ROME — Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, noted that the Church is essential in providing the “loving personal concern” that a state cannot provide on its own.

“We do not need a state that regulates and controls everything, but a state that, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need,” the Pope wrote. “The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ.”

James Towey, a Catholic Democrat, is an assistant to President Bush and director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives. He spoke to Register correspondent Edward Pentin in Rome about government efforts to give religion a greater role in helping people left behind by society.

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes the importance of charity in human love, especially to those in need, and that it is the essential ingredient of justice. What are your views on this, and how is your office helping to foster charity in the Church and society?

Pope Benedict XVI offers a beautiful insight into the interplay between charity and justice, and how love of neighbor compels personal responsibility and action. President Bush has said repeatedly that government can’t love, but that America’s armies of compassion can. This ingredient of love is essential to the restoration of the lives of the addicted, homeless, and hopeless.

Every year the president has been in office he has proposed billions of dollars in tax incentives for enhanced charitable giving, and this March he will host a summit to focus on charity and philanthropic giving by individuals, corporations and foundations. His State of the Union address [Jan. 31] spoke eloquently of how America’s strength is measured by the quality of its compassion.

How much have faith based initiatives grown over recent years?

We’ll put out new data in March that will show the amount of grant making to faith-based organizations, but over $2 billion went last year to religious charities. We’ve removed barriers that discriminated at the regulatory level, so now there’s a level playing field at the grants process. Thirty-one governors now have faith-based offices, including Democratic governors and over 115 mayors as well so we’re seeing this, not only as a Washington exercise, but something as resonating on the homeland. And I think when we look at Hurricane Katrina, what we saw in the aftermath was that faith-based organizations were there, providing this work, before government was even close to the action. So I think President Bush has been vindicated. He has three years remaining to deepen the roots of the initiative so that it will stand.

And it has cross-party support?

It does. We see many Democrats who recognize that if you banish faith-based organizations from the public square, you impoverish it.

But there’s been some opposition, hasn’t there?

In Congress.

I heard someone complain that it’s an “appalling violation of our constitutionally protected civil rights.” How do you respond to that sort of criticism?

They need to go back and read their history. They have a very terribly uninformed opinion. But in fact the minority voice in America has found support within the judiciary, so you’ve had many judges that legislate from the bench, and promoted a political agenda — from the bench. But I think what we’ve found in the deliberations for the Supreme Court are persons President Bush is putting forward for the federal judiciary, including the highest court individuals, who are going to interpret the laws, not try to write them.

So is the battle being won?

I think that President Bush, by having two terms, will have an impact on the judiciary that will put in place individuals who will be strict constructionists, as he promised. I think when you are a strict constructionist of the Constitution, it’s impossible to take the view that a faith-based initiative is a violation of the First Amendment. And to date, we have been upheld at every federal court when our constitutional right has been challenged.

It’s often said there’s a danger in mixing faith with politics. What’s the danger in this regard with faith-based initiatives? What are the risks involved?

There’s a risk if it’s done badly, if it’s done in a way that favors a faith, if it discriminates who gets served by federal programs, if it is done in the darkness. We have transparency. We list the groups that get the money. I think it has to be done right because the reality is that when President Bush was first elected in 2000, the charge was that he would Christianize government, that he was going to tear down the wall between church and state, and that he was going to fund his friends. After five years now, there’s a record that none of those things have happened.

How did you get involved in this work?

I ran Florida’s health services, then I worked with the poor, hands-on, and then worked for a U.S. senator in Congress, so I knew how that works. Then of course, I worked with Mother [Blessed Teresa of Calcutta] and saw the limits of what government can do, and the power of what she could do.

There’s a drive in Britain at the moment for “compassionate conservatism” on similar lines to the United States. Do you think this policy could be successfully emulated in Europe?

I think so. Europe has such rich roots in faith; it’s not exclusive simply of Christianity, but it needs to embrace the transforming powers of faith-based organizations and faith-filled people. If you look at social problems decade after decade, they don’t change. We labor in vain sometimes. I think when you drive out of the public square faith-based groups, you impoverish it. I wish them well there.

It’s also a way to tackle a “dictatorship of relativism,” to use Pope Benedict’s words, isn’t it?

Well, some of the most intolerant voices I hear are from those who want to banish faith from the public square — the secular fundamentalists. They talk tolerance but secular fundamentalists are the most intolerant people I know.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.