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I would like to offer three reflections that focus on the “Catholic” identity of Catholic Charities and, by extension, the identity of all Catholic social work.

First: What we do becomes who we are. A man who does good usually becomes good”or at least better than he was. A man who struggles with his fear and overcomes it and shows courage gradually becomes brave. And a man who steals from his friends or cheats his company, even in little things, eventually becomes a thief. He may start as a good man with some unhappy appetites and alibis, but unless he repents and changes, the sins become the man. The habit of stealing, or lying, or cowardice, or adultery, reshapes him into a different creature.

What applies to individuals can apply just as easily to institutions and organizations. The more that Catholic universities or hospitals mute their religious identity, the more that Catholic social ministries weaken their religious character, the less “Catholic” they are, the less useful to the Gospel they become.

Second: The individual is sacred but not sovereign. For Catholics, every human person”no matter how disabled, poor, or flawed”has a unique, inviolable dignity. Sanctity of life and the basic rights that go with it begin at conception and continue through natural death.

But civil society consists not just of autonomous individuals. It also consists of communities, which have rights of their own. Catholic institutions are extensions of the Catholic community and Catholic belief. The state has no right to interfere with their legitimate work, even when it claims to act in the name of individuals unhappy with Catholic teaching. The individual’s right to resent the Church or reject her beliefs does not trump the rights of the Catholic community to believe and live according to its faith.

To put it another way, Catholic ministries have the duty to faithfully embody Catholic beliefs about marriage, the family, social justice, sexuality, abortion and other important issues. And if the state forbids those Catholic ministries to be faithful in their services through legal or financial bullying, then as a matter of integrity they should end their services.

The third point gives context to the other two: A new kind of America is emerging in the early 21st century, and it’s likely to be much less friendly to religious faith than anything in the nation’s past. That has implications for every aspect of Catholic social ministry.

Early America could afford to be “secular” in the best sense, precisely because its people were overwhelmingly religious. The Founders saw religious faith as something separate from government but vital to the nation’s survival. In the eyes of Adams, Washington and most of the other Founders, religion created virtuous citizens. And only virtuous citizens could sustain a country as delicately balanced in its institutions, moral instincts and laws as the United States.

As a result, for nearly two centuries, Christian thought, vocabulary, and practice were the unofficial but implicit soul to every aspect of American life”including the public square. The great Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray put it this way: “The American Bill of Rights is not a piece of 18th-century rationalist theory; it is far more the product of Christian history. Behind it one can see, not the philosophy of the Enlightenment, but the older philosophy that had been the matrix of the common law. The ‘man’ whose rights are guaranteed in the face of law and government is, whether he knows it or not, the Christian man, who had learned to know his own dignity in the school of Christian faith.”

The trouble is that America’s religious soul”its Christian subtext”has been weakening for decades. We are watching the end of a very old social compact in American life: the mutual respect of civil and sacred authority, and the mutual autonomy of religion and state. And that’s dangerous.

American life has always had a deep streak of unhealthy individualism, rooted not just in the Enlightenment, but also in Reformation theology. In practice, religion has always moderated that individualism. It has given the country a social conscience and a common moral compass.

Religion has also played another key role. Individuals, on their own, have very little power in dealing with the state. But communities, and especially religious communities, have a great deal of power in shaping attitudes and behavior. Churches are one of the mediating institutions, along with voluntary associations, fraternal organizations, and especially the family, that stand between the power of the state and the weakness of individuals. They’re crucial to the “ecology” of American life as we have traditionally understood it.

And that’s why, if you dislike religion or resent the Catholic Church, or just want to reshape American life into some new kind of experiment, you need to use the state to break the influence of the Church and her ministries.

In the years ahead, we’re going to see more and more attempts by civil authority to interfere in the life of believing communities. We’ll also see less and less unchallenged space for religious institutions to carry out their work in the public square. It’s already happening with Catholic hospitals and adoption agencies, and even in the hiring practices of organizations like Catholic Charities. Right now no one in Catholic social work can afford to be lukewarm about his faith or naive about the environment we now face”at least, if we want Catholic social work to remain Catholic.

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M., was recently named Archbishop of Philadelphia. This essay has been adapted from a talk he gave to the Catholic Social Workers National Association in June.


Charles J. Chaput, A Principled Charity

Charles J. Chaput, A Charitable Endeavor

Matthew J. Franck, Religion, Reason and Same-Sex Marriage

Matthew Hanley, Should Catholic Charities Settle for Harm Reduction?

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