Catholic Charities' Passion

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 schemes.

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 Catholic."

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.

Given Catholic Charities' socialist sympathies, this choice won't be easy. But no passion ever is.

March 4, 2004