As government and other political institutions continue to fail us, people of faith remain the only consistent safety net for those in need. Take, for example, the State of Illinois, which recently passed the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. The Act requires state-funded adoption agencies to place adoptive children with same-sex couples when they are available. Pursuant to this law, Catholic Social Services of Southern Illinois will no longer provide adoption services. This is just one example of what is happening throughout the country: Ideology is beginning to trump the common good.
Catholic Social Services lost funding not because they were ineffective, but because the orphans did not fit the State’s definition of underserved. According to the State of Illinois, same-sex couples are the underserved community and deserve higher priority than the orphans. In general, the government has become a force for “change” instead of a partner of charitable organizations. This was not always the case.
Previously, the government, in realizing that we live in a world of shrinking resources, relied upon the private and non-profit sectors to fill in the gaps where it was not successful. About a decade ago, this idea reached the highest levels of our government and culminated in the establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
That Office was established by executive order in January 2001. The purpose was to create a “level playing field” and allow the government to be a partner in recognition that non-governmental organizations are the most effective purveyors of public services. The executive order allowed all faith-based community organizations to compete for government funding and partner with the government.
The next Administration, by executive order in February 2009, took the opportunity for the government to determine what is worthy of public funds, not based on need, but ideology. The new executive order included the following statement: “Faith-based and other neighborhood organizations are vital to our Nation's ability to address the needs of low-income and other underserved persons and communities. The American people are key drivers of fundamental change in our country, and few institutions are closer to the people than our faith-based and other neighborhood organizations.” The original intention of the Faith Based Partnership program was partnership, not control.
The most crucial phrase that is subject to interpretation in the above statement is “underserved,” for each successive administration may re-interpret it as they choose. Whereas the original executive order was formulated to allow civil society organizations to compete for funding, the new order can define “underserved” in any way they wish, providing resources to some and denying them to others. When the government is involved in charity, inconsistency ultimately prevails. Consistency comes in the form of individuals who are in solidarity with others.
A little-discussed teaching in the Catholic Church is the principle of “subsidiarity”. This means that community of a “higher order” should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a “lower order”. The higher order community must support the lower order community in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activities with the rest of society, always with a view of the common good. In the Illinois adoption case, the “higher order community” is the court and legislature and the “lower order community” are the non-profit organizations that serve those in need, such as adoptions agencies. The State of Illinois has broken the principle of subsidiarity. Now the lower order community will no longer be able to serve those in need, but will instead become a tool in service to the higher powers’ agenda.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken a major step forward on this issue and need the support of the Catholics and other like-minded Christians around the country. But the underlying issue in this fight is larger than a single tyrannical court order or an intrusive bureaucratic mandate. The real question is whether social service organizations, especially religiously-infused charities, should be seen as having unique missions which go above and outside politics, or whether these groups are merely associates of the state in a centrally-directed secular welfare scheme. Do charities exist to evangelize, minister to human beings as bodies and souls, or are they merely called to alleviate whatever topical ills rank high on the agenda of the current government?
Unfortunately, religious Americans can no longer rely on government institutions to be a partner in charitable efforts. It is time for us to realize (or perhaps, for Christians, recall) just how fickle an ally government can be. If the government becomes a major provider of assistance to the immigrants, orphans, the elderly and others who are truly underserved, it can also just as easily take the assistance away with (or without) whatever justification it chooses. As Peter Maurin, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement stated, we need to create a society where “it would be easier for men to do good.” This is utterly distinct from legislating charity through political power. The consistent foundation of charity comes from the belief that the rights of men and women, of all different types, are derived from the immoveable Creator, not ever-changing politicians.
Steven M. Perry has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Southern California and currently resides in Los Angeles.
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