Church-State Partnerships

socratic school

Church-State Partnerships

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.

Service Providers

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

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.

7 Replies to “Church-State Partnerships”

  1. I appreciate this post. Extremists on both sides seem not to acknowledge as you do that issue of religious liberty are complex. Calling others bigots (be it homophobic bigots or anti-Catholic bigots) has done nothing useful in this discernment.

  2. Kurt, I agree it is hard to get people talking about the complexity in a serious way, we struggle with this in all areas of public life and dialogue, the sound bite seems to be winning the day.

  3. For Christians, we are obliged through our discipleship to care for those in need.

    Yes, and what has that to do with government?

    Throughout the long history of mankind, government has almost always been oppressive. Hence the need, by America’s founding fathers, to implement a Constitution that greatly restricted the power of government. But when that same government no longer pays any heed to that founding document, we are back to the long history of oppressive government.

    A fox is what it is; a scorpion is what it is; a snake is what it is; and government is what it is.

    As far as I can tell, no where did Jesus suggest making partnerships with Pilate or Caesar or Herod. It is for us — the Church and those who make up the Body of Christ — to do charity for others ourselves, not to do “charity” with funds that have been forcibly seized from others by an omnipotent government. Rather, it is for government, properly understood, merely to secure the blessings of liberty, including our ability to help others, and then to get out of the way.

  4. Bender, Indeed, this is one path to go and has growing support. I think our partnerships offer us an avenue for evangelizing “Caesar” that said, it can never be at the cost of comprimising the Gospel. The Pew study reports that since 2001, Republicans have less support for faith based initiatives and Democrats mroe support and I think it is for the very reason that you state, charity ought to be left in private hands.

  5. Bender’s point is not without merit. But I tend to look at the other side of the coin. I am more inclined to observe that throughout the long history of mankind, government has almost always been oppressive. Hence the need, by America’s founding fathers, to implement a Constitution that sets up a system where the people rule themselves through parliamentary democracy rather than the oppressive rule of kings, tyrants and dictators.

    As an American, I think there is a fundamental difference — a difference not in degree but in kind — between the decrees of a dictator and various forms of social organization a people freely choose for themselves in a democracy. In my mind, that is what America is all about.

    Our government is not omipotent and separate from the people, it is the people. It does not forcibly seize funds, but we as a free people follow a Constitutional procedure for the appropriations and collection of taxes. The United States of America, for all her flaws, is not an oppressive and evil institution but the greatest experiment in self-rule the world has ever seen.

    A democracy is not blessed with infallibility, but as Churchchill said “it is the worst form of government, except all the rest.” I simply cannot accept that there is any comparison between the USA and the oppresive and undemocratic governments of the past or present. They are not equivalents.

  6. I go along with you actually, I presume! Could it become quite possible to have your blog post translated in Chinese? English is actually my 2nd language.

  7. Ulrike,
    please contact me by email at [email protected] and we can work on having this post translated into Chinese. Please note on our webage that we have translated our material for Lent into five languages.

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