4 min read

Recently James Piereson reported in the Wall Street Journal on substantial funding many nonprofits receive from the U.S. government and noted that religious charities have hardly been slighted:

Catholic Charities USA receives more than half of its funding each year ($554 million in 2010) from federal grants. In 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops received $63 million, and World Vision, an Evangelical relief organization, received $57 million in federal grants.

This is hardly news, though. The Church has long history of using government aid to carry out charitable works. In the fourth century, for example, Basil of Caesarea received the land to build a medical complex—a first of its kind that would be a model for future hospitals—from the emperor Valens. Robert Louis Wilken describes the support the Church received in its charitable endeavors in The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity:

[S]ince the time of Constantine the churches had been granted exemptions from taxes, not only on the personal income of the clergy but also on land the churches owned. Yet the state expected something in return, and one way of justifying the exemption was to point to the church’s social services, in particular caring for the poor. . . . To make a case for government support of his new foundation, Basil wrote to the provincial governor Elias to remind him what his new institution provided to society and the scale of its activities.

Basil the Great, a doctor of the Church and defender of the Trinity, essentially wrote a grant proposal.

As it was in the beginning, so ever shall it be? In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor and as more and more states recognize same-sex marriage, I suspect not.

As Richard Garnett recently observed in Commonweal, “Section 3 of DOMA was struck down not so much because it intruded upon the policymaking prerogatives of the sovereign states but because—in Kennedy’s words—it ‘humiliates,’ ‘demeans,’ ‘disapprov[es],’ and ‘seeks to injure.’”

Government grants and tax-exempt status, however, are given in recognition that the work done by an organization is good for society. Organizations that “humiliate,” “demean,” “disapprove,” and “seek to injure,” by, say, refusing to place children for adoption with same-sex couples, or refusing to provide benefits to an employee’s same-sex partner, or refusing to implement state mandated curriculum that presents an understanding of marriage contrary to the organization’s professed beliefs might not be considered good for society anymore. Some states are already making these decisions.

Folks like Garnett are working to secure protections for religious institutions. But Garnett himself notes,

As religious liberty increasingly comes to be seen as something clung to by a few rather than cherished and exercised by many . . . and as the "benefits" of allowing religious believers’ objections or religious institutions’ independence to stand in the way of the majority’s preferred policies begin to look more like extractions by small special-interest groups than broadly shared public goods, we should expect increasing doubts about whether religious liberty is really "worth it."

Religious charities can also try to find ways work within the limits placed on them by legislation. Catholic Charities of San Francisco, for example, agreed in 1997 to allow employees to designate any member of their household for spousal equivalent benefits. But the same organization had to shut down its adoption services nearly a decade later to bring itself into line with the Catholic Church’s position.

Rather than discontinuing a program here and a program there, or accommodating regulations until they affirm in deed—and perhaps word—a vision of reality contrary to that proclaimed by their faith, perhaps it’s time for Christian charities committed to their faith’s traditional view of marriage to break from their long tradition of accepting public funds. It is always hard to witness to the truth when it is out of season, but it’s got to be even harder when funding for a worthy program is on the line.

This would, of course, drastically affect the services and scope of Christian charity that has characterized the Church from its earliest days. Wilken describes the impressive organization and extent of charitable works in the early Church:

In a mid-third-century letter to the bishop of Antioch, the bishop of Rome causally remarked that his church supported fifteen hundred widows and persons in need. In another part of the Christian world, a city in North Africa, the church had in its storehouse shirts for men and veils for women, dresses and shoes for women, as well as containers of oil and wine for the hungry.

Papyri from Egypt give tangible evidence of the administrative structures that had been set up to distribute aid to the needy. In the city of Oxyrhynchus, twenty-five miles south of present-day Cairo, four memos were issued on one day ordering that the widows of three churches were to receive one diploun (three to four liters) of wine, and widows of another church were to receive five diploun. . . . These provisions were not random acts of charity; they were part of an organized and regular system for providing food and clothing.

And this character is not accidental. “By this,” Christ told his Apostles, “all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have loved on another” (Jn 13:34–35). The Church’s good works are the most convincing witness to the truth it proclaims. Indeed, Julian the Apostate shrewdly recognizing this last point, urged the priests of his own religion to follow the Christian example: “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?” (referring to Christians who have abandoned the state’s religion). “I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues.”

So it seems like a rock and a hard place: Curtail the work of Christian charities for the sake of faithfulness to the truth and by doing so, diminish one of the most powerful witnesses to that truth. But even if the Church’s witness through goods works is reduced to all who believe selling their possessions and goods and distributing them to all, as any have need, it will at least be the Church’s witness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *