The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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March 2, 2001 Issue
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 community.

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 justice.

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.)

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