In Britain, as in other Western countries, registered charities can claim various tax and other privileges. It’s a system that ensures that a whole range of useful community activities — from running churches, clubs, and youth organizations to catering for the otherwise neglected needs of specific groups — can be carried out without undue financial penalty.
Overseeing all this is the Charity Commission, a body that recently announced a public consultation on some new guidelines. The issue at stake is “public benefit” — the idea that groups gaining charitable status should be those that genuinely operate for the common good and not for some private financial or other gain.
Obviously, this is important. But what constitutes “public benefit,” and who should decide in any particular instance?
There is a recognition by the Commission that, in line with previous practice stretching over many years, it is accepted that advancing a particular religion can be regarded as an activity for public benefit. How should “religion” be defined for this purpose? The commission suggests a wording that could be useful: “a collective belief that attains a sufficient level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and that relates the nature of life and the world to morality, values and/or the way its believers should live.”
While not ideal (Christians believe, for example, that the command that we should love our neighbors is for everyone, not just for Christian believers — so “the way people should live” would be a better phrase), this wording is a workable starting point for discussion. It would be useful if a statement could be added to specifically include the world’s great religions within the category thus defined.
Problems, however, arise in the details. In its draft guidance, the Charity Commission states:
If a religion’s narratives and/or doctrines teach its followers that, in order to achieve salvation, they must refrain from, for example, entering into gay or lesbian relationships or using contraception, this will not necessarily mean that public benefit is not satisfied (emphasis added). However, where an organisation confines itself to promoting only one or two tenets of a religion there may be difficulties (depending upon the tenet and what is being promoted) in showing that the promotion of such a limited range of beliefs result in an identifiable public benefit (particularly if that range would not be generally accepted as beneficial) as well as concerns about what the real aim of the organisation is.
Now there is a whole lot about this that seems odd. Why pick on the specifics of “entering into gay or lesbian relationships”? It is not the job of the Charity Commission to decide what any religion should teach about sexual morality — or indeed about any other tenets of doctrine. And the highlighted “not necessarily” phrase contains a threatening note. It’s as though the Commission is trying to bully religious groups into the adoption of a mentality that assumes a particular view of lesbian and homosexual activity as the norm — which is something that many Christians are not prepared to do, and it is no part of the Commission’s work to try to get us to change our minds.
It’s also worrying that the Commission appears to assume that something being generally accepted should be the measure of what a religion is allowed to teach. But that is all wrong: A religion cannot define itself by public opinion.
I can imagine readers at this point saying smugly that, of course, it’s all very well for a Catholic writer trying to affirm her right to have Catholic organizations that teach the sinfulness of homosexual or lesbian activity. But what about Muslim groups that teach, for example, that wife-beating is acceptable, or that eating pork is wrong?
That is precisely my point: It isn’t up to the Charity Commission, or indeed public opinion, to tell Muslims what they may or may not believe and teach. The criminal law already establishes that a man can (and should) be punished for hitting his wife. Eating pork, on the other hand, is not a matter for the law, but can legitimately be taught (erroneously) as being immoral. It would be most unjust if a lobby of pork-butchers were to ensure that Islamic groups were all to be denied charitable status on account of preaching on the subject.
It is frightening, frankly, that the Charity Commission sees its purpose as not merely regulating the activities of community groups — ensuring that funds raised are used for their advertised purpose, that the criminal law is obeyed, and so on — but as deciding what should, and should not, be taught and promoted by religious groups.
And there’s more. The Commission refers to a situation where “an organisation advancing religion seeks to actively discourage members of the public in general from seeking medical treatment.” This is bothersome. It’s already clear in British law that the state can rightly intervene to save a child’s life where the parents have , for example, refused — as Jehovah’s Witnesses, say — to allow a blood transfusion. It is no part of the Charity Commission’s role to decide what a religion can preach about refusing medical treatment. Issues about medical treatment must be decided by the courts, and frequently are.
No, there’s a sub-text here. The issue seems to be that the Commission would like to penalize Catholic and other groups that help parents who want to protect their children from being given contraceptive drugs and devices or abortions without parental knowledge or consent.
I’m bothered by this Charity Commission document, which came my way because I am active with a number of charities, both Catholic and non-Catholic. If I felt that there was simply an honest attempt to clear up anomalies in the law, or clarify complicated situations in these difficult days where a terrorist group can claim some religious backing, then I’d be confident that the Commission could be thanked and praised for keeping us all up to date.
But I think there’s a lot of ideological baggage being carried. Watch out as things develop. And don’t imagine that the ensuing debates will be carried out in an atmosphere of tolerance toward traditional Christian moral teachings.