IN FEBRUARY 1997, PENNSYLVANIA Senator Rick Santorum sparked a debate on the role of government money in private charity that has yet to settle down. The senator was in New York City to receive an award from the Catholic Campaign for America for his leadership against abortion. Early into his acceptance speech, he launched into a pointed critique of Catholic Charities.
Because Catholic Charities receives almost two-thirds of its funding from government sources, the senator said, it “can do little that is uniquely Catholic. They have to do what the government dictates, which means they can’t talk about the Catholic part of the charity.”
Senator Santorum had a special reason to be critical of the organization. He had just emerged from an intense debate about the political future of the welfare state. At issue was a Republican bill that sought to curb the growth of the welfare state by eliminating the idea of a welfare “entitlement” and transferring some programs to be administered by states. Senator Santorum, a proponent of the bill and a devout Catholic, was alarmed to witness firsthand the role of the Catholic lobby — especially Catholic Charities — in scuttling the most important parts of the bill.
His conclusion? “The number one opponent, and perhaps the most effective opponent, of welfare reform was Catholic Charities.” This organization, he implied, was more interested in maintaining its own status as a benefactor of government grants than in promoting true charity to the underprivileged, much less witnessing to the truths of the gospel in a way that is “distinctly Catholic.” “If you are only going to be a more efficient bureaucracy, if you are not going to feed the souls as well as the stomach, then why exist?” the senator asked rhetorically.
Not everyone agreed. John Cardinal O’Connor of New York weighed in with a theological critique, arguing that in providing for the poor, Catholic Charities is fulfilling the gospel mandate even if the workers themselves do not preach Jesus to every recipient of charity. Indeed federal law restricts them from doing so. “I have not thought of Catholic social services as a medium for direct, oral teaching about Jesus,” said Cardinal O’Connor.
There is truth in the Cardinal’s statement — serving the poor is indeed a manner of serving Jesus. At the same time, surely the senator is correct that Catholics cannot talk about love without also talking about Jesus. This debate, about the ethical and evangelical basis of charity, has yet to be settled. Complicating matters, Catholic Charities is a very difficult organization about which to make generalized observations. It consists of more than 1,000 loosely affiliated organizations at the lower levels, many of which have nothing to do with government money and have no interest in lobbying. Neither are all the problems with the organization necessarily due to the central office, Catholic Charities USA, which has a budget of only $5.8 million against the overall budget of $2.15 billion (including $1.34 billion in government grants).
But the ethical and theological dispute over the nature of Christian charity misses the important question of whether the institutional priorities of Catholic Charities have been skewed by its reliance on government money.
In the case of Catholic Charities, the question is more than theoretical. For instance, the Catholic Charities local office in Massachusetts adopted priorities like drug education primarily as a means of revenue building from public grants. Former Massachusetts board members have even gone public to say that the priorities of the organization changed from feeding the poor to keeping the largesse flowing.
On the national level, the agency’s broad mission statement offers little help in assessing how far it has strayed. It states Catholic Charities is “dedicated to supporting families, reducing poverty in the United States, and enabling communities to become self-sufficient.” But it also states the organization should help “shape federal social legislation” and monitor “the public budget process to ensure economic justice” — purely political priorities that ensure a lobbying and thus political role.
One way to determine the precise nature of Catholic Charities’ institutional bias and the extent to which that bias is shaped by government grants is to consider the statements the head of the organization, the Reverend Fred Kammer, gave before Congress regarding welfare reform. Fr. Kammer offered the improbable assessment that “the federal government and most of its programs do work well.” Having defended the welfare state, he was less prepared to do battle on behalf of the average taxpayer: “Taxes are good, and paying taxes reflects our moral obligations and should call forth greater personal political responsibility.” And finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, he lamented that the debate over welfare funding has “focused almost exclusively on personal responsibility” while ignoring “social justice” including “the right to suitable employment” and “just and adequate wages.”
But is this just one man’s opinion? An examination of the agenda for the Catholic Charities 1995 Annual Meeting in Milwaukee suggests that it is not. Attended by representatives from state and local branches around the country, the meeting presented seminars focusing on topics expected of any charitable organization, including programs for sufferers of HIV/AIDS, the homeless, abused children, and people with physical disabilities and mental disorders. Clearly, not all is politically motivated with Catholic Charities.
Yet the air was heavy with fears of devolution, a theme that weighed on nearly every panel, seminar, and speech at the conference. Indeed, as the seminar “Developing a Caring Response to Welfare Reform” pointed out, “Catholic Charities agencies and the movement as a whole face challenging changes in the wake of federal welfare reform.” “Building Just and Caring Communities” was the seminar that asked “will Congress eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development? Will 60 federal housing programs be folded into block grants to cities and states?” An alarming thought, to be sure. The session on “Government Grants: An Endangered Species” pointed out that “Catholic Charities agencies nationwide receive about two-thirds of their funding from government sources” and promised to “challenge participants to improve their techniques so they can continue to successfully compete.”
Finally, the conference sent off the attendees with the charge that they “Become Risk-Taking People.” This rather ambiguous phrase was later defined as meaning, in part, to find out “how parish-community-public sector linkages are formed and how these are transformed to empower people and neighborhoods to use tools and develop skills that improve their lives.”
One might expect that one of the roles of Catholic Charities would be to ward off the temptation of young women to have abortions. But all discussion of such issues was buried in the program, appearing at the tail end of the final day. A workshop called “Pregnancy, Parenting, and Adoption” covered “what’s new, what’s happening at the local level, and the national committee’s plans for the coming months” — with no mention of the essential work against abortion in the workshop description.
Has the presence of public money affected Catholic Charities’ mission? Indeed, lobbying legislatures, scrounging for more public dollars and attending to political priorities seems to consume an inordinate amount of the organization’s energies. A casual glance at its national meetings shows that Catholic Charities focuses on politics and political priorities at the expense of actually doing what the layperson on the street might think the organization does: serve the poor directly, as Mother Teresa taught the world to do. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Mother Teresa attending such a gathering at all. What is Catholic about Catholic Charities? It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty. But this much we do know: Catholic Charities is visibly and aggressively dedicated to keeping the government’s welfare largesse flowing, and, so long as it does flow, to endorsing the priorities of those who sign the checks.
One last problem: Charities on the dole get trapped in the same cycle of dependency that afflicts the poor in the presence of a cradle-to-grave welfare state. Cut off from the local population served by area charities, donors who would otherwise feel called upon to make a voluntary financial sacrifice instead come to believe that their charitable obligations are discharged through the tax system. This in turn leads the organization to despair of gaining private donors, which leads to an increased reliance on government.
None of this is news to the Catholic Church, incidentally. In fact, before the recent blowup about Catholic Charities, Cardinal O’Connor rightly warned Catholic institutions 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 to the requirements of governmental regulatory procedures.” He continued: “Ten years have passed, and what I feared, I think, is now an even greater peril.” The fact is, government support is not charity or philanthropy, defined as the giving of the proper amount to the most worthy institutions and individuals. Government support is a regulated purchase of goods and services where he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is a Catholic priest and president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The “Catholic” is in the Charity
Bringing Christ’s love to 12.7 million people each year
By Reverend Fred Kammer, S.J.
THROUGHOUT THE DECADE OF THE 1990s, local charitable organizations such as Catholic Charities have had to defend themselves for accepting government monies to help people in need. A newer twist on the criticism is to paint us as less than Catholic for doing so. It is a criticism that comes as somewhat of a shock to the 283,000 Catholic Charities volunteers and staff who manifest Christ’s love to some 12.7 million people each year.
Catholic Charities USA’s mission is to serve people in need, advocate for justice in social structures, and call on the Church and others of goodwill to do the same. Note that there is nothing about funding sources in that mission statement. In fact, since long before the establishment of Catholic Charities in New Orleans in 1727, our Church has taught that society, through its government, has an obligation in social justice to aid those who cannot provide for themselves when others fail to do so. As Catholics, we believe that justice is not served if government abandons this duty, leaving it to underfunded, understaffed, and overextended religious charities.
Not only does this view of government antedate Catholic Charities in this country, it is actually deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition. Community aid for widows, orphans, and poor people was a religious obligation in early Jewish society, and the practice was endorsed when Jesus preached responsibility to reach out to those in need. Today, persons in need are typically those whom our highly competitive economy has left behind, those who Pope John Paul II reminds us should be the object of our “preferential love for the poor.” That help and love includes a right to society’s best efforts and resources. We as Catholics believe that in addition to political and civil rights, all people have social and economic rights as well, beginning with the right to productive work and the basic necessities of life.
This religious belief has fueled three centuries of service by Catholic Charities in this country, and it prompts us to speak up when programs for people trapped in poverty are threatened. Though critics insultingly accuse us of turning into welfare shills and lobbyists, or of becoming obsessed by the need to protect our access to government dollars, the fact is that most of the proposed government cuts we argued against in the 104th Congress were aimed at direct payments to needy families, such as food stamps — not at programs run by Catholic Charities. We long to see poverty in America dwindle to a point where our soup kitchens and homeless shelters are empty. We also seek a day when all jobs will pay workers enough to support their families, whether they serve us at a fast-food counter or care for our children. Until that time, however, we believe a combination of voluntary and government efforts is needed.
In explaining why both are needed, it may be useful to clarify the division of labor that has grown up between groups like Catholic Charities and government social welfare programs. Catholic Charities and its counterparts in religious social services typically provide short-term help for working or welfare families to meet crises created by family emergencies or economic change. We may pay a high electric bill to stop a cutoff in service, provide funds for needed medicine, find shoes for the first day of school, or feed a family for a week. But none of us — Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services in America, Salvation Army, Council of Jewish Federations — provides the kind of long-term income support that government supplies. The inability of private charity to provide long-term support has been recognized since at least the Great Depression, when the federal government acknowledged that the private charity and even state and local programs could not bear the entire burden of our nation’s unemployed, elderly, sick, orphaned, and poor.
There is no way private giving could fill the gap when government cuts back on long-term income support. The $12.2 billion in private human service giving for 1996 would have to roughly double just to keep up with the 104th Congress’s reductions in projected spending levels for means-tested entitlement programs (which the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates at $61 billion between 1996 and 2002). Supporters of government cuts ride a merry-go-round of faulty logic and economic amnesia when they argue that charities can pick up the slack if long-term support programs are curtailed.
Critics worry we’ll lose our Catholic identity if some of our programs are government funded. The critics need to read our Code of Ethics. Each Catholic Charities member agency must agree that “all its policies, procedures and practices will be faithful to Biblical values, the social teaching of the Church and relevant sections of the code of Canon Law.” If that is not clear enough, our Code further states that: “All policies, programs and practices shall support the sanctity and dignity of human life from the moment of its conception until death, the value and integrity of the human person, the sacredness of the union of man and woman in marriage, the value of people’s social relationships to one another and to community, and the central role of the family in human life and in society.”
All the talk about Catholic identity also overlooks a rather basic question, namely: Who else would run these programs if not us? The money that local, state, and federal governments pay to community-based Catholic Charities agencies funds such programs as foster care and residential care for orphans, children from broken homes, elders, and people who are physically or mentally impaired. Government provides much of the funding, and we efficiently provide private matching funds and the compassion, commitment, and specialized skills needed by families and individuals.
If Catholic Charities and other religious charities did not provide these services, government would seek them elsewhere, often at greater taxpayer expense and without the special inner commitment rooted in mission and religious values we bring to the task. Indeed, our agencies often end up subsidizing government efforts, because many government programs do not pay for the full cost of the services provided. It is difficult, moreover, to argue with the results: a history of successful partnership with government that has made life safer, healthier, and happier for tens of millions of the least among us.
Our mission and abilities are suited to these services, and private supporters donate $350 million a year to help us go beyond. Local Catholic Charities agencies run soup kitchens and homeless shelters. We offer programs to help people find and keep jobs, such as job counseling, day care, transportation, and health care. Our goal is to help people attain self-sufficiency as quickly as possible and to support those who cannot.
We serve people in need, regardless of their race, creed, or economic or social status. Some critics question our Catholicism for not tying our services to religious instruction; but our history — and Jesus himself — calls us to respect the beliefs of those we serve. I think, for example, of Jesus’s cure of the daughter of the Canaanite woman [Matthew 15, Mark 8] and the centurion’s servant [Luke 7], to say nothing of his fellowship meals with tax collectors and sinners. We are determined to serve the needs of the entire community, respecting human dignity, religious liberty, and the ecumenical sensitivity promoted by the Church’s Second Vatican Council.
Our model for service is Jesus, who reached out to help poor and vulnerable people, often the outcasts of society, demanding nothing in return. Speaking at Catholic Charities’ 1987 annual meeting in San Antonio, Pope John Paul II told Catholic Charities leaders: “For your long and persevering service — creative and courageous, and blind to the distinctions of race or religion — you will hear Jesus’s words of gratitude, ‘You did it for me.’”
Services tend to clients’ spiritual needs where appropriate, such as 12-step programs or counseling, without imposing religious beliefs or practices. In addition, Catholic Charities agencies sponsor particular religious programs created for and funded by the Catholic community, such as marriage preparation.
Catholic Charities blends service to individuals, families, and communities with advocacy for those in need and public education about social justice. Sometimes it seems our outspokenness is what antagonizes our critics, but we are called to side with the “underdog.” As some measures show a growing gap between our nation’s rich and poor families, our voice is needed more than ever to help this nation live up to its principles.
Over the last century, the Catholic Church has been increasingly clear about the need for economic and political change in order to meet the needs of the entire community, with special concern for the world’s most poor and vulnerable. This is in addition to the individual’s duty to reach out to his or her neighbor in charity and justice. Following the lead of the Vatican and the U.S. bishops, Catholic Charities has made working for a more just society an integral part of its mission. It’s not enough to feed more and more hungry families; we must question why widespread hunger persists in this wealthy nation, and how each of us and all of us together should act to end it.
Solving America’s stubborn poverty and its related ills will take the efforts of individuals, communities, businesses, unions, charities, and governments. We must work together for the common good if we hope to fulfill the dreams of our young and the visions of our elders.
Rev. Fred Kammer, S.J., is President of Catholic Charities USA. He is also an attorney, author, and educator.