As advanced social thinkers rediscover the power of faith-based institutions to rescue the down-and-out by transforming the dysfunctional worldview that often lies at the root of their difficulties, you would think that Catholic Charities USA would be a perfect model to emulate, getting the poor into the mainstream by emphasizing moral values and ethical conduct. But no: rather than trying to promote traditional values and God-fearing behavior, Catholic Charities—and the same could be said about the Association of Jewish Family and Children's Agencies or the Lutheran Services in America—has become over the last three decades an arm of the welfare state, with 65 percent of its $2.3 billion annual budget now flowing from government sources and little that is explicitly religious, or even values-laden, about most of the services its 1,400 member agencies and 46,000 paid employees provide.

Far from being a model for reforming today's welfare-state approach to helping the poor, Catholic Charities USA is one of the nation's most powerful advocates for outworn welfare-state ideas, especially the idea that social and economic forces over which the individual has no control, rather than his own attitudes and behavior, are the reason for poverty. The example of this multibillion dollar charity should serve as a warning to policy makers seeking to privatize the care of the needy that they had better pick and choose prudently: for some of the institutions of civil society have been tainted with the same value-free worldview that has made most government-run poverty efforts a hindrance rather than a help to the poor.

Until the 1960s, Catholic charitable institutions—benevolent societies, hospitals, orphanages, reformatories, and the like—did exemplary work, serving the poor and bringing them into the mainstream of American life. In New York, the tireless philanthropic efforts of Catholic leaders like Archbishop John Hughes during the second half of the nineteenth century so uplifted Gotham's immigrant Irish—at the time America's first underclass—that by the turn of the twentieth century most of them were mainstream American citizens. (See "How Dagger John Saved New York's Irish," Spring 1997.)

Hughes recognized that, though some of the poor were victims of circumstance, many were poor because of self-destructive behavior—sinful behavior, as he had no hesitation in calling it. The goal of charity to such people was to change their values and beliefs. And what was more powerful in working such a transformation than religion? It gives the needy a set of authoritative dos and don'ts, stresses the importance of personal responsibility and the overcoming of personal failings, offers membership in a meaning-rich community, requires responsibility to family, and forgives past transgressions if one makes a fresh start.

This vigorously moral approach guided Catholic Charities from its formal inception in 1910, as the records of its yearly meetings make clear. Edwin J. Cooley, a former chief of Catholic Charities' New York City probation bureau, is representative; speaking to the organization's 1926 annual conference, he stressed that juvenile crime sprang from bad habits and dysfunctional values, and that the best way to solve it was to remake those habits and values through religious faith and moral instruction. Though after World War II, a stress on government's responsibility to provide relief to the poor grows louder, and one hears lots more psychological and sociological jargon, talk of "virtue," "character," and "rooting out vice" still dominates the organization's annual proceedings.

But the understanding of poverty as often inseparable from moral and cultural considerations disintegrated in the late 1960s. Swept up in the decade's tumult and encouraged by the modernizing spirit of the second Vatican Council, Catholic Charities rejected its long-standing emphasis on personal responsibility and self-reliance and began to blame capitalist society rather than individual behavior for poverty and crime. It now looked to the welfare state to solve all social problems. Today, through a continual whirlwind of policy statements and lobbying, and by fostering countless activist community organizations, Catholic Charities has become, as Richard John Neuhaus, a priest and editor of the esteemed religious journal First Things, puts it, "a chief apologist for a catastrophically destructive welfare system, and it stands in the way of developing alternatives to help people break out of dependency and take charge of their lives."

Catholic Charities first announced its politicization in a wild-eyed manifesto that invokes such radical sixties icons as Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, Herbert Marcuse, and—above all—the Marxist-inspired Liberation Theology movement that (to put it crudely) equates Jesus with Che Guevara. Ratified at Catholic Charities' annual meeting in 1972, the so-called Cadre Study totally abandoned any stress on personal responsibility in relation to poverty and other social ills. Instead, it painted America as an unjust, "numb" country, whose oppressive society and closed economy cause people to turn to crime or drugs or prostitution. Moreover, the study asserts, individual acts of charity are useless. We must instead unearth "the root causes of poverty and oppression" and radically reconstruct—"humanize and transform"—the social order to avert social upheaval.

This radical shift in thinking had two practical consequences. First, Catholic Charities moved away from "just" charity toward a stress on government solutions to every social problem, making political advocacy a key mission. "We undertook to get more involved in making a contribution to the formation of public policy," says former Catholic Charities president Monsignor Lawrence Corcoran, one of the authors of the Cadre Study. Second, Catholic Charities began to organize local communities to resist "unjust" social structures. As Corcoran delicately puts it, "We also increased our activities in the field of social action, over and above the traditional role of charity."

At the same time, as the War on Poverty got under way, the federal government increasingly contracted with Catholic Charities agencies to provide welfare services. Those agencies, imbued with their new faith in government's potential to solve social problems, eagerly accepted government money. Catholic Charities received nearly a quarter of its funding from government by the end of the sixties, over half by the late seventies, and more than 60 percent by the mid-eighties, where it has remained ever since. As they became government contractors, the agencies began to serve more non-Catholics and to hire non-Catholics too, usually professional social workers with ardent faith in the welfare state.

Under its pugnacious current president, Jesuit Fred Kammer, a lawyer (who attended Yale Law with Bill Clinton) and author of Doing Faithjustice, a widely used textbook that gives a leftist twist to Catholic social thought, the organization has expanded and professionalized its advocacy work. The 40-member central headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, assembles a legislative agenda, lobbies Congress and the White House, and, through weekly "Advofaxes," alerts member agencies and subscribers to impending federal and state legislation on social policy. But as Marvin Olasky, author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, an influential book on charity, remarks, "This isn't charity at all. When you take away dollars that you could spend helping people and spend them on lobbying, you're robbing the poor to give to the lobbyist."

Worse still, the policies that Catholic Charities advocates in its lobbying activities also hurt, rather than help, the poor. Take four examples. First, Catholic Charities was the nation's loudest opponent of the 1996 welfare-reform law, lobbying hard on Capitol Hill and meeting with the president to derail it. Kammer prophesied that the new law would be "a national social catastrophe. . . . No one will be spared the consequences." But today, with the welfare rolls plummeting 50 percent in just three years and anecdotal evidence suggesting that many former recipients are happy to be liberated from dependency and in control of their own lives, Kammer's dire predictions seem ludicrous.

Second, Catholic Charities has lobbied to boost the minimum wage above $6 from the current $5.15. Most reputable economists point out, however, that such a hike would cost the nation hundreds of thousands of entry-level jobs, hurting just the people—immigrants, inner-city youths, or former welfare recipients rejoining the workforce—whom Catholic Charities says it cares most about. Catholic Charities seems not to grasp that minimum-wage positions are usually first jobs—most minimum-wage earners are teens, and only 2.8 percent of minimum-wage earners are over 30.

Third, Catholic Charities vociferously opposes the privatization of Social Security. In 1998, Kammer's deputy for public policy, Sharon Daly, shared a podium with Jesse Jackson, Patricia Ireland of the National Organization of Women, NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, and John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO—a rainbow coalition of prominent leftists—to denounce the idea. Asks Cato Institute tax specialist Stephen Moore, why would an organization dedicated to helping "the poorest among us," as Catholic Charities' motto goes, urge Congress to reject a proposal allowing the poor to opt out of a system that offers them a dismal return on their tax dollars? Private retirement accounts, Moore argues, would give those few individuals making the minimum wage for their entire lives a retirement income 50 percent to 100 percent higher than what Social Security promises. Given this evidence, Moore ruminates, the opposition to private accounts must be ideological: "Some people are simply predisposed to favor big government," he sighs.

Finally, Catholic Charities tirelessly argues that racism "is a root cause of the economic and social oppression in our society," as Vision 2000, a key recent policy paper, asserts. Speaking to me in his cluttered Alexandria office, Kammer explains: "Race remains at the heart of the social question in America—and as a southerner, I really believe that." He has installed a trendy "diversity officer" at the national headquarters to keep race front and center in the organization's activities.

This unrealistic view of race distorts the whole organization's thinking about black crime. Catholic Charities lobbies hard in favor of requirements that force states to provide detailed explanations for why so many blacks are behind bars—the presumption being that racism is to blame. Catholic Charities believes that if black ten- to 17-year-olds are only 15 percent of the population but 26 percent of all juveniles arrested and 46 percent of all juveniles doing time, this is prima facie evidence of racism. But if black youths have, as they do, a far higher rate of criminal activity than white kids, why would anyone expect them not to be arrested and convicted at a higher rate?

At bottom, Catholic Charities appears to suspect that, for black kids, crime is somehow justified. Kammer, writing in 1996, asserts, "If young men turn to crack and crime because there are no jobs and no hopes, then you and I become addicted with them." In other words, in an unjust, racist society, poor kids have no recourse but to rob and do dope. But doesn't this only justify thuggery and self-destruction, exactly the message inner-city kids don't need to hear?

Following the lead of the central office, some 90 percent of Catholic Charities' local agencies lobby in state legislatures. Patrick Johnson, director of Hartford, Connecticut's Catholic Charities agency, enthuses: "We have one of the largest social-justice advocacy programs in the country, with a lobbyist on staff, actively lobbying the state legislature in the area of welfare reform, against the death penalty, juvenile justice—the social-services agenda, if you will." As Johnson, a prominent member of Catholic Charities' national board, sums up, "Charity is never enough; you have to do other stuff."

The "other stuff" includes "parish social ministry," the second big thrust of today's Catholic Charities. In part, parish social ministry just means spurring the members of local parishes to do traditional, and effective, good works: to visit the elderly, say, or take care of neighborhood kids. But, troublingly, it also means politically oriented community organizing. As one disgruntled local Catholic Charities representative explains, this means encouraging low-income parishioners to form "agitation networks" to lobby politicians, stage protests, and pursue "social change" by demanding more entitlements from the welfare state or by intimidating a local utility into adopting a no shutoff policy when bills aren't paid.

These community organizing efforts use as their textbook one of the classics of extreme left-wing literature—Saul Alinsky's 1947 Reveille for Radicals. In Alinsky's far-left vision, promoted by his quasi-Marxist Industrial Areas Foundation, the organizer aims to get his followers to accumulate power for militant ends. Explains Tom Ulrich, the Catholic Charities' national director of "Training and Convening," which instructs local personnel in parish social ministry, "To bring people together to create a power base so that they can influence their local communities—that's important in parish social ministry, and very much influenced by Alinsky and the IAF." Ulrich never asks, however, whether getting low-income people to agitate for social change, rather than helping them to get their lives in order to take advantage of the opportunities multiplying around them, is the most effective way to liberate the poor.

If Catholic Charities' lobbying and community organizing don't help the poor, what about the third and largest area of its activities, the array of services that local agencies provide? Here, it's hard to be categorical: the agencies serve over 10 million people with a staggering number of individual problems, and some agencies and programs are atypical, like the robustly faith-filled Tulsa Catholic Charities, which accepts no government funds. Making judgment harder, Catholic Charities agencies don't focus on the outcomes of their activities, so nobody knows what they're accomplishing. An otherwise no-nonsense nun running a Catholic Charities educational program for at-risk youth in Queens is typical. She struggles to impart self-esteem—despite the evidence that shows at-risk kids have self-esteem to spare—and she has no clue what happens as a result of her efforts. "I just don't have the resources," she complains.

Kathleen McGowan, head of Catholic Charities' national board, notes that her organization has "started to address this problem, absolutely." But as Gary MacDougal, a trustee of the left-leaning Annie E. Casey Foundation, succinctly observes, "There's little point in offering more services if their long-term effectiveness is unclear."

The teeming array of Catholic Charities services fall into two broad categories. The first, emergency services, includes food-assistance programs, such as soup kitchens, feeding more than 4 million people, and temporary shelter, offering 2.8 million nights of shelter in 1997. Disaster relief, clothing assistance, help in paying overdue utilities bills—you name the emergency, Catholic Charities helps out.

The second category, social services, provides child care, legal and employment services, AIDS hospices, and so on to almost 1 million people, as well as such educational programs as English as a second language courses and Head Start programs. The organization's vast world of social services also includes counselling, neighborhood-based programs like Big Brothers and senior centers, refugee resettlement, health care, housing, and adoption.

Government pays for most of this activity, and with government funds come restrictions. Charities must follow time-wasting rules that reduce flexibility and require a one-size-fits-all approach to treating people with endlessly various problems.

Worse, until recently the regulations have prohibited charities from including a strong religious dimension in their programs. For wayward kids, for welfare moms trying to break free of dependency, for heroin addicts or drunks trying to kick the habit, faith-based programs work best. Psychologist David Larson at the National Institute for Healthcare Research cites many studies that show a strong correlation between religious participation and rejecting crime and substance abuse; criminologist Byron Johnson of Lamar University has shown big drops in recidivism for prisoners who go through Charles Colson's faith-based Prison Fellowship Program.

Catholic Charities would have found none of this surprising 70 years ago, but many of today's Catholic Charities agencies pay little attention to the power of faith to transform lives. Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum sparked a fierce controversy in 1996 when he rebuked Catholic Charities for drifting away from the faith under the pressure of government funding. Santorum told of a priest he knows who began a psychology internship at a Catholic Charities clinic. The clinic supervisor tested him on three hypothetical counselling situations: a depressed pregnant woman who wants to abort her child, two homosexuals seeking advice on their relationship, and a divorcing couple asking for counselling. In keeping with Catholic teachings, the priest advised against the abortion, refused to endorse homosexual unions, and encouraged the divorcing couple to save their marriage. He failed the test. His supervisor explained: "We get government funds, so we are not Catholic."

Such cases abound. Catholic Charities in Albany, New York, has proposed starting a health maintenance organization that would make abortion referrals; Catholic Charities in San Francisco, to keep its city contracts, now complies with the local law extending spousal benefits to unmarried heterosexuals and homosexual live-in partners; Catholic Charities in Oakland, California, recently ran programs that encourage public school social-science instructors to discuss in a favorable light "same-sex marriage," "gays in the military," and "family diversity" starting in the first grade. In a wide-ranging survey of nonprofit religious charities, sociologist Stephen Monsma found that a third of Catholic child-care agencies had felt government pressure to curtail their religious practices. For policy makers, the issue is not how Catholic or anti-Catholic such measures may be, but rather how much they separate Catholic Charities from the values that once made the organization distinct from—and more effective than—an off-the-shelf welfare-state approach to the poor.

A further powerful secularizing force on Catholic Charities is the New York-based Council on Accreditation of Services for Families and Children. "With the government money, accrediting became essential," one worried official of Catholic Charities observes, "but the stress with COA is political and secular—on diversity, consumer advocacy, lobbying for more government funds, organizing for change in the community—all these things you have to do to keep your accreditation up." The Council now accredits 1,200 welfare-services providers, mental health services, consumer credit counsellors—and a growing number of Catholic Charities agencies. Says Kathleen McGowan, chair of Catholic Charities' national board: "Most of us feel that it is of value to have that kind of accreditation for agencies—it tells the community and our benefactors that we meet a national set of standards." But the standards of the failed welfare state?

I spent a day visiting Catholic Charities' programs in some of New York's poorest neighborhoods with Communications Director Margaret Keaveney of the Brooklyn and Queens agency, and I came back with mixed impressions. Keaveney, a fount of good sense, stressed the importance of the agency's Catholic identity in what they do, but none of what I saw seemed explicitly religious in spirit.

On the admirable end of the scale, the city-funded Peter J. Dellamonica Center for Seniors in Queens bustles with old folks painting, playing cards, sitting down to a snack together, or participating in seminars on quality-of-life themes for the elderly. Equally admirable was an apartment building in Brooklyn, which Catholic Charities, with city money, transformed from a roach-infested crack house into a reduced-rent apartment building with strict rules of civility for low-income families.

But a program that brings food to the homeless and tries to connect them to government services and to Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous was less impressive. One outreach worker, exuding righteous anger, passionately attacked welfare reform and absurdly claimed that most of her clients "work" nine-to-five jobs because they recycle bottles and cans. "Nobody says to the homeless: ‘I don't mind the smell of urine and feces, let me hear what the issue is in your life,’" she lamented. One homeless man we met, "Cornbread," eloquently denounced the Giuliani administration and offered his solution to the homeless problem: "Take all the abandoned buildings in New York and give them to the homeless to run," he urged. As an outreach worker gushed agreement, Keaveney quickly interjected that such a proposal would be unrealistic, since most of the homeless are mentally ill, substance abusers, or both. If ever lost souls needed salvation, it's Cornbread and his neighbors; yet salvation is one thing that Catholic Charities' secularized program doesn't provide.

Two contrasting programs for unwed mothers make clear how dramatically a moral, faith-based message can improve the lives of the poor. An all-too-typical program in Brooklyn I visited hooks up young, pregnant women to public services, wrestles with their housing problems, and tries to prepare them for motherhood. Everything the program does—including surrounding the office with stuffed animals—conveys the idea that having illegitimate kids is just an accepted part of the community's life. But since many of these young women will be chronically poor, and their children are likely to have a high rate of social failure, the program, which has little to say about morality, sends exactly the wrong signals.

Very different is Sister Connie Driscoll's celebrated St. Martin de Porres House of Hope in Chicago's blighted Woodlawn neighborhood. Since 1983, Driscoll has provided shelter and counsel to more than 11,000 homeless women, many with illegitimate kids and most of them substance abusers when they first come to her. Driscoll takes no government money, to avoid having to tone down her moral message of responsibility and work. She puts her charges to work around the house from the moment they arrive to start building the message that they're responsible for their own fate. Their days are filled with Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, GED classes, computer training, and constant moral instruction on the dangers of illegitimacy and irresponsible sexual behavior. No men may visit. If the young women don't follow her rules, she kicks them out. "We feel that if people aren't willing to help themselves take a step forward and become responsible for their own actions," she informs me, "there's not much we can do to help them." Though Driscoll doesn't directly evangelize—"our purpose is to allow people to see the faith that moves us, and let it guide their lives," she says—her House of Hope is in every way an exemplary Catholic charity. Her success speaks for itself: almost all the women overcome their addictions; only 5 percent return to shelters.

Catholicism's traditional social doctrine doesn't look much like the big-government line that Catholic Charities espouses. To be sure, there's a radical, politicized tradition in the Church, running from the revolutionary millennialism of 500 years ago to the French "worker priests" and the liberation theologians of the twentieth century. But orthodox Catholic social teaching is based on a deeply realistic understanding of man's nature as fallen. For two millennia, the Church has taught that man has a hardwired inclination to sin that, unchecked, leads to drunkenness, envy, lust, selfishness, and a host of other sins. Such a disordered life undermines community and leads to self-destruction. But Catholic doctrine also holds that man possesses the freedom, with the help of God's grace, to master unruly passions and follow the moral teachings of the Church, beginning with the Ten Commandments, and so to live a life of inner peace in responsible community with other men. It is this unambiguous moral inheritance—a time-tested recipe for reducing poverty and other social ills as well as nurturing fulfilled lives—that Catholic Charities today has lost sight of in its turn to the state as the primary solution for society's pathologies.

In recent years, Catholic thinkers have focused on the kind of society that best fosters moral development. They have stressed the idea of "subsidiarity," by which they mean that "higher" or larger associations should help "lower," smaller associations but not replace or inhibit them except when they no longer function. In other words, the state should not displace the responsibilities of the family or the neighborhood but should try to strengthen these entities so that they can fulfill their appropriate duties. Thus, responsibility for social and moral life, subsidiarity holds, resides first with the individual, and then, in ascending order, with those closest to him: family, friends, neighborhood, local government, and—only as a last resort, after other levels have failed—the state. But Catholic Charities is openly unenthusiastic about subsidiarity. "There has been a lot of romantic nonsense lately in Washington," Kammer grumbled a little while back, "to the effect that state and local governments are always more effective and efficient than the national government. The [false] claim is that local people know best." As for holding individuals responsible for their plight—suggesting, for example, that welfare mothers shouldn't have gotten pregnant out of wedlock—Kammer bristles. "I don't buy the argument that it's moral turpitude," he says.

Catholic Charities also ignores Pope John Paul II's warnings about the dangers of the "Social Assistance State," the welfare system that proliferates upon the ruins of subsidiarity. By "intervening directly" and robbing "society of its responsibility," the pope warns in a 1991 encyclical, the Social Assistance State "leads to a loss of human energies" and multiplies public agencies that treat people like numbers and squander money to no good end.

According to Bishop Joseph Sullivan, a writer of the Cadre Study and today liaison between Catholic Charities and the U.S. Catholic Bishops, the pope didn't have the U.S. in mind in his criticisms of the Social Assistance State. "While a lot of people might think that there's enough social welfare or socialism in the United States," the bishop tells me, we in fact need more, not less, government. "I think we've got a long way to go, especially when a CEO makes 419 times what the average factory worker makes," Sullivan adds, with Catholic Charities' characteristic stress on the inequality of American society.

As both leading presidential candidates, Vice President Gore and Governor Bush, seek to extend "Charitable Choice," the provision of the 1996 federal welfare-reform law that allows faith-based institutions to receive government funding to serve the needy without veiling their religious character, some conservative critics worry that government funds might make other faith-based institutions more like Catholic Charities—more secular and less concerned with saving souls. But this argument assumes that it was government funding that corrupted Catholic Charities. In fact, Catholic Charities officials already sincerely believed that government entitlements are the best way to help the needy when they began accepting government funding. There's no reason to think that effective faith-based institutions, once receiving government money under charitable choice, would lose their way. As Richard John Neuhaus has argued, it's up to those who run faith-based programs to ensure that they preserve their religious integrity under charitable choice. "There are millions of people, especially the poor," Neuhaus says, "who would greatly benefit by programs aimed not simply at 'delivering services' but at transforming lives."

As for Catholic Charities itself, unless it changes its vision—embracing subsidiarity, following examples like Sister Connie Driscoll's, and abandoning its illusion that America is an unjust and racist country—charitable choice won't make a bit of difference for it, or for those it serves.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next