different from their secular counterparts. In essence, a program originally created out of concern for the souls of poor Catholics has come to focus on the material needs of society in general.
How did we get here? The main contention in this solid history of Catholic relief efforts during the crucial period from the nineteenth century to the New Deal is that Catholic charitable organizations have had to adapt themselves to emerging forms of state-supported welfare. Yet here, as elsewhere, the book suffers from the absence of a consistent point of view. On the one hand, the authors find that it was inevitable that state monies would be channeled to religious institutions because of the sheer numbers of people needing help. But elsewhere they lament that the need to coordinate efforts to deal with burgeoning state bureaucracies (as well as secular calls for greater accountability and oversight) led to the centralization of relief efforts in bishops’ offices. This in turn reduced the rich and diverse institutional efforts of the past to unified systems based on narrower funding campaigns. The whole process represents a serious dilemma that has bedeviled all private charities in this century, and it would have helped clarify the larger history if Brown and McKeown had faced the problem directly and explained how, if at all, things might have turned out different for Catholic Charities.
The authors recognize, in their fashion, that centralized church charities “turned the principle of subsidiarity on its head and became top-down organizations.” But instead of seeing this as the inevitable result of church/state partnership, they attribute it, rather anachronistically, to “clerical domination of leadership roles.” A leitmotif of their analysis is that the replacement of various female volunteers and non-specialists (often in religious orders) with males and specialists had the effect of shifting Catholic relief from a local to a bureaucratic mode. It would be interesting to have looked more closely into this phenomenon from something other than a faintly feminist point of view because, if true, it has wide-ranging implications for the present as well as the past. Even before the New Deal, a lot of pressure was exerted on religious charities to train and hire experts in social work. That change had both positive and negative consequences; conditions in institutions got better, but the strong religious character of relief began to recede. Yet the authors note that of all religious groups Catholics today seem least worried about state interference or bureaucratic limitations that follow such support.
Brown and McKeown begin their history with what they call the “New York System.” Because of the large number of Catholics who immigrated to New York in the nineteenth century, it was the first place that had to face new problems squarely. Catholics were then disproportionately affected by crime, alcoholism, and family breakdown. Most relief services were vaguely Protestant and inclined towards getting young people away from the influences of family and the Church, sometimes even relocating children to the Midwest with solid Protestant farm families. It is little wonder that Catholic leaders reacted forcefully to the situation.
The Church had a strong ally in Tammany Hall that enabled it to get concessions both in New York City and the state, within limits. Archbishop Patrick Hughes decided to build a costly parochial school system to protect Catholics from the Protestant dominance of the public schools (by the end of the last century the new system had 80,000 students). State support for those schools, however, never materialized. Under the New York System compromise, state and local governments supported Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish charities, but drew the line at schools.
A controversy erupted, however, that has contemporary echoes. Protestant reformers such as Josephine Shaw Lowell and some Catholics such as William J. Doherty, who was raised in a Catholic orphanage, wanted to make people self-reliant; the “institutional child” of the New York System was “simply unprepared for responsible citizenship in a democracy.” That was partly true of both Catholic and Protestant child-care institutions, which were overwhelmed with children who, for one reason or another, did not have parents capable of caring for them. Critics preferred adoption and foster-homes, a problem for Catholics since there were not enough suitable Catholic families (In 1899, the Catholic Home Bureau placed only 300 children in foster homes. Twenty thousand were sheltered in Catholic institutions.) Where the alternative was to house children in non-Catholic environments, Catholic leaders decided instead to do better in the future and convinced some key supporters that the religious orders were as devoted a group as might be found. Opponents smeared the institutions as greedy and inept.
Reforms within the American church and the child care institutions themselves corrected the worst difficulties, at least until the unprecedented situation created by the wave of unemployed who sought relief in the 1930s. Where state, municipal, and private support had been at least adequate, they soon were overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the Great Depression. The New Deal made federal funds available, but threatened simply to bypass the old religious institutions. Through deft maneuvering, Catholic groups managed to get a share of funds and shape legislation. But as early as the 1930s, federal emergency measures were setting a difficult pattern for religious charities that persists to this day.
In continental Europe, there is a long history of church schools and other religious agencies receiving national subsidies in proportion to their numbers in the population—public funds for church activities that perform public services. In England, which has always been at an ideological as well as a geographical remove from the continent, Catholics like G. K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc broke with the Liberal Party in 1911 because they believed the Insurance Act—the beginning of England’s welfare system—was the first, coercive step towards the Servile State. No doubt they would have thought state monies for religious institutions as great a threat to the churches as any insurance measure.
America has always relied to a greater extent than any other developed nation on a deep-seated tradition of private philanthropy. As Brown and McKeown suggest, in times of crisis government action may also be necessary. But if we want charitable action that meets both the material and spiritual needs of the poor—and as we consider policies such as school voucher programs—we need to look again quite carefully at how the juggernaut of government spending can affect even the largest of private charities.
Robert Royal is vice president for research at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.