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Feb. 19 2010 - 12:50 pm | 373 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Tradition and change in the Catholic Church, D.C. charity edition

Andrew Sullivan has a passionate response to news that the Washington D.C. Catholic Diocese is shutting down its foster care program because of new anti-discrimination laws passed by the D.C. City Council.  He writes:

It’s interesting that, once again, it’s only the gays the Church singles out for this kind of radical action?  And remarkable also that an institution found guilty of the rape and abuse of so many children for so many years – and a conspiracy at the highest levels to cover it up and perpetuate it – would now seek to abandon other children in need of foster care because it might – in some few cases – just might imply acceptance of the civil rights of gay couples. 

This they take a stand on. Torture by their own government just miles away? Not so much. When Jesus’ clear fundamental injunction is to help the needy. The homeless will be the next victims of this madness – for there is no other way to describe the extremity of the position, an act of pique that could actually hurt people genuinely in need, whom the church has served for centuries as part of its core mission.

Why? Because the maintenance of dogma, inconsistently applied, is so much more important than charity.

Yes, that’s what Catholicism now seems to mean, isn’t it?

These three things then remain: dogma, power and charity.

And the least of these three is charity.

The problem is, once again, Andrew has the story backwards.  Whether or not you agree with Church dogma on this issue (and I don’t!) one still can’t expect a Diocese to reverse its position on a social issue without the blessing of the Church as a whole simply to meet every civil requirement the world over.  The Church is a hierarchical organization.  It is bound to certain rules and obligations.  This is its strength – and sometimes it is also its weakness.  Either way, it is not for the D.C. Bishop to arbitrarily decide.  Nor is it even the Diocese’s decision.  In fact, the City Council is revoking the contract from Catholic Charities, not the other way around.  While the Council could have written a less narrow law or could have made an exemption for a charity which has provided invaluable and irreplaceable services for 80 years, it chose not to:

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington announced today that it is shutting down its foster care and public adoption program. The District of Columbia said the charity would be ineligible for service because of the new law recognizing same-sex marriage.

“Although Catholic Charities has an 80-year legacy of high quality service to the vulnerable in our nation’s capital, the D.C. Government informed Catholic Charities that the agency would be ineligible to serve as a foster care provider due to the impending D.C. same-sex marriage law,” the organization said in a statement.

The Catholic Charities affiliate transitioned its foster and adoption program to the National Center for Children and Families (NCCF) on Feb. 1. The transition includes seven staff, 43 children and their biological families, and 35 foster families. The transition was scheduled to coincide with the expiration of the current contract between Catholic Charities and D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA).

“Foster care has been an important ministry for us for many decades. We worked very hard to be able to continue to provide these services in the District,” said Ed Orzechowski, president and CEO of Catholic Charities D.C.

“We regret that our efforts to avoid this outcome were not successful.”

Here are the facts: Catholic Charities does not place foster children with gay couples.  This is in accordance with Church laws.  You may or may not agree with those laws, but they are in place and govern the entire Church.  It is perfectly reasonable for Catholics who find this to be morally wrong to keep urging and praying for a change in Church doctrine.  I hope and pray that this will be the case.

However, the Church is an organization built on thousands of years of tradition.  It moves slowly.  This does not in fact make it an organization bereft of charity.  That is a ludicrous statement.  Catholic Charities helps thousands upon thousands of people the world over.  They were already on the ground in Haiti when the quake hit, because they are on the ground all across the world helping the poor and hungry and those who cannot help themselves.

Furthermore, one cannot expect the Church to simply change course all of a sudden on an issue as big as this one.  Changing the definition of marriage to include gay couples may be more and more acceptable in the mainstream, but this is still a fairly recent development.  Andrew has been a Catholic his entire life.  In politics and secular culture there is a sea change in opinions of gay rights, and that’s a good thing.  But for some reason, Andrew expects the same shift to occur apace in the Catholic Church – as though an organization so rooted in tradition and so resistant to change should enact revolutionary change to its dogma and practice overnight.  This is simply not how such organizations work. 

This is, indeed, the very strength that lies at the heart of the Catholic Church.  Indeed, when (if ever) the Church does accept gays into the fold and embraces marriage equality, that acceptance will be a deep one, and will be anchored to the very foundation that the rest of the Church rests upon.  This is one reason why the change should remain slow, why the Church should not operate like a secular institution.  In order to protect the good changes that come about, the tradition of caution and conservatism must be preserved.  Otherwise every Pope will become a revolutionary or a revanchist, twisting Church teachings and dogma to their whim.  Pope’s already have plenty of power, and I would not like to see them accrue even more – even for a cause that is just.

More to the point at hand, the Catholic Church exists in the first place because of its hierarchy. And for all the flaws of that hierarchy it is also one of the great strengths which keeps the Church from evangelical excesses.  That is not to say that the Church has not gone through periods of excess, but the hierarchy is meant to prevent this, to keep more radical elements from becoming too powerful (and that includes radical elements on both the “left” and “right” as far as those labels can be applied). 

If the D.C. Diocese simply discarded its hierarchical bonds it would cease to be a viable part of the larger Church.  So the Church in D.C. says to the City Council – “We cannot follow these civil laws because we are a religious organization and we are bound to our religious laws as well.  In religious matters at least, when these two sets of rules come into conflict, we have no choice in the matter.”  And so the D.C. City Council revokes those charity contracts with the Church that come into conflict with the new rules.  Again, to make this point abundantly clear, it is the City Council which is revoking the contracts, not the Catholic Church.  I think the Church is wrong here, but I see no way that the D.C. Diocese could have done anything any differently.  According to CNS News:

Catholic League President Bill Donohue supports the archdiocese’s move to transfer its foster care programs to the private sector, blaming lawmakers for leaving the Catholic Church with no choice. 

“Archbishop Donald Wuerl (who presides over D.C.’s archdiocese) is a man of principle and prudence: He did not want to end the foster-care program, but he was left with no realistic option,” said Donohue in a Feb. 17 statement. “District lawmakers could have granted the kind of religious exemptions that would have ensured a continuation of services, but instead they sought to create a Catch-22 situation for the archdiocese.”

Donohue added, “The real losers are the children who were served by the Catholic Church.”

If other religious organizations have not had their contracts pulled it is because those organizations are not bound by similar rules.  That is all well and good, and I commend them for it.  Unfortunately, these organizations are also much smaller and less effective than Catholic Charities.  The irony is that much of the strength and efficiency of Catholic Charities relies upon the Church not being an organization of radical change.  So we are left with this dilemma.


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  1. collapse expand

    Erik – You post starts off sounding quite reasonable, and it’s true that there are some positive aspects to the glacial pace with which the church adapts to social changes, its “conservativism” in the traditional sense. But it’s not as though DC’s decision happened overnight. This change has been coming for a while, and the Catholic church as a whole, and the Archdiocese in DC in particular, have utterly failed to prepare an adequate response to this entirely foreseeable event. Or rather, I would hope that the church’s response reflects merely incompetence and bureaucratic inefficiency. Because the alternative is that the church as a whole, and the Archdiocese in particular, has chosen to abandon children in need in exchange for the privilege to continue to discriminate against GLBT couples, and I would hope that’s not true.

    Quoting a bigoted buffoon like Bill Donohue sure doesn’t make your post more persuasive, but in particular, his comment about a “Catch-22″ makes little sense. The archdiocese is not in a “Catch-22″ situation. True, DC could make accomodations in its law, perhaps excusing religious organizations with a long, established history of bigotry to continue to discriminate despite the law that applies to others. That would be one option. But the archdiocese could make accommodations to – it could ease its rules, or perhaps enlist some of the local Jesuits to come up with a suitable list of criteria that would serve the church’s higher goals while also complying with DC law. But the archdiocese has chosen instead to stick to its traditional position favoring discrimination., knowing that to do so would violate DC law and would result in the end of the contract. There’s nothing “Catch-22″ about it.

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