The majority of federal government grants come from the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the Obama administration’s version of Bush’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative. Pres. George W. Bush, leader of the party which claims to be against government spending especially for social programs, after consultation with a group of Catholic prelates, created the agency nine days after taking office to repay the debt he owed to Catholic bishops and other rightwing clergy for putting him in office.1 Unfortunately, Pres. Obama has continued this greatest assault against the separation of church and state under the renamed agency.
Some argue that religious organizations can do charitable works at greater cost-savings because they use volunteers. However, I’d rather government agencies pay more workers and assume a greater role in helping the poor and sick before we fund any religious group. Even if no proselytizing is being conducted, aid recipients think of the religion in a kindly light, not the government. In addition, the use of government funds is ultimately directed by the voter and not, in the case of Catholic charities, a foreign head-of-state (the pope) who has his own geo-political goals.
Catholic hospitals are operated “with more than 50 percent of taxpayer dollars.” We already know that Catholic hospitals and clinics are dangerous places for women of child-bearing age. But the bishops have also ordered that in Catholic hospitals “everyone who needs a feeding tube to stay alive must have one surgically implanted, and must keep it indefinitely. This will apply to anyone in a permanent coma from stroke or trauma, in persistent vegetative state or with advanced dementia, having lost the ability to eat along with other sentient activity. It will apply irrespective of your religious faith, your stated wishes in an advance directive, or the instructions of your family.”
Government funding of religious schools has been a priority of the GOP since Sen. Robert Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign2, the first election where the U.S. Catholic episcopate actively engaged in electing Republicans. According to a California bishop, the function of Catholic schools is to teach an “understanding and appreciation and embrace of the Catholic faith.” As a teacher in the Santa Rosa Diocese explained, “I am, by that fact, also a ministerial agent of the Bishop who is the chief ‘teacher’ of the Diocese.” As progressives, we should actively oppose our tax dollars being used to build up religions.
Rather than call for the taxation of religious organizations, especially those which promote the election of puppets of the plutocracy who cause poverty, illness and deprive Americans and immigrants of their human rights, it might be a more realistic goal to demand that the government 1) stop funding them and 2) change the tax code so that any corporation - even those formed for a religious purpose - be required to prepare detailed financial reports, something which religious organizations are not now required to do. (You can't tax unknown assets or income.) Corporations are formed to provide civil legal protections; civil responsibility should be required. Without financial transparency, as far as we know, the Catholic Church could be the largest recipient and mover of “dark money” campaign funds in this country.
The U.S. bishops, now that they lost the last election and ever mindful of their dependency on government funds, are suddenly willing to take a more conciliatory stance towards Pres. Obama. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter dated Feb. 22, 2013, to the White House “welcoming the opportunity to resolve” their opposition to Obamacare.
The cardinal also renewed good wishes and offered prayers for Obama as he prepared to tackle a long list of goals for his second term that were outlined in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses. Recalling a meeting with Obama at the White House, Cardinal Dolan pointed to the president's stated desire "to cooperate with us for the good of our beloved country," particularly in the church's educational, charitable and health care services.
"Catholic" Social Justice
New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, stated a few weeks ago that “New Deal-era liberalism…owed a major debt to Catholic social thought.” National Review columnist, Michael Potemra, agreed with Douthat’s assessment of the importance of “Catholic ideas about social justice.” In a recent NPR Week in Politics broadcast, both E.J. Dionne and David Brooks referred to “Catholic social justice.” Many times during last year’s campaign we were told that Paul Ryan didn’t adhere to the principles of “Catholic social justice.” John Gehring, Catholic Outreach Coordinator at Faith in Public Life said, “[Ryan’s] budget turns centuries of Catholic social teaching on its head.” Catholic Democrats called on Romney and Ryan “to defend [their] proposed budget on the basis of the Catholic Social Justice Tradition.”
As often used, “Catholic social justice” infers that the Catholic Church founded, defines, was and is the leading proponent of the movement. Yet there is nothing particularly “Catholic” about the concept of altering institutions to better serve the common good. And compared to other faith traditions, the Catholic Churh is a johnny-come-lately in supporting equitable access to the benefits of society. In fact, our American ideal of social justice comes from our British Protestant tradition.
Quaker founder George Fox (1624-1691) encouraged fellow congregants to stop owning slaves. His friend, William Penn (1621-1670), was founder of the Pennsylvania Quakers who, by 1696, officially declared their opposition to the importation of enslaved Africans. Along with the Anglican, Granville Sharp, Quakers established the first recognized anti-slavery movement in Britain in 1787, whereas Pope Pius IX declared as late as 1866 that it was not contrary to divine law for slaves to be sold, bought or exchanged.
Quakers were also pioneers for human rights, women’s equality, prison and criminal law reform, and reducing poverty. In 1839, Pennsylvania passed a law enabling public schools to provide instruction in German, at the time the language of the largest group of immigrants.
John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism and a life-long opponent of slavery, declared “There is no holiness but social holiness.” Wesley and his Methodists worked in London among the poor. In addition to providing food and clothing, they tried to find jobs for the poor and Wesley introduced interest-free loans to free them from the demands of exorbitant interest.
Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a Welsh social reformer who introduced social and industrial reforms at his New Lanark Mills in the early 1800s as a way of eliminating poverty. The Mills became an inspiration for other reformers. Owen was also leader of the trade union movement in England.
Charles Dickens (1812- 1870), a passionate campaigner for social justice, “dedicated his life to producing social commentaries on poverty, hunger, exploitation, cruelty and injustice through his many novels and articles.” His themes included abuses of industrial workers, the status of women, the punitive divorce laws of the time, and divisions in social class. Dickens helped to run and finance a house in London for prostitutes so they could find a better life.
The English Factory Acts were passed in 1833 and 1844 limiting the ages and working conditions of child laborers.
The English Chartist movement in the 1830s and 1840s was the first organized working class political movement campaigning for political equality and social justice.
The Christian Social Union, established in 1889 and associated with the Church of England, tried to alleviate poverty and other forms of social injustice by influencing public opinion.
Toynbee Hall was opened in 1884 in an East London slum by an Anglican clergyman, his wife and several young men from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Middle-class women and men lived cooperatively as “settlers” in order to help their low-paid, poorly educated neighbors. They inspired Americans who wanted to implement “social Christianity” and understand the causes of poverty.
Stanton Coit opened the first American settlement in 1886 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Soon other settlement houses were opened in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. One of the most influential was the Hull House in Chicago’s Near West Side, established in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. By 1900 there were 100, 15 in Chicago alone, usually in neighborhoods of recent European immigrants, few of whom spoke English. Settlements hosted meetings of trade unions, ethnic groups, and civic organization. After documenting harsh working conditions, bad housing and sanitation, the settlements and their allies pressured city governments to provide public bathhouses, parks and playgrounds, branch libraries, better waste collection and disposal, kindergartens and night classes in the public schools among other reforms.
John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), founder of the Standard Oil Company and known for his ruthless business practices, retired in 1896 to devote himself to philanthropy. Influenced by his strict Baptist upbringing, he gave generously, not only to his own Baptist Church but also to other denominations, foreign missions, African-American churches and education. He participated in the founding of the University of Chicago. He pioneered the use of foundations to correct the causes of poverty and illness. His foundations were directed at “public health, medical education, increasing food production, scientific advancement, social research, the arts and other fields all over the world.”
I know I’ve omitted many groups and individuals, but the point is to show the roots of American social justice.
The Catholic Church’s first teaching about social justice wasn’t until an 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII. “Rerum Novarum became the document inspiring Christian activity in the social sphere and the point of reference for this activity,” according to the Vatican. We Catholics have been taught that this is the "seminal work on modern Catholic social thought.”
There were several more papal encyclicals on social justice but the American Catholic bishops did not have a social justice agency until 1969, called the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. The CCHD was formed “to address the root causes of poverty in America through promotion and support of community-controlled self-help organizations and through transformative social justice, education, and solidarity between poor and non-poor.” Support, however, is optional since “more than 13 bishops” will not participate.
I am not saying that Catholics have not performed herculean work in charity and social justice. But their contribution to both has been magnified out of proportion by the mainstream media. You know the drill. Up until very recently no one dared criticize the Catholic Church without first praising the Church's charity and social justice. So what gets endlessly repeated becomes the "truth". The reality is there were and are thousands upon thousands of groups in this country helping others who don't have the organization of this country's largest religious denomination behind them.
Whatever good was accomplished in the Catholic Church in the 20th century has been obliterated in the 21st century by eight years of a Bush administration followed by four-plus years of Republican obstructionism - GOP victories which, in some measure, can be attributed to the Catholic bishops leadership of the Religious Right.3 Add to that the tens of thousands of victims of sexual abuse which effects not only themselves but their family and friends.
Going forward, we can anticipate only further damage to the commonweal by a misogynist, homophobic, Republican Church. So the next time a prelate threatens the American populace with closing their charities, hospitals and schools unless we allow them to run this country according to their dogma, my response is, "Do us a favor."
1. see p 154 of my book, The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America (Clarity Press, 2009)
2. Ibid p 122
3. Whenever I make the assertion that Catholic bishops lead the Religious Right, I get some push-back from those who don't believe this. Consider that in the beginning of 2012, a media campaign by Catholic bishops resulted in two Congressional hearings, legislation introduced in the House with 190 cosponsors and the Senate with 29, a lawsuit by seven state attorneys general and the support of three of the four GOP presidential candidates, over the Affordable Care Act’s mandate of health insurance coverage for contraceptives. Failing legislative means, 43 dioceses and other Catholic organization filed suit in May in federal court to eliminate the coverage even after President Obama acceded to their demands that all religious affiliated employers, in addition to the already existing exemption for churches, would not have to pay for such coverage. I am hard-pressed to think of another religious group with more clout.
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