Catholic Charities, the Fiscal Cliff and Pope Benedict’s 'Motu Proprio'

Father Larry Snyder, Catholic Charities USA's president, on the record.

(photo: Courtesy Catholic Charities USA)

Since 2005, Father Larry Snyder has served as the president of Catholic Charities USA, the national office for about 1,700 local Catholic Charities agencies and institutions. He also serves on the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which oversees the Church’s charitable activities around the globe.

He spoke in early December with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond amid Capitol Hill deficit-reduction talks that, if unresolved, could lead the federal government over the “fiscal cliff,” triggering massive cuts in government spending.

The interview also followed the release of Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio “The Service of Charity,” which calls on bishops to strengthen the religious identity of Catholic charities, and Father Snyder welcomed the Pope’s directive as a “positive” and “helpful” framework for Church agencies across the world.

As we speak, Congress and the White House are engaged in deficit-reduction negotiations to prevent the U.S. government from going over the so-called “fiscal cliff.” The outcome could involve cuts in social spending and reductions in charitable tax deductions. How are Catholic agencies fairing in this uncertain period of retrenchment?

We keep track of national trends for government funding. Most of the money we receive is federal funding, and a lot of that money comes through the states.

This administration has certain priorities, so while spending has contracted in some agencies, it has increased in others. Overall, it has stayed pretty constant. If we go over the fiscal cliff, we will definitely see a reduction in donations.

We are especially concerned about changes to the charitable-tax deduction. The deduction is portrayed in the press as only affecting millionaires, but it’s not just a millionaires’ tax deduction. We get a lot of support from upper-middle class and middle-class Americans who do itemize their deductions.

Have recent religious-freedom concerns prompted a reassessment of the future direction of Catholic charitable institutions?
I know of a couple of dioceses where bishops have said, “I want to see a strategic plan that takes us away in 10 years from a dependence on government money.”

Religious-freedom issues are more of a concern for us in areas like adoption services. Several agencies have closed down their adoption programs. It is a district-by-district issue. Further, for some time, there have been issues about whether a government contract requires us to distribute condoms. Of course, the HHS mandate will affect us as employers.

Early in December, Pope Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio “The Service of Charity.” The document outlines principles for strengthening the religious identity of Catholic social agencies. Were you surprised by the Pope’s new directive?

I serve on the [Pontifical Council] Cor Unum, and for some time, we have heard there was an intention to provide what we see as a missing piece of Catholic charitable outreach. I have since read the document with great interest.

The motu proprio is very positive and very helpful to us. It affirms the charitable work of the Church as being right at the heart of its mission in the world.

Basically, the norms are making concrete the principles that our Holy Father laid out in Deus Caritas Est (On Christian Love).

First, the Holy Father identifies three activities of the Church that are essential: proclaiming the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments and performing works of charity.

Second, he calls for “formation of the heart” for all charitable workers in the Church. He begins by saying that what makes our workers different is “formation of the heart” — why we aren’t just another human-service organization, but one that is truly rooted in the Catholic faith.

Our faith defines the way we approach individuals in need, and the document provides the parameters for that service.

Canon law prescribes most of the norms governing the Catholic Church, but, until now, it did not provide norms for the Church’s charitable activities.

The norms are drawn from Deus Charitas Est, and they focus on the bishop’s responsibility for overseeing charitable work. I don’t think there is anything new, but it makes those responsibilities very explicit.

The norms include directives for hiring charitable workers who embrace, or at least, “respect,” the mission of Church agencies.

The document addresses personnel issues: Those who work for Catholic charities should share this faith or at least respect it. That is an importance piece for us. We don’t hire people who don’t respect our Catholic faith and our responsibility as a Catholic charity.

We have tried to be very clear that there must be an ongoing formation of staff regarding the teachings of the Church. I think that is being done in a lot of dioceses, given that a fair number of employees [at Church agencies] aren’t Catholics. Some mission programs mostly hire non-Catholics.

I have provided formation, and I find that non-Catholics value that opportunity. They have a tremendous amount of respect for the Church.

This past weekend, I was in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif., where Bishop [Richard] Garcia spent a day and a half with his board. The bishop is giving formation to the people on the board, as well as a vision for the agency.

When a Catholic charity has made a bad or problematic decision, some critics have suggested that such decisions are approved by the agency’s board, which is completely autonomous from the local ordinary.

Dioceses are constantly reforming themselves. But the issue isn’t autonomous boards in and of themselves. The bishop has the power to negate decisions if he has concerns.

Where I see the problem is when the boards don’t understand their role vis-à-vis  the bishop’s role. It can get ugly and messy because people have not taken the time to sort out the board’s role in a faith-based organization to really engage the bishop.

The motu proprio also directs bishops to both promote and also supervise the charitable work of lay movements in the Church.

A phenomenon you encounter more in Europe is lay-Catholic movements that are doing outstanding work. They are very strong and really engage the Catholic laity, and the Vatican is certainly trying to give them official recognition.

But the Pope is saying that they should follow the same principles: They need to have a strong connection with the bishops. While they came into the diocese with the bishop’s approval, they may not be coordinating their work with him.

What is the broader context for this document, particularly the Pope’s directive that Catholic “agencies do not accept contributions for initiatives whose ends, or the means used to pursue them, are not in conformity with the Church’s teaching.”

The Church is a universal body. When we read the document, we must approach it within the framework of a universal Church.

During international meetings at the Vatican, I have learned about issues that occur primarily in developing countries, where a lot of organizations that provide relief operate without any understanding of Christian anthropology.

This motu proprio addresses those issues — possibly with more urgency than might be the case for problems here. A key point is that no matter where the funding comes from you cannot compromise your identity.

What about collaborating with big donors like the Gates Foundation, which does tremendous good in the fields of public health and education, but also recently announced a global birth-control initiative?

The Pope’s directive will spur debate.

Some bishops have said that … in areas where the [donor’s] mission corresponds with Church teaching it is okay to collaborate with organizations like the Gates Foundation. Other bishops insist that if the foundation gives any support to family planning we cannot participate at all.

The motu proprio is a tool we can use to help with these issues. It’s kind of a checklist to ensure that we are doing all the things we should do to uphold and maintain our Catholic identity.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy