The Federal Emergency Management Agency has begun implementing its decision to reimburse churches and other religious organizations that have provided shelter, food and supplies to survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. If they're smart, churches will respectfully refuse such assistance.

While churches and religious groups are surely strapped for cash, and could make good use of the government funding, they should carefully weight the dangerous precedent set by such a move, especially as regards the principle of subsidiarity.

Recent bickering regarding FEMA's proposal completely missed the bigger issue at stake. Arguments against such aid, such as those voiced by civil liberties groups, predictably whirled around the question of separation of church and state. Civil libertarians, like Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, claimed that reimbursements to churches and synagogues would violate the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of a state religion.

Meanwhile, some churches and government officials countered with the opposing assertion. Such funding was unrelated to the religious agenda of the churches, they said, and repayment by the federal government in no way infringed upon the establishment clause.

The premises of this line of argumentation take for granted that assistance to the needy is first and foremost the responsibility of the federal government, and that the churches and volunteer associations play at most an auxiliary role.

David Fukitomi, for instance, infrastructure coordinator for FEMA in Louisiana, declared: “The need was so overwhelming that the faith-based groups stepped up, and we're trying to find a way to help them shoulder some of the burden for doing the right thing.” In other words, faith-based groups generously came forward to help the federal government in a moment of need, and should be rewarded for this gratuitous act.

This reasoning flies in the face of the logic of Christian social ethics. Catholic social thought places the burden of responsibility firmly on the shoulders of those closest to the needy, and invokes the aid of higher levels of public authority only when local associations are unable to carry out their duties.

The decentralizing notion of subsidiarity, one of the four structural pillars of Catholic social thought, is probably the least understood of all principles of Christian morality. Since “subsidiarity” looks and sounds like “subsidies,” people often think that the principle enjoins government aid, rather than limiting government intervention.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, states that subsidiarity “sets limits for state intervention” (1885), and adds: “In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, neither the state nor any larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies” (1894).

For their part, the American bishops wrote that “government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacities of individuals or private groups acting independently. Government should not replace or destroy smaller communities and individual initiative” (Economic Justice for All, 124).

But subsidiarity doesn't just help guide the conscience of public officials. It also challenges all citizens and members of voluntary associations. The Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et spes offers the following reminder: “Citizens, for their part, either individually or collectively, must be careful not to attribute excessive power to public authority, nor to make exaggerated and untimely demands upon it in their own interests, lessening in this way the responsible role of persons, families and social groups” (No. 75).

Obviously, the principle of subsidiarity does not preclude needed government assistance. It does, however, invite circumspection in the acceptance of such aid, and reminds both authorities and individuals alike that government should never supplant private initiative and local responsibility.

Moreover, even if government were theoretically able to meet all the material needs of all citizens, it shouldn't be allowed to do so. There must always be a place for the direct exercise of charity and voluntary assistance, which should never be usurped by an overweening nanny state.

In this regard, Pope John Paul the Great cautioned in 1991, that through direct intervention “the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need” (CA 48). He especially mentions the case of refugees, immigrants, the elderly and the sick, whose special needs “often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need.”

Fortunately, this principle has not been lost on all involved. “Volunteer labor is just that: volunteer,” said Rev. Robert Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board. “We would never ask the government to pay for it.”

It's not easy to turn down free government aid when it is dangled before your face, but if anyone should understand the need to do so, churches should.

Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams is dean of the theology school at Rome's Regina Apostolorum University, and professor of moral theology and Catholic social thought.