In less than a week following the long-anticipated release of Mel
Passion of the Christ, the Supreme Court of California issued
a ruling against Catholic Charities of California requiring it to
provide abortifacients (such as birth control pills), a practice
which Catholics consider to be a mortal sin, in exchange for its
receiving public funding.
These events are unrelated, but their timing is highly ironic.
Christianity is presently basking in the rare glow of affirmation
from a popular culture that usually mocks it. Thanks to a remarkable
film, there seems to be a renewed interest in meditation on the
Passion and in the religion stemming from it. The Faith is discussed
again in the public square. In the midst of this, California's state
supreme court justices – much like the Roman satraps in the movie – surface
to remind everyone who is boss.
Whether or not you agree with the Catholic Church's teaching on
artificial birth control, a practice that nearly all Christians
recognized as a moral evil as recently as 80 years ago, you should
be very concerned with this near unanimous decision that the government
can tell any private organization how it must allocate its resources.
This is always and everywhere a violation of property rights, but
it is especially bad when applied to religious institutions which
today are often the last sanctuaries from the encroachments of an
overweening public sector.
To these sanctuaries, the California Supreme Court is sending two
messages. The first is that if you receive government funds then
you must conform with the correct side of the culture wars – in this
case, with the belief that government should make contraception
as widely available as Hershey's Kisses – with the understanding that
the threat of force exists if you disagree. The second is that the
separation of Church and State is held as sacred by the religious
and secular left precisely because it runs in one direction.
School voucher conservatives, as well as anyone who supports President
Bush's "faith-based initiatives" should find this development
sobering. Anywhere public money flows, public control soon follows.
Consider the neutering effect public money has done to Catholic
education in the United States. Consider what state-support has
done to the Faith in Europe. This is a long-term cost of accepting
tax dollars for any purpose.
This is a cost that has long corrupted Catholic Charities USA.
Indeed, calling it a charity stretches the truth, given the extent
to which it has grown dependent on taxpayer-conscripted capital
to support its social services. (Sixty-seven percent of its $2.3
billion budget was derived from government in 2000.) Today it is
little more than a nominally Catholic branch of Housing and Urban
Development – a shadow welfare system that grants a degree
of ecclesial legitimacy to socially destructive wealth redistribution
But the destruction runs in both ways. As the Court noted in its
opinion, if Catholic Charities of California had not eschewed even
the smallest of proselytizing functions in its official activities,
it would not have ruled against it. Instead, it apologetically remarked
that Catholic Charities did not meet any of the criteria defining
a religious employer under a 1999 law that justified the Court's
action. "Under that definition," commented the New
York Times, "an employer must be primarily engaged in spreading
religious values, employ mostly people who hold the religious beliefs
of the organization, serve largely people with the same religious
beliefs, and be a nonprofit religious organization as defined under
the federal tax code."
One of the messages of the Gospels – highlighted in Mel Gibson's
new movie – is of the shameful consequences that can befall religious
authorities that become too close to government. By ruling against
Catholic Charities, the Court simply confirmed a statement made
by a Catholic Charities priest several years ago, recounted by U.S.
Sen. Rick Santorum: "We get government funds, so we're not
Whether this continues to be the case will depend in large part
on its reaction to the Court's ruling. If it complies with the Court's
order and distributes abortifacients, then it should change its
first name. But if as a result of this incident it shuns public
money, it can become a charity again.
Catholic Charities' socialist sympathies, this choice won't be easy.
But no passion ever is.
[send him mail] teaches
economics at Jacksonville State University, Alabama.