The New Attack on Christian Charities

Catholic Charities workers often trace their roots to twelve French Ursuline nuns who, in 1727, began a ministry to children in New Orleans. The Ursulines offered medical care, ran an orphanage, and founded a girls’ school that the order still operates.

In 1803, the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France. In the decade leading up to that purchase, the nuns had endured a direct attack on their faith by the French revolutionary government. Hundreds of clergy in France were murdered with government complicity; thousands more were forced into exile. The French government had seized church properties, replaced the seven-day “religious” week with the ten-day week, and required an oath of allegiance from the clergy to the new government. Ten Ursulines had been guillotined for operating a school for the poor.

The United States was a new nation with heavily Protestant sympathies. The Ursulines feared that the new American government, much closer to New Orleans than the French regime in Paris, would persecute the sisters to even greater degree. It was widely known that Jefferson was not a practicing Christian, and he especially distrusted the Catholic faith and its fidelity to Rome.

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The sisters understandably worried that their freedom to provide an organized ministry was in danger. Sr. Marie de St. Xavier wrote President Jefferson directly, seeking assurances that the United States would guarantee the order’s property and right to continue its ministry. President Jefferson responded in his own hand with the following words:

The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it. I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.

Given Jefferson’s fear of church-state entanglements, it’s revealing — and reassuring — that he assumed civil authorities would respect a faith-based agency’s right to govern itself.

But the principles set forth by Jefferson’s response are apparently overlooked by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the main force in Colorado behind the state assembly’s current House Bill 1080. House Bill 1080 would prevent any religious entity that accepts public funds from preferring like-minded religious believers in its hiring for key positions. Effectively, Catholic Charities would not be able to guarantee that central positions — including the director, board members, or any other key role — could be restricted to Catholics.

It is entirely appropriate for the government to attach certain requirements to accepting public funds. But those requirements should pertain to whether the money was used as promised, and with what results — not as an anti-religious litmus test.

The ADL claims it seeks merely to be consistent with prior law, that government money cannot be used to discriminate based on religion. But this reasoning ignores federal legal protections, such as Title VII in the Civil Rights Act, that exempt a religious organization from certain laws. The Title VII exemption exists for fairly obvious reasons: Prohibiting religiously affiliated groups from so-called religious “discrimination” in employment would violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

A look at the ADL’s Web sites and legal actions suggests that the group’s real motive is to end what it very broadly and aggressively claims to be unconstitutional state support of churches — even if it involves interfering with a religious community’s own internal governing policies.

When a faith-based organization like Catholic Charities agrees to accept public funds, it does so as an independent partner with the state to provide help to those in need. The goal is to jointly promote the common good. This cooperation is not state aid to religion. Baptisms don’t suddenly jump because Catholic Charities uses public money to place neglected children in foster homes.

In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI writes that for “the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.” He continues that “the Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility of proclaiming the word of God, celebrating the Sacraments, and exercising the ministry of charity. These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable.”

This is why the word “Catholic” is so vitally important, and comes first, in Catholic Charities’ title.

While groups like the ADL seems worried that any formal church-state cooperation is an opportunity for Catholics to impose the faith on the poor, Benedict reminds us that those “who practice charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others.” To use charity as a means to proselytize is to place conditions on one’s love that should be freely given. To do so is not Catholic — and Catholic Charities doesn’t do it.

Deus Caritas Est makes another key point about charitable ministry in the Catholic Church: “With regard to the personnel who carry out the Church’s charitable activity on the practical level, . . . they must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world, but should rather be guided by the faith which works through love. Consequently, more than anything, they must be persons moved by Christ’s love, persons whose hearts Christ has conquered with his love, awakening within them a love of neighbor.”

The bottom line is this: Catholic Charities does not become a state agency simply because it partners with the state in offering housing, food, counseling, and all other human services. The practical effect of HB 1080 and similar initiatives by the ADL is to cauterize the public square of any active social service role for religious communities, or to neuter those agencies of any real religious identity. Nothing could be more foreign to the American historical experience, which has always thrived on civil and religious cooperation short of an “established Church.”

In 2010, Catholic Charities USA will celebrate its 100th anniversary. As the Catholic Church in the United States looks ahead to fulfilling her ministry in this century, every effort must be made to protect the inherent right of Catholic ministries to be Catholic.




  • Christian M. Rose

    Christopher M. Rose is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Denver.

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