The National Catholic Review

Catholics of my generation the school question dominated our understanding of church and state. We thought religion should inform the education of our children; but since government kept religion out of the public schools, we paid for parochial schools and resented the fact that we still had to pay school taxes as well. After hard battles in the courts, we received some help with bus rides and released time for catechism classes, but “the wall of separation” was a very real part of our experience.

We hardly noticed that Catholic Charities had a very different history, receiving funds from public treasuries, collaborating with other social agencies, eventually winning contracts to implement one or another portion of the emerging welfare state. Church representatives occasionally showed up at legislatures to question educational budgets that restricted funds to public schools. Those same representatives visited state houses and Congress to champion public assistance for needy families, for housing and community development, for hundreds of programs of public assistance that in fact operated by contract with private agencies, including agencies sponsored by Catholic, Protestant and Jewish organizations.

After the Second Vatican Council, Catholic Charities and Catholic education invited non-professional lay men and women to join their boards. More than a few scratched their heads in wonder when they found out that local charities depended heavily on government funding while the self-financed schools, which also fulfilled public purposes, hit the financial wall.

Today both Catholic education and Catholic social services are in big trouble, partly because of money but even more because church leaders distrust lay people, and lay people know far too little about how these organizations are run. There is some long-delayed analysis of schools available, but very little popular work about charities and medical care. To get a start on this subject, you could not do better than read John J. DiIulio’s Godly Republic.

DiIulio is a scholar who knows a great deal about grass-roots, faith-based social services with very vulnerable people, especially in Philadelphia. He has studied that work, and he has done some of it himself with people he respects. Scholars like James Coleman have showed the effectiveness of church-sponsored inner city schools. DiIulio has done the same for congregation-based social services, and he took the next step of fighting for changes in public policy to broaden support for that work. He helped Congress enact “charitable choice” legislation to remove bureaucratic barriers to faith-based programs, then accepted President George W. Bush’s invitation to head the highly publicized White House’s “faith-based initiatives.” This book tells the sad story of that uncompleted project.

DiIulio got burned by that experience, and his story might help readers sort out some questions during the current political campaign. He and his friends expected trouble from diehard secularists, but the worst problems came from the Christian right, whose leaders wanted to brush aside statutes and court decisions restricting public funds for religious proselytizing and requiring that government-funded programs conform to employment laws banning discrimination.

The office got caught in a political whiplash despite the fact that almost everybody, on both sides of the aisle, thought government support for faith-based social services was a good idea, a consensus DiIulio has noted during the current campaign. In defense of the administration’s approach, DiIulio offers some fair historical and constitutional arguments and a very helpful description of “proxy government,” a term he uses to describe the complicated networks of public-private partnerships that have long structured the social service systems of which our local Catholic Charities agencies are a valuable component. He persuasively argues the case for change in order to draw on the resources of grass-roots faith communities without endangering effective institutions or constitutional protections.

An outspoken, in-your-face Catholic of the Andrew Greeley variety, DiIulio is unapologetically pro-life; and his life and work exemplify Catholic teaching and experience of a comprehensive commitment to life before and after conception. His favorite projects emerged from his engagement with African-American Protestants, and he knew that President Bush enjoyed broad support from evangelicals, but he was proud of Catholic social services and especially proud of Catholic social thought. It is no small thing to find a respected American social scientist and experienced public intellectual arguing that it would be a very good thing if we could persuade American citizens and public officials to “think Catholic.” By that he means simply that Catholic social teaching is accessible to everyone, it affirms responsibility for social justice and it upholds a robust understanding of the common good. In short, it is a superb body of ideas for defining and defending the middle ground against militant secularizers at one end and Christian extremists at the other. The author believes, and long experience with social services affirms, that we can draw on the spiritual and moral resources of our people without compromising our commitment to religious liberty.

 

Of course, the government cannot fund specifically religious works of evangelization, nor should it allow religious criteria in hiring personnel for publicly funded programs, but within that framework much has already been done by religious organizations and much more could be done by congregations and communities at the grass roots. Such groups have an admirable champion in John DiIulio, and all of us would do well to become better acquainted with the work, and funding, of our best social services.

David J. OBrien is emeritus professor of history and Catholic studies at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass.