The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 23, 2001 Issue
Eye on the Capitol

Many baseless beliefs surround faith-based group proposal

Such collaborations will not solve all our problems or destroy our basic liberties

First of two columns

By John Huebscher

In other columns I have recalled the axiom "nothing is as good or as bad as it first appears." This axiom is worth noting as one examines proposals in both Madison and Washington to foster greater involvement of religious or faith-based organizations in efforts to address community problems.

At first blush, one might wonder what could possibly be wrong with the idea that churches or organizations connected to a particular religious denomination might be effective in helping combat social ills.

After all, churches are dedicated to helping people and recipients themselves are often more trusting of religious groups than they are of government or private sector agencies. Many religious agencies have good track records for using resources effectively.

But nothing involving religion is simple these days. Thus, while the concept of fostering faith-based responses to problems is praiseworthy, there are reasons to be cautious.

The idea of faith-based responses to community problems must deal with the fears of opponents, as well as the misplaced expectations of some supporters.

For in reality, such partnerships will not solve all of society's problems, though they can help us do better. But neither will they destroy our liberties or betray our traditions, as some opponents suggest.

The balance of this column will deal with the fears of opponents who see the ideas as a breach in the wall between church and state.

Some argue that using government funds to support faith-based groups violates the Constitutional ban on government-established religion. Not so. Government does not establish a state church merely by inviting religious groups into the public square.

The secular purposes of fighting hunger, poverty, restoring relationships, teaching the ignorant, helping people battle alcohol and drug dependencies also have sacred results - for the act of doing these things ennobles both the helper and the person who is helped.

No Constitutional amendment prohibits that.

Nor should it be assumed that a partnership between government and religious organizations gives churches a license to proselytize.

Most faith-based providers operate out of a conviction that their example of service is a more powerful evangelical tool than is a call to religious conversion. As Sharon Daly of Catholic Charities USA puts it, "we don't help the needy because we hope they will become Catholic, we help them because we are Catholic."

Finally, the collaboration most supporters have in mind already goes on with many religiously affiliated charities. The more likely impact of efforts to increase collaboration between government agencies and religious groups will not be a revision of the First Amendment, but a better understanding of what it means.

Relationships between institutions change as the different parties learn from experience and the wisdom that accompanies it. Faith-based collaboration can be a source of such experience and wisdom. We should not be afraid to explore it.

At the same time, collaboration between government and religious groups can suffer as much from unrealistic expectations as it will from unfounded fears.

That will be the subject of my next column.

(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)

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