The Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision on June 26, 2015, did not simply redefine marriage. It also directly attacked my freedom to serve the public as an explicitly Catholic social worker. The reality is this: Within the next several years, this self-consciously “progressive” decision will ripple out to impede the way services are provided by a wide range of Catholic ministries, especially in the area of social work. Professionals who try to offer their skills in a manner consistent with their faith will face increasingly ugly prejudice against their religious beliefs.
The social work field has become a battleground where strong convictions are unwelcome if they conflict with the profession’s ruling assumptions. In the past, opportunities to work in a faith-based agency gave religiously believing social workers a way to begin their career in a safe and professionally respected environment.
Times have changed. Today the social work leadership class takes an inflexibly secularist approach to disputed social issues. This can conflict with many religiously affiliated or inspired social service agencies and their animating beliefs.
For Catholic social workers, the Code of Ethics and Values set forth by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has become an unexpected problem. The Code speaks to the importance of the dignity of the human person, embodies good intentions, and parallels Catholic social teachings in many ways. But it presents serious problems in other areas, such as same-sex marriage.
Examples abound. Writing in May 2013 in the “Eye on Ethics” column in Social Work Today, Frederic Reamer noted, “Complex challenges arise when strongly held principles of faith collide with social work values.” He proceeded to maintain that “individuals who choose to obtain social work degrees and call themselves social workers have a duty to uphold social work core values.” The conclusion he drew was unsurprising, but ominous: “Social workers who are people of faith do much to support those in need, and for this we should be deeply grateful. But if their actions and pronouncements violate the profession’s core values, they are not practicing social work as the profession has chosen to define it—and that is unethical.”
Reread that last sentence. “As the profession has chosen to define it” might more honestly be expressed by tweaking a few words: “as the profession’s leadership class has chosen to redefine it.” Yes, the “triumph of the therapeutic” has included the triumph of a new priestly class that can sometimes show as little real tolerance as inquisitors of the past. The Early Church invented the idea of organized social service and ministry based on a biblical understanding of the dignity of man. Times and ruling ideologies have changed. The Code established a process for social workers to refer a client to another colleague or to removing themselves, if it is warranted, from a morally conflicting circumstance. Under the current rules, religiously committed social workers are placed in an untenable position, unable to protect their religious conscience. The duty to uphold the “core social work values” takes precedence. Professionals will face unpleasant inquiries and subtly be positioned to choose between both the faith and the career.
As a Catholic social work professional, one of my duties is to nourish the integrity of the family. Another is to protect the health of marriage as a permanent bond of one man and one woman. But according to the Code of Ethics set by the NASW, this specifically Christian commitment is now professionally unethical. My faith as a Catholic social worker is to uphold the Catholic Church’s teachings, but being faithful to Catholic teaching is not an option. One can see where this exclusionary ideology will lead as the profession’s ruling class continues to challenge freedom of conscience and religious liberty.
If Catholic charitable agencies serving the homeless, the poor, and the vulnerable face intimidation through government policies and contracts, it will be the poor who suffer first. Religiously committed social workers will be the first to feel the bullying, but the weakest people in our society will lose the most. It’s already happening. The best thing we can provide for these unfortunate soul—stable lives through biblical teaching—is now a disqualification for social work. Catholic institutions will need to make tough decisions. Many already face the threat of losing their funding.
Once upon a time, it was obvious to all Americans that freedom of religion included the liberty to contribute to the common good of society explicitly as a religious believer—in public, in private, in business, and in the professions.
When it comes to social work, we now live in a different country.
Frances Robinson is a Catholic social worker with a dual degree Master of Social Service and Master of Law and Social Policy, from Bryn Mawr College.