I had a few minutes with Bishop Edward Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., during a coffee break at the conference.
The fight for religious freedom has became a high-stakes battle that could force Catholic leaders to choose between maintaining critical social services or upholding Catholic teaching on marriage and life.
And no one knows that better than Bishop Braxton, who has witnessed the closure of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Belleville. The staff and clients of the agency are in the process of shifting to a secular entity, Christian Social Services of Illinois, that is likely to be established in February, according to the bishop.
Once the state required all foster care and adoption agencies to allow same-sex couples and those in civil unions to adopt and serve as foster parents, Bishop Braxton stressed that “every diocese in Illinois that provided these services looked for solutions and sought to challenge this law.”
“But while the Dioceses of Joliet and Springfield did not depend so heavily on state funds, Belleville is poor,” he explained. “We have a large geographic area with a relatively small population. There are a high number of prisons in the diocese as well and many foster children.”
Bishop Braxton expressed anguish as he described the search for options. He noted that the agency staff is primarily Catholic and did not want to separate from the diocese, but they feared that the state would be unable to manage the sudden increase in foster-care cases: “The state programs are not as strong as our program.” He acknowledged that the staff was also concerned about holding on to their jobs.
When the agency staff determined that the only way to maintain the services was to spin off the program, they sought his approval. “But I told them that while I understood their problem, I could not approve or have anything to do with this new entity. They wanted to call it ‘Christian,’ but I told them that they would have no long-term control over what that agency might become, once it was cut off from the diocese.” (See diocese’s statement on the diocese’s website.)
Bishop Braxton has concluded that it’s time for U.S. Church leaders to reassess their dependence on government funds: “While many Catholics still advocate for government-funded vouchers to cover tuition at parochial schools, I am wondering if this even remains an option, when government funds comes with strings attached.”
That said, the struggle to keep the parochial schools open also reveals that it is tough for Church leaders to keep up with rising expenses, he noted.