by Aaron Matthew Weldon

May 24, 2018

One of the most important functions of the state is to promote and defend the common good.  So, it makes sense that federal, state, and local governments have often partnered with faith-based organizations that serve the public.  For example, back in 1871, Congress recognized the crucial work of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, DC, and passed legislation providing the Little Sisters with grants to expand their work assisting the elderly poor, including recently emancipated slaves.

After all, faith-based organizations play a crucial role in serving the common good, through adoption, foster care, refugee resettlement services, and more.  These partnerships can respect our country's tradition of non-establishment of religion and still acknowledge that all human beings are religious to the core.

Despite their contributions to the common good, faith-based service providers find themselves in a precarious position.  Philadelphia recently barred Catholic Social Services from placing children with foster families.  Although it faces a shortage of foster families, the City of Philadelphia decided to shut out an organization that cared for over 2,200 children in the past year because of the organization's Catholic convictions about marriage and family.  And those who seek protections for groups like Catholic Social Services are slandered as "bigots" simply for upholding the right of people of faith to serve with integrity.

In the area of refugee resettlement, some Catholic organizations have had to make the difficult decision of ending their refugee resettlement work, because the lower number of refugees being admitted into the United States has required them to shift their resources to other areas of service.  This is a significant loss to the field of human service providers, as the Catholic Church has a proven track record of excelling in refugee resettlement.

When faith-based human service providers pull out of a particular area of service, or are shut down altogether, they cannot be replaced by the state without loss.  Catholic refugee resettlement services take advantage of extensive networks of Catholic institutions in helping refugees settle into their host country.  And as Steve Roach of Catholic Charities in Springfield, Illinois has noted, religious adoption and foster care organizations are well-placed to recruit families from their own faith communities.  The rise of the opioid epidemic has led to a corresponding rise in the number of children in the foster care system.  The loss of faith-based service providers in places like Illinois, Massachusetts, California, and DC means that there are fewer avenues to recruit people of faith to serve as foster families.  
The services offered by religious organizations are unique and cannot simply be replaced by the government.

Faith-based organizations are often respected for their excellence even on secular terms.  But they provide something more: love.  Catholic social services are rooted in the mission of Jesus Christ and thus animated by love.  And while the state is responsible for promoting the common good, it cannot provide love, which is a fundamental – indeed, the most fundamental – human need.

As Pope Benedict XVI teaches: "The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need" (Deus caritas est, 28.b.).

Faith-based service providers deserve space in the public square and access to public funding, and not simply because they operate in a pluralistic society committed to tolerance.  In fact, a properly functioning state, recognizing both its limits and its duty to the common good, will welcome the contributions of religiously based service in the public square.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is Program Specialist for the Office of Religious Liberty.

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