The Separation of Charity and State

The years-long assault on religious freedom continues in the United States, as Catholic charities, colleges, and other institutions are forced to comply with—or fight legal battles against—mandates concerning adoptions and employment matters related to same-sex couples, abortion and contraceptive health care coverage, and other items on the growing list of issues on which Church teaching diverges dramatically from the legal and cultural doctrines currently regnant in most Western nations.

Is it possible that this is a good thing?

First, let me be clear about what I am not suggesting. I am not suggesting that an accurate understanding of the First Amendment requires government to avoid funding religious organizations. I am not suggesting that these numerous efforts to mold religious institutions according to the vision of secular orthodoxy are motivated by genuine concern for the wellbeing of those religious institutions. And I am not suggesting that religious organizations should roll over and permit these injustices to come to fruition.

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Still, the conflict itself—even if the Church suffers defeat in many cases—may end up being a good thing. My basis for this surmise (prediction would be too strong) is an episode from Church history.

In the 1860s, Italy overcame centuries of disunity among a welter of distinct regions and city-states and formed itself into a modern nation. Part of the process involved divesting of his territories the historic ruler of a large chunk of the Italian peninsula. That ruler was the Bishop of Rome and the sovereign head of the Papal States—at the time, personified in Pope Pius IX.

The Italian nationalists who wrested control of the Papal States were motivated, in part, by anti-Catholicism. It was also patently unjust. Pius IX fought it tooth and nail. He condemned anyone who supported the cause and exhorted Catholics to join him in defending the temporal rights of the papacy.

But the pope lacked the military might or moral clout to obstruct what seemed to be the unstoppable march of history as the modern nations of Europe formed and the old order passed away. The Papal States were lost forever and the pope became a virtual prisoner within the Vatican. Pius’s successors continued to argue—without any realistic hope of vindication—that the papacy had been plundered and that the Vicar of Christ retained rights to temporal power. In the United States, most Protestants, who associated Catholicism with political authoritarianism, were supportive of the Italian nationalists. The prominent Unitarian minister and abolitionist, Theodore Parker, visiting Rome in 1860, wrote to a friend and belittled Pope Pius IX: “When his temporal power is limited to this city, with 176,000 antiquated, good-natured people, his spiritual power will be worth little, except with the Paddies in Ireland.”

The “Roman Question,” as it was called, was resolved by the Lateran Accords of 1929, when Benito Mussolini granted Pope Pius XI control of a small, independent polity within the Italian nation in return for the Church’s relinquishing its claims to the Papal States. The pope was no longer a military or political figure. The memory of warrior-popes such as Julian II leading papal troops into battle no longer had any connection to contemporary reality.

This development—fought resolutely by the Catholic Church at the time—is now almost universally acclaimed to have been a positive development for the Church and for the world. The pope, freed from the obligations and moral ambiguities of temporal rule, devoted himself to spiritual headship. Parker’s prediction proved stunningly wrong. The secular power that the Church lost when it was deprived of the Papal States was not merely balanced by its gain in moral stature; the pope’s importance as a world figure increased beyond what anyone had imagined. To take but one example, the major role of Pope John Paul II in ripping down the Iron Curtain is now widely understood and acknowledged. Stalin’s jest, “How many divisions has the pope?” retains its bite, but the meaning has been inverted. The butt of the joke is Stalin, not the pope.

In short, the Church found itself—in the short term—on the losing side of a nasty quarrel with the state, and—in the long run—the Church came out the winner.

Something similar may be happening in America today. If non-profits such as Catholic Charities lose their government funding, their work will surely be hampered. Good people will suffer. The state should not require its grantees to compromise reasonable moral principles in order to receive public funding. It is unjust and wrong.

Yet, consider what may happen when government funding and Catholic charitable activity are decisively severed. Notoriously under-giving Catholics, many of whom think of their taxes as their contribution to the common good, will be forced to reconsider that equation. Charities that are fiercely independent of government, and all the potential corruptions that entails, will benefit as Catholics take more seriously their responsibility to heed Christ’s admonition to care for the “least of these.”

The Church itself has been hinting in this direction over the last few years. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI issued new rules that require Catholic charities to pay attention to Catholic teaching in the hiring of personnel and in their cooperation with other organizations and governments. He urged Catholic agencies to reassert their identities as not merely secular arms of the state that happen to be affiliated with a church, but as specifically religious institutions that have at their heart a Christian understanding of charity that is distinct from both secular philanthropy and government welfare provision. Cardinal Robert Sarah, at the time head of the Vatican’s dicastery overseeing the Church’s charitable activities, has made pointed comments about the international Catholic charity, Caritas. “I believe it is important to understand that our charitable organizations are located within the Church and not alongside her,” he said, and further insisted that the charity’s work should not be “merely philanthropic.” In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis warned against a preoccupation with the material dimensions of poverty; “the worst discrimination which the poor suffer,” he averred, “is the lack of spiritual care… Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.”

These exhortations, combined with the increasingly blatant hostility of our government, may goad Catholics into thinking more seriously about the manner in which we discharge our obligations to those in need. The result would be a social apostolate that is more rather than less effective at achieving its true aims—and, not coincidentally, more consistent with the perennial principles of Catholic social teaching.

This reading of the situation is admittedly speculative. Perhaps the intensifying conflict between church and state in this country will be an unmitigated disaster. Perhaps Catholic organizations will see no infusion of funds as individual Catholics, thoroughly demoralized by the culture’s attacks or completely neutralized by their assimilation by that culture, slip into inaction and apathy.

But I think it is neither a cavalier dismissal of the real threat posed by these trends nor Pollyannish optimism to believe that there is a decent chance of the result I’ve described—a bracing clarification of what genuine Christian charity is. Hidden within the dark cloud of state hostility to religion may be the silver lining of a reassertion of Catholic identity.


  • Kevin Schmiesing

    Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow at the Acton Institute. He is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and, most recently, of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). He is the book review editor for The Journal of Markets & Morality and is also executive director of Schmiesing earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania.

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