Eye on the Capitol|
Charitable choice will work only if we do it in right way
There can be no gag rules for churches or refusal by state to play its proper role
Second of two columns
By John Huebscher
As noted in the last column, the prospect of fostering
collaboration between government and faith-based agencies
(sometimes called "charitable choice") has its detractors.
But equally worrisome are the expectations of some who support
the concept. In some quarters, the idea persists that faith-based
organizations can save money by doing more efficiently what
government attempts to do in relieving social ills.
The image of small, lean programs might be appealing, but there
are two important reasons why backers of charitable choice do
religion no favor when they intimate that such groups can replace
the state as the primary provider and guarantor of services to
needy people. It would be nice if religious-based charitable and
social service organizations fully met all the needs of the
But that approach was tried and abandoned long ago. For, whether
we consider soup kitchens, homeless shelters, hospitals, or
foster care programs, the religious groups have never been able
to take care of all the needy people who have a legitimate claim
to the community's helping hand.
Indeed, had parish-based responses been sufficient years ago,
diocesan Catholic Charities would not have been created in the
first place. Moreover, even as Catholic Charities agencies came
into being, the U.S. Bishops, in their Program for Reconstruction
of the Social Order, crafted in 1919, recognized that the
political system had a role to play in meeting basic needs of
needy individuals and families.
It reflects the fact that Catholic thought has long recognized
the difference between justice and charity. Charity is a
short-term response - often a personal one - to an immediate need
or crisis. Justice is more detailed and a long-term response,
often structural in nature, to a persistent problem.
For example, providing a meal in a parish kitchen or from a local
food pantry is a matter of charity. Making sure that those who
work have a just wage is a matter of justice. It is an act of
charity to give a homeless family shelter. Providing access to
affordable housing is a matter of justice. Offering free
emergency treatment to a poor person is an act of charity by a
Catholic hospital. Making affordable health insurance accessible
to the 40 million Americans who currently lack it is a matter of
Individuals are called to acts of charity. But, whether we look
to the Preamble to the Constitution or to the Catechism, we see
that it is the duty of the state to establish justice.
In this context, charitable choice can be a tool for expanding
charitable responses and steps toward securing justice in our
society. But it ought not become an excuse for relieving citizens
and the state from their responsibility to provide just policies
that address these larger needs.
It would also be a mistake to think that a new partnership with
government means religious groups will, or should, abandon their
prophetic role of speaking out on behalf of the needy as a price
for accepting public funds.
Regrettably, Congress actually considered such an idea in recent
years. Ironically, this "gag rule for advocates" was offered by
some of the same people who argue for more faith-based
involvement in problem solving.
Because people are social by nature, individuals and
organizations can achieve more together than they do working
separately. So the cooperation between government and faith-based
groups envisioned by backers of "charitable choice" can be a plus
for all of us. But only if we do it right.
(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic
Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)