Catholic Charities Argues Government Funding Is Vital

NEW YORK—Catholic Charities accepts government money because it believes there is strength in a partnership with government, and this partnership will benefit people in need, said the president of Catholic Charities USA.

“We have been partners with government to help government do what it wants to do and what we believe it should do,” said Jesuit Father Fred Kammer in a Feb. 28 telephone interview.

He spoke about the issue of government funding in the wake of an attack on Catholic Charities by Rick Santorum, a Catholic who is a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, at a Feb. 20 dinner of the Catholic Campaign for America (CCA).

The senator charged that Catholic Charities opposed welfare changes he and other legislators were seeking because of the organization's dependence on federal money, and said Catholic agencies should give up government funding that prohibited them from talking to people about Christ.

Michael Ferguson, CCAdirector, said in an interview that Senator Santorum raised a valid issue, but that the CCA had a deep respect for the work of Catholic Charities and might not have spoken in the same terms.

A letter from Mr. Ferguson appears on page 6.

Father Kammer said Catholic Charities raises $300–400 million a year privately, and uses some of that to carry out specifically Catholic programs. But grants from the government enable it to provide services that it could not otherwise, he said.

The importance of that partnership in American life, the Jesuit said, became even more evident when he visited countries of Eastern Europe, where the Church had not been allowed to develop comparable programs and is now only beginning this kind of work, he said.

Father Kammer said this collaboration between government and religious agencies had been the country's tradition from colonial days. The Ursuline nuns who began work in 1727 in New Orleans, his home archdiocese, got financial support from the colony for their social ministry, he said.

Some critics, he added, question the acceptance of any such funds out of a desire to “demonize” the government. “We don't buy that argument,” he said. “Catholic social teaching doesn't consider government tainted.”

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is another agency that is heavily dependent on government financing, and has sometimes been accused of serving as an instrument of government policy. But Kenneth Hackett, CRS director, said in an interview that its mission was not determined by what government would fund. “If we did not get one penny from any government, we would do much less, but we would do basically the same thing,” he said.

The government connection does affect the way some people view CRS. When the Sandinistas were ruling Nicaragua, they refused to let CRS distribute a shipment of medicine intended for Nicaraguan children because it was paid for by U.S. government funds. When Indonesia took over East Timor, some critics of the action charged that the U.S. government supported the move, and that CRS served as an instrument of this policy when it carried out food relief and development programs there with U.S. government financing.

Hackett disputed that interpretation, however, and said the result of CRS's involvement was to turn over to the local Catholic bishop the most substantial social development organization in East Timor. “We're very proud of what we do,” he said. Last year, CRS received $80.3 million from the U.S. government for its food aid program and $51.8 million in other grants. It also raised $83.8 million, or about 40 per cent of its total income, from the Church and other private sources.

Raising that much money apart from government enables CRS to strike a balance, the director said, and “speak clearly and directly to the government on any issue.” Catholic agencies find some government requirements acceptable. In 1992, the board of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) voted to change the wording of its charter when it found this was necessary to qualify for a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). But CNEWA said it had already broadened its mission beyond the goal of furthering the Catholic faith, the purpose stated in the original charter. So a new charter, focusing on humanitarian service only described the mission as it had already developed, the CNEW A said.

But Father Kammer said Catholic Charities was aware that government funding had dangers. The possibility of letting the mission of the Church be determined by what government will support is “always a temptation,” he said. “Local board have to be constantly watchful that they are not chasing the government dollar, and work carefully on their mission statements.”

He also acknowledged that “there are always dangers of government incursions, and sometimes we have to draw a line in the sand.” A recent example, he said, was an attempt in San Francisco to force agencies to accept same-sex marriages.

But Father Kammer said the Catholic identity of an agency was not necessarily eroded by the restraints on speaking explicitly about Catholic beliefs in government funded programs.

Different sectors of the Church have different apostolates, he said. When Catholic Charities is resettling refugees who come from non-Christian religions “it is not our job to preach the Gospel,” he said. But the work of Catholic Charities can be called “pre-evangelism,” and serves to make the message of the Church “credible” when others preach it in more explicit terms, he said.

The pressures that can develop are illustrated in the foster care program of the Archdiocese of New York. The traditional practice in New York was for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish agencies to care for children from their respective communities, with financing by the city. But in 1973 that arrangement was challenged in court by critics who charged it was working to the disadvantage of black Protestant children, because Protestant agencies could not care for their growing numbers.

After lengthy and costly legal battles, the city administration agreed to certain changes in the system, and the courts are still supervising the implementation of that agreement. One of the demands was that adolescents be offered abortion and contraceptive services. Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, chief operating officer of the archdiocesan Catholic Charities, said in an interview that the Catholic agencies refused to do that. But, he said, the children could get those services from the city.

Msgr. Sullivan said Catholic agencies also sometimes faced pressures to remove religious symbols such as crucifixes from their premises. “But we resist the government saying that in order to deliver services we have to give up our Catholic identity,” he said.

It would be discriminatory if the government gave contracts to secular agencies engaging in the same kind of work and refused to make grants to religious agencies, he said.

A recent book dealing with this area, When Sacred and Secular Mix by Stephen Monsma (Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), carries an endorsement by Msgr. Sullivan. The book indicates that although some religious agencies taking government funds report undue government pressure, most do not, and government administrators tolerate many practical arrangements that do not accord with the stricter statements of the Supreme Court on Church-state separation.

Monsma argues that the working relationship is for the most part healthy, and in accord with the nature of American society and its reliance on voluntary associations. But from a legal standpoint, he reports, the relationship is “shot full of contradictions, subterfuges, evasions and confusions.” What he calls the current “muddling through” approach leaves religious agencies in a “legally precarious” position when they confront court challenges or hostile administrators.

The author points out, however, that pressures for “toning down” the religious character of an agency come not only from government but also from funding sources such as the United Way and corporations.

Afew years ago, a New York organization called the Council on Religion and International Affairs changed its name to Council on Ethics and International Affairs after business executives said they had difficulty justifying corporate gifts to religion.

Tracy Early us based in New York.