Monday, November 16, 2009

Washington DC vs Catholic Charities

As some of you have heard, the Washington DC city council is debating an anti-discrimination law that would prohibit the city and any entity receiving city funds from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. This includes Catholic Charities, which receives a large city contract to provide social services, including services to the homeless. Catholic Charities has protested, saying that offering same-sex parter benefits would be against Church teaching. The DC council has pushed back really hard.

Thomas Reese, SJ (i.e., he's a Jesuit) has comments on the issue. I came across them on the website for the Commonweal Magazine, which is a lay Catholic magazine. Br. Reese has been censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e. the Vatican Thought Police), so his comments bear close reading.

If you believed what you read on blogs and in newspapers, you would conclude that the archdiocese of Washington is threatening to withdraw money for food and shelter from the poor in the District of Columbia in order to get its way on gay marriage.

What are the facts?

For decades, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington has received money from the District of Columbia to operate programs helping the poor. This is common throughout the country where the Catholic Church is the second largest provider of services to the poor, second only to the government. Catholic Charities competes with private and nonprofit agencies for these contracts with the government deciding which organization will provide the best services for the money. This is a good deal for state and local governments because these Catholic Charities programs are efficiently and effectively run with both professionals and volunteers.

Meanwhile, the City Council for the District of Columbia has decided to enact legislation forbidding discrimination against those in gay marriages. This legislation would not force churches to perform gay marriages or to change their moral doctrines, but it would require any organization with a contract with the District to provide medical benefits to a gay partner just like it provides them to the heterosexual partner in a marriage. It would also require adoption agencies to sponsor children to gay couples if the agency is under contract with the city.

The archdiocese says that it cannot do this because of its moral opposition to gay marriage. This is not new. The Archdiocese to San Francisco had the same fight with its city council, and the adoption programs of Catholic Charities in Massachusetts were shut down because the state legislature insisted that they sponsor adoptions to gay couples while the bishops insisted they would not.

It should be clear from this review of the facts that the church is not threatening to withdraw its money from the poor. It is simply pointing out that it cannot observe these new requirements and therefore the city will cancel its contracts. It is in fact the city council that is closing down these programs, not the archdiocese.

Not surprisingly, the members of the city council are much better at spinning this story with the media than is the archdiocese. The Catholic Church’s PR skills are dismal. Perhaps it was caught by surprise by the vehemence of the attack. The dispute is being portrayed as the Catholic Church versus gay rights even though everyone knows that Black ministers in Washington are also opposed to this legislation.

Let ’s be clear. The city has a right to set whatever conditions it wants on agencies that receive money from it. But the church also has a right to say, “Sorry, we can ‘ t accept money under those rules.”

Some people on the city council think that is fine. Good riddance. They think they can find other people to run these programs as well as Catholic Charities. I doubt it, but they have the power and the money so they can try. If they fail, it is their responsibility.

So far I have been defending the archdiocese, but in fact I regret that the U.S. Catholic bishops have an obsession with opposing the legalization of gay marriage. This is an issue that at most deserves one letter of opposition from the bishop and then they should let it go. Spending millions of church dollars to oppose gay marriage in California, Massachusetts and Maine was a waste of resources and a case of misplaced priorities.

I have never bought the argument that gay marriage is a threat to families. Legalizing gay marriage is not going to cause millions of people in heterosexual marriages to suddenly decide to leave their spouses for a same-sex partner. It could be argued that gay marriage might help heterosexual marriages. For example, in an apartment building filled with unmarried couples in New York City , the gays who get married may inspire the heterosexuals to do the same thing.

With regards to medical benefits, the real answer is that whether a person gets health care should not depend on their marital status or where they are employed. We should have universal health care for everyone that is not dependent on employers. But in the meantime, can the Catholic Church give health care benefits to gay partners of its employees? The archdiocese says it cannot because gay marriage is against its teachings.

However, remarrying after a divorce is also against Catholic teaching, yet the church gives health care benefits to divorced and remarried couples. No one believes that the church has changed its teaching on divorce. No one will believe that the church has changed its teaching on gay sex if it provides medical benefits to gay couples.

What is needed right now is a toning down of the attacks against the church by those who support the city council’s position. Both sides need to look for compromise. An exemption from the law for religious organizations would affect very few people and would allow the church to continue working with the city on behalf of the poor. The city council could always revisit the issue in the future, but the middle of a deep recession is not a good time to fire the best provider of social services in the city.

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is a Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.


In other words, this is a fight that the city could very well lose if it really wants to stand firm. The city should seek a compromise along the lines of what has been done in other countries, states and municipalities.

However, this does not excuse the Church's actions. It is never a good sign when churches say they are unable to comply with laws that preserve basic human rights. Additionally, As Br. Reese said, Catholic organizations give benefits to the spouses of people who have divorced and remarried. Jesus personally said that one should not remarry except in the case of infidelity. Lastly, in the case of refusing to provide abortion services, the Church can at least argue that this is a life-or-death issue, but they cannot reasonably do so in the case of same-sex marriage. Note also that Bishop John Bryson Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington has heard of instances of Catholic organizations in other states adapting to laws that require spousal benefits to same-sex couples. Chane is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

The city may not be able to win this fight. However, the bishops should realize that they will not win the war in the United States. The demographics are clear - the younger generation supports same-sex marriage at much higher rates than older generations. Eventually, the Church could be forced to comply with national anti-discrimination laws. They might be able to secure themselves an exemption, but as said earlier, they have no reasonable case in this one. Any exemption they get might weaken with time.

1 comment:

Walter Peterson said...

here's a good video on dc gay marriage/catholic charities services that has interviews from both sides, including homeless who might be affected by the Church's unwillingness to compromise http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWPV6KpUab0