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On Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

 
A Statement by
His Eminence Cardinal Roger Mahony
Archbishop of Los Angeles
Chairman, Domestic Policy Committee
on

February 12, 2001


The United States Catholic Conference welcomes  President Bush's priority on overcoming poverty as he begins to lead our nation.  In his Inaugural Address, he insisted that "America, at its best, is compassionate.  In the quiet of American conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise.  And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault.  Abandonment and abuse are not acts of God, they are failures of love."  Our bishops' conference also welcomes his initiative to recognize and assist the role of "faith-based and community groups" in the struggle against poverty in our land.  We look forward to a fuller dialogue on the specifics of this initiative.  We will seek opportunities to share our experience, concerns and hopes in an effort to help the Administration create a workable program.

We welcome the Bush Administration's attention to the battle against poverty which is carried forward everyday in so many places and so many ways in our nation and in our Catholic community.  The Catholic community is deeply involved in this effort:

  • Catholic Charities USA serves close to 10 million people in need through 1400 local agencies providing food, counseling, shelter and hope.
  • The Catholic Campaign for Human Development collects and distributes over $10 million to local and national community based organizations working to overcome poverty and powerlessness.
  • The Catholic Health Association represents 2,000 member hospitals, long-term care facilities and other organizations serving the sick and restoring health.
  • Over 8,000 Catholic schools educate 2,500,000 plus students of every income level, race and nationality.
  • Countless parishes and other Catholic groups provide caring service and principled advocacy in local communities around the country.
This is not easy work, but it is at the heart of our nation's pledge of "liberty and justice for all" and the Scriptural call to "to serve the least of these" (Matt 25).

This new and welcome initiative has its own challenges and questions:
  • How to recognize and empower faith-based groups without making them merely extensions of government or bound by excessive regulations;

  • How to ensure that in the providing of social services the dignity of those in need is respected;

  • How to respect and preserve the ethical and religious integrity of the faith-based groups as they carry out efforts which advance the common good and serve a public purpose;

  • How to insure that the prophetic role of religious institutions is not compromised or diminished by ties to the federal government;

  • How to build on current and past partnerships between religious and public institutions that respect the responsibilities and limitations of both.
We are encouraged by the tone set by President Bush in his Inaugural Address, his public statements and his meetings with Catholic and other leaders.  The Bush Administration has been clear that this initiative is about building up community, not tearing down government.  They seek to recognize the pluralism of American religious life and the contributions and services of nonreligious community institutions and groups.  They appear to take seriously the concerns and fears of those who have doubts about stronger ties between religious groups and the federal government.

We are also encouraged by the individuals President Bush has chosen to lead this initiative.  The knowledge and experience of Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and Dr. John DiIulio strengthen our hope that the opportunities and challenges of this initiative can be realized and addressed.

Our bishops' conference particularly welcomes the clear recognition by the President that faith-based and community efforts cannot substitute for just public policy and the responsibilities of the larger society, including the federal government.  The efforts of the Catholic community and those of other religious and community groups can touch hearts and change lives, but our efforts cannot replace needed government action to address the more than 40 million Americans without health care, the many children who go to bed hungry, and the millions of families who work every day, but cannot provide a decent future for their children.  Our nation still needs significant public investments in health care, nutrition, child care and housing.  Faith-based and community initiatives are essential, but government still has an indispensable role in assuring that the basic needs of the American people are met.

Confronting the brutal realities of violence and crime, substance abuse and child abuse, family disintegration and teen pregnancy often requires more than simply secular analysis and answers.  These challenges call for more than bureaucratic business as usual.  Our nation should be open to efforts which encourage people to change their hearts in order to change their behavior.  This initiative offers additional help for those on the front lines of local communities who serve the poor.  It is often local religious congregations and schools that still serve the poorest communities and address the deepest problems when others have fled.

The Catholic community has often found effective ways to serve those in need under current policies.  But we also acknowledge, occasionally, some obstacles and hostility to our religious identity, commitment and values.  On the other hand, our charitable efforts serve people because of their need, not their creed.  We employ many people because they share our values, not just our faith.  We carry out our mission consistent with the nation's civil rights laws.  We will work with the President and the leaders he has selected to carry forward this important initiative.

No government program can take the place of people who care for those in need, reaching out and encouraging the hard choices to overcome violence and addiction, prejudice and indifference.  Many people put their faith to work in courageous and creative service of those in need.   Our government should find appropriate ways to support these remarkable efforts.  On the other hand, no faith-based initiative, no matter how well conceived or led, can substitute for just public policies which help our nation respect the life and dignity of all, especially "the least among us."

The most encouraging aspect of this debate is that it addresses the most fundamental challenges facing our society, including the scandal of almost a fifth of our children growing up poor in the richest nation on earth.  In the end, believers must never forget that it is not government that calls us to serve those in need, but the Gospel. 


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