Public-Religious Partnerships

President Bush recently unveiled his promised White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. For Catholic Charities USA members across the nation, the ensuing debate has been stimulating, frustrating and important. It invites us to share with the president our own hopes and concerns. It also calls for a bit of a history lesson.

In 1727 a handful of Ursuline sisters were sent from France to New Orleans to do whatever the local community needed. The sisters opened the first orphanage, a home for women of the streets and a simple health care ministrythus beginning both Catholic social services and Catholic health care in what is now the United States.


For purposes of the current political discussion, it is important to note that the French colony provided financial support to the work of the sisters because it was in the interest of the whole community. In 1804, upon the purchase of Louisiana by the young United States of America, the superior of the Ursulines wrote to President Jefferson in hopes of keeping property given to them by the local government, the revenues from which supported their ministries. She pleaded that their ministries were for the public good and that their institution was both useful and necessary.

President Jefferson responded by letter on May 15, 1804. With regard to their property, he assured the sisters that the principles of the constitution and [the] government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate. Then Jefferson added language that is refreshing in the current debate:

...and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s [sic] 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 it’s [sic] furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society...cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. be [sic] assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

This history suggests that public-private partnerships are not new and that we might learn much from the many years and experiences of the past.

Since the late 1800’s a broad and deep partnership has developed between cities, counties, states and the federal government in which religious social service providers and other organizations regularly contract with governments to care for frail infants, protect abused children, provide group homes for severely disabled adults, train the unemployed and house elderly residents. In fact, governments are more likely to contract out social services to religious and other agencies than to provide direct social services themselvespreferring to retain to themselves the direct functions of income support programs (e.g., Social Security, Unemployment Compensation, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and determining eligibility for such income programs and benefits as food stamps, Medicaid and Medicare. And on a number of occasions, the U.S. Supreme Court has sanctioned such social service contracts and distinguished such programs from its adverse rulings in elementary and secondary education aid situations.

A Call to Service and Justice

With this historical pre-note, we can now turn to the current debate over faith-based social initiatives. For all too long, our nation has been almost silent about the needs of its families who are poor and vulnerable. They figured little in the 2000 presidential campaign and debates. Almost anticipating President Bush’s new faith-based initiative, our U.S. Catholic bishops published an important pastoral letter in 1999 entitled In All Things Charity. It challenged us to remember our duties in charity and justice to those at home and abroad who have tasted little of the recent economic boom. The bishops said that this duty of charity and justice applied to individuals, families, businesses, unions, governments and church congregations.

President Bush is now urging congregations to take a more active role in meeting the social needs of their communitiesthe elderly, teen moms, schools, poor neighborhoods. This, too, the bishops urged in two other pastoral letters of the 1990’s: Communities of Salt and Light, on the social mission of the parish, and Called to Global Solidarity,on parish responsibility for people at peril all over the globe. Catholic Charities agencies welcome the concern of the administration for these same interests; much more certainly can be done by church congregations and many other organizations.

In Catholic Charities agencies an important emphasis for 30 years has been on what we call parish social ministryhelping the local congregation to reach out to those in need in its own neighborhood, across town and around the world. In many dioceses, this is one of a number of church-focused-and-funded programs by Catholic Charities, along with others such as Respect Life programs, marriage preparation, Catholic Youth Organizations and education for peace and justice. We consider these to be direct expressions of the Gospel and a service to the diocese.

Our member agencies also have another, equally important role. Catholic Charities serve as a diocese’s instrument of community service, through which we care for cocaine-addicted infants, provide foster homes for abused children, staff group homes for adult persons with mental disabilities, build housing for the elderly, feed hungry families, shelter abused wives and children, welcome refugees and immigrants and provide job training to welfare recipients. In this Gospel-inspired capacity, we work in active concert with parishes and with local, state and federal governments, who often contract with us for these services to people of all faiths and none.

This reflects one of the most frustrating aspects of the current debate, because religiously sponsored social service agencies have already had such longstanding partnerships with government. These partnerships are essential to our ability in Catholic Charities to serve more than 9.5 million people in 1999. The mission-inspired tradition of the Ursuline sisters in New Orleans continues today in more than 50,000 staff and 250,000 volunteers, whose professional competence and voluntary commitment make Catholic Charities a reality in 1,400 locations nationwide. These partnership commitments are usually the product of careful government requests for proposals from social service agencies, professional competition among providers to deliver the most effective and least costly services, and cautious oversight and evaluation by public grantors. Fears in the current debate about unseemly competition among churches seem strange to us, especially since Catholic Charities agencies have many effective collaborations with Lutheran Services in America, the Salvation Army, members of United Jewish Communities and other faith-based organizations. Social services and advocacy are probably the most effective forms of ecumenism today.

Improving Partnerships

When President Bush pledges to simplify bureaucratic requirements and establish a level playing field for religiously inspired and other service providers, we applaud this effort. Government bureaucrats sometimes overreach, threatening our organizational integrity. We also will need protection from extremists on the political left and right. We believe further that the poor and vulnerable deserve the best qualified and most effective services, which is why Catholic Charities support efforts to credential licensed professionals, screen out volunteers who may be dangerous to children and accredit agencies for services. For us, agencies not only can, but should, be both mission-driven and competent. Moreover, in a spirit of effective partnership, our member agencies would welcome efforts to require governments to pay their social service partners in a timely and adequate fashion, reduce excessive bureaucracy and eliminate unfair advantages that corporations would enjoy, which are now invading the world of social services with a thirst for profit that may jeopardize the well-being of abused children and the frail elderly.

We are also eager to tell the president that there is a great need for public-private partnerships for additional housing for low-income familiesa goal effectively abandoned by government more than 20 years ago. We could learn much from the highly successful Section 202 housing projects for the elderly and disabled. These government-funded complexesoperated by religiously sponsored and other organizations and sometimes built on church landare highly successful, if one can judge by the long waiting lists in most communities. The second great need for partnerships is for safe, quality day care for children of working parents. Catholic Charities and other local groups, again, could help to meet those needs. With substantial federal surpluses projected, significant additional federal investments should be made now for both housing and child-care. In these and far too many other areas of human need, there are long waiting lines for service and all-too-depleted private resources.

Avoiding Polemics

We also applaud the way the administration has shied away from the provocative rhetoric of past decades that promised or pretended that religious and community programs for the poor could be funded by cuts in essential government programs for low-income people like food stamps, Medicaid and income supports. The administration has soberly proclaimed that their new effort is meant to complement what government and so many others are already doing, not to replace them. The test of any new policy should be whether the total help to the poor and vulnerable will be increased and by how much. For this reason we look forward to President Bush’s budget proposals to see whether new resources will actually be made available to meet the needs of millions of hungry families, people in need of mental health treatment and families without affordable housing and child care.

One concrete step announced so far is the proposed new federal tax deduction for charitable contributions for taxpayers who do not itemize deductions. Catholic Charities and the bishops have long supported such a policy. Federal or proposed state tax deductions, however, should be funded by anticipated surpluses, not by cuts in currently earmarked funding for direct aid to the poor for day care, job training and cash assistance.

We are pleased, too, that President Bush and his administration have largely eschewed the language of those who, in their fervor for faith-based programs, have equated poverty with sinfulnessblaming the pooror exaggerated the successes of faith-based programs in supposed contrast to other programs. Even in his own time, Jesus of Nazareth not only rejected such blaming, but rather identified himself with the hungry, naked, homeless, sick and imprisoned. Our member agencies’ experience is that poverty has many and complex causes, and that effective solutions come in many packages, carried by many handsincluding personal and social responsibility, individual and community empowerment, religious and secular social services, and attention to physical, mental, emotional, familial, social, economic and, at times, spiritual factors. Inviting new players to the table to pilot and test new solutions to complex personal and community problems is a worthwhile cause; but it should be modest in its claims, cautious in its predictions, respectful of other quality efforts and open to creative and flexible responses.

We have another caution. In the Catholic community, our practice has generally been to establish separate organizations to serve the poor, regardless of their religious affiliation. For example, we have Catholic Charities agencies, St. Vincent de Paul societies and residential care institutions for people with disabilities and abused and neglected children. Incorporating such programs separately from local parishes has many advantages, including economies of scale, targeting of fiscal and personnel resources and the ability to hire professional staff and qualify for accreditation. Entering directly into a government service contract subjects a parish to a host of new rules, as well as opening up its budgets to government audits. For most local churches, it is more practical to create or collaborate with a separate non-profit organization to handle administrative headaches.

Attacks From the Extremes

Finally, partnering with government has opened us to attacks from the extremes of the political left and right. On the left, the apostles of secularism and abortion would deny us our religious identity and moral values and try to force Catholic Charities agencies, for example, to provide for abortion and contraception in employee insurance programs. Catholic Charities of Sacramento, supported by the Catholic bishops of California and Catholic Charities USA, is suing the State of California to block just such an effort. At a recent meeting of the board of the Catholic Health Association, its president, the Rev. Michael Place, observed that there are now over a dozen national groups determined to force all hospitalsespecially religiously sponsored facilitiesto provide abortion and a full range of contraceptive services.

On the right are those in Congress who have threatened for several years to deny religious and other non-profits our right to engage in legislative advocacythe prophetic tradition in the Scripturesbecause we have contracts with the government to provide specific services. They also would prevent us from feeding undocumented families or meeting their medical needs, even though our Catholic social teaching extends special protection to many who have fled their country for serious political, economic or social reasons.

Also attacking from the right are the apostles of smaller government, lowered taxes or just plain unfettered capitalism who claim that our partnership with local, state and federal government disqualifies our advocacy for the poor, homeless, hungry, elderly or youth. We must be doing it only for the money, they crudely assert. A frequently reappearing attack article relished by conservative commentators like the Rev. Robert Sirico, Joseph Fessio, S.J., and the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, as well as the columnists Michael Novak and George Will, was written in 1999 by The City Journal’s Brian Anderson. Anderson visited two of 1,400 local Catholic Charities sites, then carefully wove together myths and half-truths garnered from many of the same archconservative sources and declared that we in Catholic Charities had lost our soul to government. Why? Because we had supported increasing the minimum wage, confronting racism, community organizing, parish social ministry and so forth. Furthermorehorrors!we opposed welfare reform in its 1996 form. When I responded that we followed the lead of the U.S. bishops on all these issues, Anderson retorted that the bishops were a reflexively left-wing group for decades now. In these attacks from the right, Catholic Charities are really surrogates for the U.S. bishops, whose leadership in explaining Catholic social teaching has never been accepted by those on the extreme right.

So before they venture too far, churches, faith-based organizations and others considering new partnerships with government would do well to weigh these likely assaults and to prepare themselves with appropriate legal, political, theological and public relations resources. Partnership with government may promise many opportunities to serve people in need, but it is not for the faint of heart.

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