Tell Pharaoh to Keep His Money

“We need …to speak frankly with each other when our freedoms are threatened. Now is such a time. As Catholic bishops and American citizens, we address an urgent summons to our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad.”[1]

One is compelled to agree with the bishops’ earnest conclusions. The protective environment of the American landscape, where faith was held as a social good and religious freedom was nurtured, is fading under the grinding assaults of a fraying culture and a political class invested in a revisionist understanding of religious liberty. The frankness of the bishops at this juncture is refreshing and their writ compels us to action.

With candor and humble submission, I suggest that it is also time for the Church to stop accepting Federal funds to sustain its charitable activities. If it is true that we are in the midst of a momentous historical crossroads for the fate of religious freedom, it is as well the case that for too long the Church in America not only ignored government intrusion but cooperated with it by allowing the role of the state to expand without protest. The assumption seemed to have been that Catholic social teaching places a great burden of responsibility for the common good on government, which justifies an abundance of Federal programs to attend social needs.  But was it not obvious that governmental meddling would also be accompanied by the imposition of moral injunctions contrary to faith at some point?

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As we reflect on the present political situation, we ought to take some time for soul searching and focus on what the core mission of Catholics is in this country.

The unfortunate reality is that much of what has come from the American bishops in the area of social policy has been lacking in any serious challenge to modern statist social policy that has now come to haunt us. For a long time, a lay bureaucracy supportive of big government policies has been at the source of multiple biased statements from the Conference of Catholic Bishops. There probably has not been a more trusted friend of government intrusion than Catholic social service organizations, no doubt in part because they benefit greatly from government grants.

Moreover, time tested Catholic principles have gone to the wayside as the government/Catholic social services partnership grew. As commentators have pointed out, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops does not list subsidiarity as one of its social justice principles. [2]  The Catholic Charities USA webpage lists “the seven principles of Catholic social teaching” without ever mentioning subsidiarity.[3] What principle then, guides the decision making with regard to the relative relationship between government and other basic communities? As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, subsidiarity “sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.”[4]

Addressing legitimate social justice causes should no longer constitute a trump card for other considerations. We ought to treat the care of the poor the way we treat religious freedom: as an area with immunity from politics and power. The flourishing of a civil society that defends freedom and loves the poor demands now that we embrace the commitment of defending the poor exclusively with voluntary gifts.

The common good, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.” [5] It encompasses the work of a number of communities, the Church being but one and the state another. The Federal government contributes to the common good when it fulfils its duties within the constitutionally-specified boundaries of its authority and the Church does it’s spiritually-motivated work within its boundaries. The Catechism of the Catholic Church supports the idea that both individuals and communities should rely on their own resources and trust in God to do their work without government interference, even if such interference is predicated on account of offering help. [6]

God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence.

A healthy relationship between basic and higher communities respects right order and challenges the state and the Church to be creative and focused. Cognizant of the need for a boundary, we can find ways of cooperation without the transfer of money. These transfers are seldom reciprocal as they are attached to a hierarchy of power that tips the scale heavily in the direction of government priority.

However, instead of a reassessment of our present relationship with government, the bishops lament that religious institutions are being disqualified from government contracts. There is much truth about the obvious exclusion but that misses the important point of whether or not we should care to even apply for such funds. The implied assumption of the present social ethos is that what the bishops rightly refer to as “a free, creative, and robust civil society” can survive with monarchial Federal power; we must challenge that assumption.  I humbly submit that there is a greater question we must ask than whether or not the government has the power to decide “who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it.” [7]  The better question is how we decide to contribute regardless of Federal excesses?

This instance of intrusion is only the latest and closest in a corrupt series of interventions. We have participated in shrinking the space of freedom in areas of economic and social life and now the chickens might be coming home to roost.  Scholar Doug Bandow is correct in stating that a society where religious freedom is not respected is a society that unlikely respects other freedoms. [8] Likewise, a state that intervenes in every social and political area of life very unlikely will stop at the gates of a church. For decades, the bishops have called for the nationalization of solutions in multiple economic and social areas and the expansion of Federal intervention has been enthusiastically supported in their declarations. [9]  A determined decision to reject government funds would be a powerful corrective act in the right direction, that of localization and subsidiarity.

Documents such as Economic Justice for All, have prescribed such an expansive role for government and it should not be a surprise that government now moves a little further. One is hard pressed to find even a hint of hesitation to embrace a top-down approach on the bishop’s part. A model based on such expansive expectations for the state can only end in disaster. Inherently, macro-systems with a commanding position and powers of confiscation and policing have an inclination to suffuse the whole of the body politic with their vision of the good, what Michael Novak calls a totalistic inclination. [10] Why offer a social teaching with a narrative that buoys these tempting expectations?

When the aforementioned document tells Catholics that we must “move beyond abstract disputes about more or less government intervention, to consideration of creative ways of enabling government and private groups to work together effectively” [11] why are we surprised if the government wants now to move beyond ‘abstract disputes about the First Amendment’ to impose their unitary vision of the good?

John Paul II’s warning to the welfare state applies as well to religious social service systems when they become quasi-governmental institutions: bureaucratic ways of thinking and living come with the territory.[12] When a number of your employees depend on government funds for their employment they might support more intervention by the hand that rocks the cradle (By 2009 government provided 67% of Catholic Charities’ budget). [13] We must stop acting as government-paid social workers if we are going to tell the state that we are religious ministers.

Our goal should not be a utopian one of dreaming about ending poverty (with its emphasis on programs, budgets, and politics). Instead, it ought to be having an incarnated presence among the poor. The rejection of government funds can incentivize the generosity of our Catholic people and encourage the development of creative ways of helping others. If the soul of Catholic services is the values we communicate, offering fewer services does not necessarily alter the core of our mission.

As City Journal’s commentator Brian C. Anderson has explained, sometime ago Catholic Charities abandoned its core values and entered the political and ideological fray on the side of radicalism:

Catholic Charities first announced its politicization in a wild-eyed manifesto that invokes such radical sixties icons as Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, Herbert Marcuse, and—above all—the Marxist-inspired Liberation Theology movement that (to put it crudely) equates Jesus with Che Guevara. Ratified at Catholic Charities’ annual meeting in 1972, the so-called Cadre Study totally abandoned any stress on personal responsibility in relation to poverty and other social ills. Instead, it painted America as an unjust, “numb” country, whose oppressive society and closed economy cause people to turn to crime or drugs or prostitution. [14]

If Catholic Charities have such a view of America, why are we surprised that those now in power have a similar view of the Church as oppressive? But it is not only our alignment with government that is troublesome. Through the years we have seen how the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has become a trusted source of funding for radical organizations aligned with the statist tsunami we now fret over. [15]

James Madison, known as the father of our Constitution, supported religious liberty.[16] He is most surely quoted because he inspired much of what is authentic liberty in our Founding. Heeding his words is a great idea. When in 1794 Congress used Federal funds for relief of French refugees escaping from war in Santo Domingo, Madison opposed the appropriation stating, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents” (James Madison, 4 Annals of Congress 179 [1794]).

Madison understood that right order precedes right doing and that, in the American experiment of freedom, the Constitution offers the Federal government no space for relief interventions or nationalized solutions to social problems. Unfortunately, and contrary to both Madison and subsidiarity, religious and political leaders apparently assume that if one says the Federal government should not do X, then X should not, or cannot, be done. A renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2) is needed to dispel these pernicious assumptions. As the Federal government emboldens and grows, all under the cover of helping the needy, our memory has forgotten the need for an order that facilitates right doing.

In the process, we have seen the transformation of poor communities into communities in perpetual crisis, requiring continuous Federal intervention. As subsidiarity allows for certain interventions in a time of crisis—and these communities stew in crisis—the government has no boundaries to respect.  Need has become an excuse for continuous intervention directly connecting the individual to the Federal government, with the aid and support of the Church in doing just that.

If we are going to decry exclusion from applying for Federal grants and the exclusion ceases, let us briefly celebrate. Then, let us tell Pharaoh to keep his money. As we rightfully denounce the stealing of space from civil society, we also take a stand on our identity. The Bishops are correct that religious liberty is under attack and we must support their courageous stance. They have been bold recently in preferring to end programs before compromising moral teaching. It is time to use the momentum to oppose Federal intervention when it comes to social and economic issues.

Finally, let us listen again to our good bishops:

“Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith?”

Yes!  When we entertain ideas about the Kingdom of God here on earth, we understand the limitations of temporality and the transcendent nature of our work. Our view of the Kingdom remains a vision to be fulfilled only when things are recapitulated at the end of history. We ought to see ourselves as transcendent realists who accept the limitations of our materiality and the impossibility of an earthly fulfillment of what must remain as joyful expectation. With that conviction, we must understand that our work, in the end, is not to be measured empirically by a record of services provided. It is the profound moral worth of our ideas and the humbling closeness of our presence that counts the most in our work. A bold decision to affirm these, even by rejecting some funding, will generate a renewed enthusiasm about being Catholics and at the service of the poor.

[1] Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, USCCB, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty; A statement on Religious Liberty. In
[2] See “Themes of Catholic Social Teaching” (Washington, D.C.: USCCB Publishing) Publication No. 5-315 and
[3] See Emphasis mine.
[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1885.
[5] Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), 26.
[6] Catechism, 1884
[7] Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, pp.5-6.
[8] Doug Bandow, “A Global Assault on Religious Liberty” in Forbes (April 12, 2012).
[9] For a good summary of the bishop’s alignment with Progressive solutions see J. Brian Benestad & Francis J. Butler, Eds, Quest for Justice: A Compendium of Statements of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on the Political and Social Order 1966-1980 (Washington, D.C.: USCC, 1981); NCCB, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (Washington, D.C.: USCC, 1986).
[10] Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Touchtone, 1982) p. 69.
[11] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (Washington, D.C.: 1986) #314.
[12] See John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (1991) 48.
[13] See
[14] See Brian C. Anderson, How Catholic Charities Lost Its Soul (City Journal: Winter 2000). See it here:
[15] CCHD’s funding of ACORN: over $7,000,000 in a few years. Other organizations that received funding in the last few years are F.U.R.E.E., the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, Vermont Workers’ Center, Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, Power U Center for Social Change, Miami Workers’ Center, the Chinese Progressive Association, the Idaho Community Action Network (ICAN), People United for Economic Justice Building Leadership through Organizing (PUEBLO), and Just Cause Oakland, to name only a few.
[16] Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, p. 6.


  • Ismael Hernandez

    Ismael Hernandez is an ex-Marxist Leninist from Puerto Rico. He joined the Jesuit seminary there and later came to America where he eventually renounced Marxism. He worked for a time as executive director of a Catholic ministry in the inner city for the Diocese of Venice. Most recently, he founded the Freedom & Virtue Institute in 2008 to bring the ideas of individual liberty, limited government, self-reliance and love for the poor to communities of color. Mr. Hernandez lectures regularly for the Acton Institute and lives in Fort Myers with his wife and three children. He holds a Master’s degree in political science from the University of Southern Mississippi.

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