Pull the Plug—on Catholic Charities

Tom Flynn

As I write, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is threatening to suspend adoption, homeless-shelter, and health-care related services to some sixty-eight thousand beneficiaries, including about a third of the metro area’s homeless population. Why all the drama? A proposed local same-sex marriage law, partway through the process of enactment, would compel Catholic Charities to extend benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees.

We’ve heard this tune before. In 2006, the Boston Archdiocese’s Catholic Charities operation—which was founded in 1903 as an adoption agency—announced that it would unilaterally shutter adoption services throughout Massachusetts rather than comply with a state law allowing adoptions by gays and lesbians.

Is this the beginning of a trend? Consider three facts. First, over the next five to ten years, towns, cities, and states across the nation will adopt new laws regarding same-sex adoption, employee benefits for same-sex partners, same-sex marriage, and the like. Despite the disappointing vote in New York, going GLBT-friendly is still the “steamroller” social reform of our time. Second, governments at all levels depend on church-affiliated charities whose parent churches embrace an antigay agenda—most conspicuously, Catholic Charities—to deliver (in some regions) a quarter, a third, or more of certain essential social services. Third, the chances that the Vatican and America’s Catholic bishops will rethink their stance on homosexuality seems, at best, remote.

Across the country, state and local governments are about to learn an object lesson. Never mind, for the moment, more recent controversies about public funding for faith-based charities. The first “faith-based initiative” took place during the Great Society years, and it may be about to blow up in our faces.

Let’s review the history. Prior to the 1960s, government was a relatively modest provider of social services. Church-affiliated institutions dominated the sector. With Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, government began to emerge as the dominant provider of many types of social services. This raised a tactical question: What to do with existing religious service organizations, some of which had substantial capacity already in place (if on nowhere near the scale Great Society planners envisaged)? Some argued for creating new public agencies big enough to do the whole job, frankly supplanting old-line religious providers. Among other benefits, this would have ensured that public agencies could accomplish their missions entirely with public resources. It would also eliminate any risk of church-state entanglement.

That was not to be. In part due to lobbying by church leaders, in part because it just seemed easier, the decision was made to finance a vast expansion of existing sectarian social-service agencies using public funds. Organizations like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and the like would reorganize—if they hadn’t already—as merely quasi-sectarian nonprofit corporations, legally independent from their home churches. They would provide publicly funded social services in spaces grudgingly stripped of religious icons and temporarily off-limits to proselytizing.

As the musical satirist Allan Sherman once observed, “A camel is a horse that was designed by a committee.” For forty years, this ungainly camel of an arrangement worked, more or less—to the point where it came to seem bad manners to observe that the whole setup with Catholic Charities and its analogues had never been properly secular.

By the late nineties, of course, other voices began to object that the requirement for separate corporations and service delivery spaces shorn of liturgical trappings was too secular. President Clinton dipped his toe into initiatives channeling public dollars to shamelessly sectarian religious institutions; President Bush jumped in with both feet; and sad to say, President Obama just won’t get out of the pool.

All the while, the original faith-based initiative, that clumsy Great Society compromise that tasked Catholic Charities and its analogues with discharging so great a share of a public obligation, shambled along smoothly enough that no one could hear the ticking.

Well, we can hear it now.

With the prospect that same-sex adoption, same-sex marriage, and the like will soon become the legal norm, we may see Catholic bishops piercing the veil separating regional Catholic Charities agencies from their parent churches with growing frequency and brazenness. Governments at every level may soon discover just how sectarian “quasi-sectarian” providers like Catholic Charities really were all along.

If that happens, state, county, and municipal officials may realize, however belatedly, that it never made sense to entrust quasi-sectarian organizations with broad responsibility for doing the public’s work. If the people needed a job done, public secular institutions should have been established with all the muscle they needed to do the whole job without relying on quasi-sectarian partners who might suddenly withdraw if public sentiment crossed some doctrinal red line.

Difficult as it will be to supplant quasi-sectarian providers in the current economic climate, there may be no alternative. Officials may feel compelled to pull the plug on Catholic Charities before this unreliable partner pulls the plug on them.

Just a few months ago, I wrote in this space: “I hope to see an end to those old-line secularized social service agencies like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services in America, and their counterparts” (“Secularization Renewed,” FI June/July 2009). In that op-ed, I got two things wrong. First, I suggested that Catholic Charities and its analogues were already so deeply secularized that maintaining the fiction of their denominational links no longer made sense. As the situations in Boston and Washington demonstrate, Catholic Charities is way less secular than I’d given it credit for.* Second, I speculated that state and local governments might begin distancing themselves from quasi-sectarian providers a few years from now, perhaps during the presidency that follows a second Obama term. Such is the momentum of GLBT-friendly legislation that governments at every level may have to start rethinking their reliance on groups like Catholic Charities far sooner than that.


The recent controversy in Asheville, North Carolina—in which citizens sued to reverse the inauguration of city councilman and atheist Cecil Bothwell—spotlights the toxic legacy of provisions in at least six U.S. state constitutions (including North Carolina’s) barring atheists from holding public office. Such provisions are illegal under the U.S. Constitution, as the U.S. Supreme Court held in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961). Nonetheless, citizens including H.K. Edgerton, a former civil rights leader (oh, the irony), contend that “if [Bothwell]’s an atheist, he’s not eligible to serve in public office, according to the state constitution.”

Though anti-atheist provisions in state constitutions have been legally null for almost half a century, the vast majority continue to stand. The Bothwell affair shows how dangerous it is to leave these “vestigial” hateful clauses in place. As I wrote in the Winter 1999/2000 FI (“Outlawing Unbelief”):

Amending state constitutions is difficult and expensive; removing clauses, even unenforceable ones, that penalize unbelievers is bound to be unpopular. Why bother, one might argue, struggling toward a victory that would be at best symbolic?

The first answer is that symbolism matters. Constitutional clauses denying full political privileges to the nonreligious (and others) enshrine bigotry in an unwelcome historical reverence.

The second
answer is that, while these clauses may be unenforceable today, they may not always remain so. While they survive they are like cast-off weapons—weapons a future, more pious America might choose to recommission.

In North Carolina, the cast-off weapon has been picked up. How will we respond?

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


As I write, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is threatening to suspend adoption, homeless-shelter, and health-care related services to some sixty-eight thousand beneficiaries, including about a third of the metro area’s homeless population. Why all the drama? A proposed local same-sex marriage law, partway through the process of enactment, would compel Catholic Charities …

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