If your family and friends are at all like my family and friends, you probably talked a lot about the state dinner party-crashers at the White House. That story certainly provides a welcome diversion to some of the other headlines over the last couple of weeks. If you have been following our blog, you know that the Catholic Church has been in the headlines quite a bit. Nationally, as we contribute to the health care debate and locally as we oppose the legislation to legalize same-sex marriage and more recently in stories as about the possible closure of some of our Catholic schools. We will come back to these stories in future blogs because in one way or another they are part of a very important debate in which we–the laity– need to listen and participate. At issue is the nature of partnerships between church and state. The more common language is the presence of faith based initiatives and public funding.
Indeed, in the United Sates we have a long and proud history of partnerships between church and state in the field of education, health care and social service; our many great Catholic Universities, the Young Men Christian Association(YMCA), The Salvation Army are just a few “faith based initiatives” that are part of the fabric of public life.
It Begins with Matthew 25
For Christians, we are obliged through our discipleship to care for those in need. In Matthew 25, a follower of Jesus’ asks, “Lord, when did we see you hungry?” Jesus tells us that in the face of our neighbor, we see his face. As Catholics, we have been enormously creative in founding and sustaining programs that address people’s physical and spiritual needs. We welcome opportunities to work with–as Gaudium et Spes puts it– “all people of good will.” To this end we see our involvement in civil society as a service provider and not a political power.
In the health care debate, we have a seat at the table, because we are the single largest private provider of health care in the country. We have a particular competence but as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches “our commission and competence is not to be confused in any way with the political community.” The church wades into the debate when the dignity of the human person is at risk or when a voice of moral judgment related to the fundamental rights of men and women is at stake (CCC, 2445-2446).
Thankfully, it seems to be the minority voice that is suggesting that faith based organizations cease taking public funds and entering into partnerships with the government to provide services. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently conducted a poll to see how the general public feels about some of these church-state questions. The whole study can be found at http://pewforum.org/newassets/images/reports/faithbased09/faithbased09.pdf.
Here are some of the most interesting findings:
- Currently 69% of Americans say they favor allowing churches and other houses of worship, along with other organizations, to apply for government funding
- 37% think that religious organizations can do the best job serving the needy when asked “generally, whether religious organizations, non-religious organizations or the government can do the best job providing services for the needy.”
- 74% say that religious organizations that receive government funds should not be able to hire only people who share their religious beliefs
This indicates there is strong support for the idea of partnerships. What this particular study does not address and what is critical to the ongoing discussion is what happens when civil legislation and the belief of the religious organization clash. How do both state and church balance the Constitutional separation of church and state with the Constitutional right to the free expression of religion? One example, as indicated in the study is that faith based organizations do not discriminate on the basis of faith when hiring employees. Another example is that faith based organizations provide social services to anyone who is in need, not just members of their faith. However, in other cases the issue of religious liberty is far more complex, particularly as society experiences less and less universal agreement on certain moral principles.
What is religious liberty?
In his recent editorial that ran in the Washington Post, Archbishop Wuerl asked that the church not be forced to compromise deeply held religious beliefs and teachings in order to continue serving those in need in partnership with the city. The larger question that needs to be reflected upon, studied and debated in a serious way is how to balance the right of faith based organizations who wants to enter into service partnerships with governmental organizations but not be forced to violate their beliefs by adhering to legislation that is contrary to the teaching of their faith. Do faith based organizations have the right to seek exemptions and protection from civil legislation that is contrary to the teaching of the faith?
I have found myself saying again and again to friends that we have a responsibility to be active in this very important debate. As hard as it is sometimes to see another headline that presents the church in a negative light or to enter into a discussion that will be heated, we must be witnesses to the Good News in season and out of season as St. Paul likes to say.