National Catholic Register


The Evolution of Catholic Charity in U.S.

BY Robert Kennedy

September 20-26, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/20/98 at 2:00 PM


The Poor Belong to Us by Dorothy Brown and Elizabeth McKeown (Harvard University Press, 1997, 352 pages, hard-cover, $45)

Despite what might seem a dry as dust academic topic, Dorothy Brown and Elizabeth McKeown have managed to write an interesting history of Catholic charitable institutions in the 20th century.

The Poor Belong to Us traces the development of Catholic charities from a collection of ill-funded volunteer organizations in the 19th century into the largest private provider of social services in the country. Crisp writing and a keen eye for relevant detail carries the story along nicely, even though the text includes extensive scholarly documentation.

Brown and McKeown, who teach history and theology, respectively at Georgetown University, begin by recalling the situation of urban Catholics in the 19th century. Then, receiving charitable assistance of all sorts, Catholics made up a disproportionate number of those, usually from predominantly Protestant organizations. The flow of immigrants in the latter half of the century not only increased the number of needy Catholics, but also provoked the Church to devise more effective institutional responses to their needs.

A number of factors in the 20th century have influenced the growth of these responses, and so it is perhaps unfair in a brief review to isolate factors that the authors discuss more carefully in their contexts. Nevertheless, several trends seem to emerge. One of these is the trend away from associations composed largely of lay volunteers, toward agencies staffed by trained, full-time employees, and most commonly directed by clerics and religious. “The drive for consolidation at the diocesan level,” the authors note, “was soon taken up by local Catholic bishops, who responded to the demand for charities reform in the early decades of the 20th century by assuming direct control of diocesan charitable institutions, services, and funding.”

This “clericalization” is a persistent pattern, at least in the United States, and is not confined to charitable organizations. As it proceeds, it tends to crowd out lay leadership (since career paths disappear) and to replace volunteer involvement with cash contributions.

A second trend, which has become quite prominent in the last decade or two, is the trend away from small, localized responses, toward centralization on the national level. Of course, local efforts are never entirely extinguished, nor is this the goal. Still, fewer and fewer programs are genuinely parish-based, and most now function only at the diocesan or national level. “Ironically, in their own house, Catholic charities turned the principle of subsidiarity on its head and became top-down organizations.”

This trajectory was given great impetus first by the Depression, at which time local efforts were simply overwhelmed, and by the increase in federal government programs in the 1960s, which made resources available on the national level. Several other factors during these years contributed to the emergence of a national Catholic voice on welfare and related public policy issues.

One such factor is reflected in the title of this book, explicitly taken from a speech by Bishop (later Cardinal) Muench of Fargo, who was apprehensive that aggressive federal programs in the 1930s would separate poor Catholics from their Church. “Decrying both the centralization of Catholic charities and the expansion of public social provision,” the authors observe, “Muench appealed for the charity that engendered the sanctification of client, volunteer and diocesan worker.” The movement to nationalize charitable work called for a Catholic voice that could speak on a national level.

Athird subtler trend that the authors touch upon, but do not examine, was the shift from viewing social welfare activities as matters of charity to seeing them as matters of justice. To be sure, the causes of poverty are dauntingly complex, but we seem more inclined now to regard social welfare efforts as a claim that the poor have on the rest of society, rather than as a charitable activity. The shift is important in American society because we have typically seen poverty as a condition to be overcome by personal effort. By contrast, the ancient Christians tended to understand poverty as rooted in injustice. The question of whether this analysis is correct today, especially in the context of modern dynamic economies, is one that no longer troubles most people in Catholic social services.

A fourth change has to do with the very makeup of the people who need social services. If a hundred years ago these people were often Catholic, this is no longer the case. Catholics have been so successful in the United States that “Catholic” and “poor” are no longer synonymous. This, in turn, creates a sort of identity crisis for Catholic Charities and related institutions which, like the Protestant institutions of the last century, find themselves addressing the needs of a great many people who are not of their own denomination. Surely aiding the needy has been an integral part of the life of the Church from the time of the apostles, but the authors suggest that, to the extent that the poor are no longer “us,” Catholics may have become less generous in their financial support.

Other tales are told, including the history of programs and movements to address the problems of Catholic girls and boys, and the crucial role that large numbers of women, both religious and lay, have played. Nor are the colorful personalities and political intrigues omitted. The authors display a deft hand in assembling their material, and impress the reader with their grasp of the large picture as well as the detail. They might have improved the book by breaking it into more and shorter chapters, and introducing subheads, but on the whole this is a highly readable account of an important element of the history of the Church in America.

Robert Kennedy is an associate professor of management at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.