A senior adviser at the White House asked me, as publisher of a Catholic magazine, to put together a group of prominent Catholics to meet with President George W. Bush and discuss his administration’s new emphasis on faith-based social services. There was a reason for the request: Those who know anything about private charities—and that includes University of Pennsylvania professor John Dilulio Jr. and the former mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith, both instrumental in putting together the new Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives—know that the Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental deliverer of social services in the country.
What they may not know, however, is that this new partnership between government and religion has the potential to unite American Catholics of both left and right on genuine rather than fantasy-world common ground. For about a decade, the phrase “common ground” has been a buzzword among liberal Catholics. Many of them wish that they and their conservative Catholic confreres could split the difference on such issues as women priests and sex outside of marriage—issues on which there is no realistic hope that the two sides could ever reach a compromise. But liberal and conservative Catholics can reach a meeting of minds on one thing: a genuine desire to help the needy.
Crisis magazine’s ongoing research into the attitudes of Catholic voters has revealed that Catholics care for the needy and consider their plight a political priority. Genuinely surprising, perhaps, is that this compassion extends across traditional lines of social and political demarcation between rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. This shared concern manifests itself in a vast network of Church-sponsored social services that includes schools, hospitals, senior and foster care facilities, and other agencies that Catholics of all types support with their charitable donations.
Currently, almost 15 percent of all hospital beds in the United States, excluding those at federal facilities, are in Catholic hospitals. More than two million students around the country attend 6,923 Catholic elementary and middle schools, and 639,954 more attend 1,221 Catholic high schools. Of the total enrollment at Catholic schools, almost 25 percent of students belong to ethnic minorities. Catholic Charities USA, the umbrella organization for Catholic social-service agencies, reports spending a total of $2.3 billion in 1998 to help 9.8 million persons, drawing on the services of 52,500 employees and 292,000 volunteers.
Like other private charities, Catholic charities have been shown to be more effective than their governmental counterparts. Addressing the social effects of what are, in many instances, the results of destructive behaviors is not made easier by reinforcing a sense of entitlement, a sense invariably instilled by government- run programs.
In the old dispensation, we made the mistake of thinking that bureaucracy could yield charity. It cannot. Charity hinges on a personal relationship, eye meeting eye, hand touching hand. Church-related groups will always be more successful at this than will government.
Furthermore, social pathologies are often the result of decisions made by individuals who have never had solid character formation or moral direction. That is why faith communities are vastly more successful than secular agencies in rescuing people from drug addiction and criminality. They are not afraid of addressing the core issues; in fact, they consider it part of their mission to confront the moral needs of those they help.
Many have expressed concern that faith-based organizations will have to park their specifically religious concerns at the door once they become active partners with the government, especially if they accept the federal funding that the Bush administration may offer. It would be unfortunate if this occurred, because the secularization of religious charities is the surest way to undermine the very attributes that make their programs successful.
I am confident that as long as religious organizations maintain their passionate, faith-driven commitment to service and sacrifice, they won’t have to worry about secularization if they join hands with the government to do so. Better still, the administration’s new support for faith-based organizations will give all Catholics, regardless of their doctrinal leanings, a chance to stop gabbing about common ground and get something done for those in need.