TULSA, Okla. — When Bishop Edward Slattery was appointed to the Diocese of Tulsa in 1994, he took stock of local Catholic social services and was impressed. Generous financial and volunteer support from Catholics and the broader community made it possible for Catholic Charities of Tulsa to serve the poor with minimal government funding and a lean staff.
“I inherited a good situation: Catholic Charities in Tulsa had about 10 agencies to help the poor, from food distribution to homeless shelters and free medical and legal care. Just 6% of those services were funded by the federal government, and that was for refugee resettlement,” noted Bishop Slattery, as he recalled that early assessment.
Over time, he saw an opportunity to enhance that legacy: “As I got more mileage here, I realized the buildings had gotten run down and there wasn’t enough coordination. We needed a new campus at one location accessible to the poor.”
But it was never just about bricks and mortar. Bishop Slattery had a spiritual blueprint in mind: He wanted the buildings centered around a chapel that would anchor the religious identity of Church-based social services and make prayer and the sacraments available to personnel, volunteers, clients and schoolchildren on service trips.
In a city that’s just 12% Catholic, the diocesan capital campaign raised an impressive $19 million for the project, completed two years ago. Meanwhile, Catholic Charities’ annual appeal continues to set new records — possibly with some help from Oklahoma’s growing oil and gas-exploration business.
“Here in Tulsa, we are not ‘privatizing’ Catholic Charities; we are simply carrying on the way we have been,” said Bishop Slattery, expressing gratitude that he does not face any imminent financial or political issues that could force the diocese to retrench.
Government budget cuts and political threats to the free exercise of Catholic institutions are leading many U.S. bishops to reassess the contemporary model for providing Catholic social services. In 2011, after the state of Illinois legalized civil unions, Catholic adoption agencies in that state refused to place children with unmarried or same-sex couples and then scrambled to respond to the loss of state contracts. One diocesan agency was spun off into a secular agency because government funds covered almost all of its budget and administrators didn’t want to abandon the children under their supervision.
“The actions in Illinois since the civil-union law took effect in June [have] led to outcomes that we believe are not the solution … for our network,” said Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA in a December 2011 statement. “The care and commitment of our agencies is deeply rooted in our faith,” which can’t be set aside in order “to partner with government.”
Catholic Charities USA does not speak for its affiliated agencies, but Father Snyder’s remarks underscored the growing sense of urgency that has fueled the search for new ways to provide services without government support.
Today, a group of U.S. religious leaders issued an “open letter,” entitled “Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods That Stand or Fall Together,” which
expressed alarm about the threat legal same-sex “marriage” poses to religious liberty. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was one of the four signing Catholic bishops.
“Marriage and religious liberty are at a crisis point in the United States,” said Cardinal-designate Dolan in a statement marking the release of the open letter, which warned of serious consequences for the future of church-based social agencies.
In a telephone interview, Bishop Slattery stressed that many U.S. dioceses faced an array of practical challenges that would impede efforts to dispense with government funding. That said, the Tulsa Diocese’s parish-centered approach offers a first step toward a model that draws the needs of the poor into the daily life of the faithful — even those in affluent suburbs or isolated rural towns.
Based in a civic-minded Bible Belt city with strong ecumenical and interfaith support, Catholic Charities in Tulsa is a familiar presence in local parishes, where professionals and families are encouraged to provide time and treasure.
The total budget for diocesan social services is $3.5 million, noted Bishop Slattery. “But when you add volunteer hours, it would be far more than that. Our Catholic Charities depend on our volunteer program that connects us to each parish. Catholic Charities is a household word in this diocese.”
His plan sought to build on an already strong relationship with local parishes by deepening the religious identity of Catholic Charities and making its programs more accessible to clients and volunteers. The Catholic Charities’ 2010 annual report values volunteer support at $1.6 million.
The campus offices are designed around the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, which offers daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration and the Liturgy of the Hours. Staff, volunteers, clients and visiting school children are welcome to attend. Pastors also take their turn in the chapel, celebrating Mass. In 2010, 49 diocesan priests made themselves available to celebrate Mass and open Eucharistic adoration.
“The challenge is to be Christ to those who suffer,” said Deacon Kevin Sartorius, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Tulsa. “We have a spirit of solidarity, where volunteers and employees see others going to Mass and they decide to go as well.
“Sometimes, when the poor present themselves to us, the immediate need is to take care of them, and we aren’t able to attend Mass. But we find that there is nothing more important on this campus than the sacrifice of the Mass. It feeds the people who volunteer, and a lot of people who work in this field can become bitter because there is no end to this need.”
Bishop Slattery also sought to reach out to rural satellite parishes, with 40-50 families, far from the city center. The Diocese of Tulsa is 26,000 square miles, with an estimated 61,000 Catholics and about 2,500 volunteers overall.
“In the rural areas, the Catholic population plummets, but the poverty is more intense. So we have set up satellite programs, tied to local parishes, in parts of the diocese that might be two hours away from Tulsa,” he said.
The satellite programs have some paid employees, but rely heavily on local parishioners in small parishes who manage basic programs, like rent subsidies and food and clothing distribution, and provide referrals for additional services.
Bishop Slattery was concerned with deepening a “relational response” between people struggling with overwhelming needs and those who serve them. “That’s when you see that money is not the most important thing,” Bishop Slattery said.
Father Joe Townsend, pastor of both the Church of St. Benedict, a suburban parish of 1,700, and St. Vincent de Paul, a rural mission of 75 families, describes Catholic Charities in Tulsa as “a jewel of an opportunity to live out the Gospel.”
“The call of Our Lord to respond to the needs of those on the margins of society is the starting point. It’s at the heart of our parish, from religious education — with 12-year-olds making food baskets — to preaching and prayer,” said Father Townsend.
Several of his parishioners run car-repair services, providing free labor and parts for tune-ups and oil changes. Others mentor and teach basic living skills to unwed mothers preparing to live independently. And Father Townsend observes that the most active volunteers for Catholic Charities programs are equally involved in other aspects of parish life.
“Generosity spreads. The parish is not in competition with Catholic Charities for people’s support. In the last three years, support for the Catholic Charities appeal has almost tripled. Meanwhile, our parish has grown, and our income has increased 50% in four years.”
Catholic Charities in Tulsa also benefits from financial and in-kind donations from Catholic foundations and organizations like the Knights of Columbus, which recently covered the costs of ultrasound machines.
Like much of the state, Tulsa is a place where religious expression is viewed as mainstream behavior. “The people who are not Catholic here are not as secular as they are in the rest of the country, and people of all faiths get along,” said Bishop Slattery.
But an increasingly secular political environment has created a minefield for many U.S. Catholic agencies that depend on government contracts to reach the needy. Bishop Slattery contends that legal abortion and the newer advance of legal same-sex “marriage” in U.S. states have paved the way for a collision between an overreaching state and the free exercise of religion.
Thus, he holds to a prophetic vision of Church services. For example, as the fight for legal euthanasia gains traction in some states, he is exploring plans for opening a hospice on the Catholic Charities campus, bringing the needs of the dying and the Church’s understanding of a holy death and eternal life to the forefront.
He noted that many of his fellow bishops are debating how to navigate a range of challenges with “life-and-death consequences” for those who depend on Catholic services and for the agencies’ staff who fear for their jobs. He remains “sympathetic” to these problems, but this Chicago native backed the bishops in Illinois last year when they “made a stand. They said, ‘We can’t cave in on this.’ All over the country people saw that the Catholic Church sticks up for the truth.”
“Is the only solution to privatize Catholic Charities?” he asked.
“At this point in history, it works well here. Each bishop has to look at his situation and decide how he can best preach the Gospel. But the Church does not belong to the government. It belongs to Christ,” he concluded. “It’s important for everyone in the Church to recognize this.”
Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.