• Catholic Charities' Passion

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    In less than a week following the long-anticipated release of Mel
    Gibson's The
    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.

    4, 2004

    [send him mail] teaches
    economics at Jacksonville State University, Alabama.

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