Church and State and Care for the Poor

Last week Catholic Charities in Washington DC announced that if the DC City Council passes its gay marriage bill – enacting, among other things, a requirement that all contractors doing
business with the District government provide health benefits to same
gender couples – it would have to withdraw from its contracts with the city, for providing such benefits would violate the teachings of the church.  The response has been quite strong and, frankly, quite ugly.

In the Washington Post we read a columnist berate the church for being "uncharitable and cruel."  In that same paper we read a headline characterizing the church's announcement as an "ultimatum," and that one council member has called the church "childish" for its announcement.

I don't write here to defend a certain policy of the Roman Catholic Church.  I don't write as an advocate for "traditional marriage."  (In fact, I supported the actions of my church to welcome gays and lesbians to serve in the ministry, and for congregations to perform blessings for same-gender relationships.)  I don't write to meddle in the affairs of another church.

Rather, I write here today, as I did in a letter published in the Washington Post, to defend religious liberty and the principle of separation of church and state (a topic I've addressed quite often on this blog).  The church has a right to conduct its ministry according to the dictates of its faith, and it saddens me to no end to see the church take a beating in the press. Furthermore, it frightens me to think that society would dictate to the church how it should conduct its ministry.

Much of the outrage stems from a misunderstanding of the distinct roles that church and state play in society.  The state has responsibility for caring for the public good, ensuring good order, public safety, and so forth (see Luther on Government and Psalm 82).  The church, while it has a social mission and a public calling, is primarily responsible to its faith and traditions and, ultimately, to the God in whom it confesses faith.  At times the work of church and state overlaps – both desire to see the poor cared for, for example.  And so, over the years, the state has come to depend on the church to deliver social services, even awarding social service contracts to the church's ministries to carry out the state's responsibilities to care for the poor.

However, society has become so dependent on the church's social ministry organizations – to the extend of providing them with millions of dollars of funding – that some have forgotten that these are not government services, but Christian ministries, driven and shaped by a particular faith and mission in obedient service to God.  So when Catholic Charities objects on the grounds of faith to statutes that would require it to provide health benefits to the partners of gay staff members, some have become outraged, as if the church is backing out on its social contract with society.  From the column by Petula Dvorak:

"I don't get it. What do gay people have to do with the shelters?
They're the Church; that's what they do. They help. That don't make no
sense," the woman said.

That's right.

Actually, that isn't right.  "Shelters" or "help" is not what the church does.  Serving the poor is not what the church does.  First and foremost, what the church does is respond in faith to the call of Jesus to follow him.  And while for many Christians, including Roman Catholics, that call includes serving the poor, the ways in which they serve the poor is just as important as the service in the first place.

Take, for example, the St. Francis Inn in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.  This is a soup kitchen that serves its guests restaurant-style at tables, bringing them meals, napkins, drinks, and utensils.  After the guests eat, the tables are later cleared, just as at a restaurant, by the staff (paid and volunteer) of the St. Francis Inn.  Surely the Inn could provide food cafeteria style, or hand out bags of food from a window.  Such a set-up might be more efficient.  But they don't.  Rather, they offer their guests a dignified meal, a meal shared with love, a meal that reflects the words painted on the Inn's walls: "They recognized him in the breaking of the bread" (from Luke 24).  Not only do they serve in response to the call of Christ, but the way they serve is also shaped by that call.

Few can argue with providing a dignified meal and dining experience to the homeless.  But I would suggest that Catholic Charities' inability to comply with certain provisions in the pending DC gay marriage bill is analogous to the example of the St Francis Inn – that it is not only the delivery of services that is important to the church, but the ways in which those services are delivered is just as important.  The church must provide its services in accordance with the dictates of its faith, and this includes such mundane details as who it hires and what benefits it provides to those employees.  If the DC Council doesn't change the provisions of its bill, it will lose a reliable social service contractor because the church – even as a contractor – must be able to conduct its work in accordance with its faith.

The problem is, however, that many people disagree with the church's teachings about faith and sexuality.  There are many, both within and outside of the church, who support full civil and marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, and who find such relationships to be fully compatible with the Gospel.  There is a legitimate and necessary debate on these issues within churches, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.  But for now the Roman Catholic Church continues to teach a certain "traditional" understanding of sexuality, an understanding that conflicts with the emerging consensus in our society that embraces same-gender relationships just as much as opposite-gender relationships.

Perhaps this case serves as a wake-up call to local and state governments around the nation who depend on faith-based organizations to deliver services on their behalf.  The state either has to respect the limitations of faith-based organizations, or it has to provide for the services they offer in other ways.  As I wrote in my letter to the Washington Post:

So the church has a choice: Accept Caesar's money or not. If it accepts
Caesar's money, then it has to play by Caesar's rules. The District has
a choice, too: Change the proposed law to retain a reliable social
service contractor, or stick to its principles and find a new
contractor to deliver social services.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

2 thoughts on “Church and State and Care for the Poor

  1. While I generally agree with your convictions about the separation of church and state, I really don’t see that as the central issue in this case. Faithful Christians are alarmed that the needy are being used by the Roman Catholic archdiocese as leverage in a political and public policy dispute. This perception may or may not be correct (it appears the archdiocese’ statement refers to ending its “long partnership” with the city; I’m not sure that means a cessation of services altogether). Nevertheless, the perception is out there, and I believe this is what is really outraging people.
    This year, I’ve become increasingly concerned about adverse public perceptions of the church – perceptions entirely justified by the actions of Christians and churches. It began when an LGBT person contacted our pastor to find out whether it would be “safe” for him to worship with us. Imagine that! Someone felt compelled to ask whether the church is a “safe” place for people! I read the Barna Group’s 2007 survey results of young Americans’ perceptions of Christianity today (published under the title unChristian), and I was shocked to see that nearly 9 out of 10 young non-Christian Americans believe Christians are judgmental hypocrites. About half of the young Christians surveyed concurred! And excessive hostility toward gay people was listed as the single most common observation about Christian attitudes.
    When I read about the archdiocese warning to the city, I thought to myself, here we have yet another example of the “unChristian” church. Where you see a “separation” issue in this, I see a catastrophic failure of evangelical witness and discipleship.

  2. John – I don’t argue that the decision is good for public relations, or that it is faithful to the Gospel. Rather, my only point is that a private, religious organization has the right to conduct its ministry according to its beliefs. Once the state starts making pacts with church, it wades into messy territory (so too for the church!), and it can’t expect the church to act as a defacto arm of the state. This is a frightening prospect!
    I think there should be a vigorous debate within the church about these issues, but the government (in this case, the DC City Council) should not be critiquing what for the church is a theological issue. The Council should either find a way to keep Catholic Charities as a contractor, or simply say, “Sorry to hear that you’re backing out of the contract. Thank you for the many years of partnership.”

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