The Kindness of Total Strangers

How Catholic Charities USA turned from a revered institution into an arm of the welfare state

As social analysts rediscover the power of faith-based institutions to rescue the down-and-out, you would think that

Catholic Charities USA

, one of the nation's largest private philanthropies, would be a perfect model to emulate, getting the poor into the mainstream by emphasizing the moral values central to Catholic teaching.

But no: Rather than trying to promote traditional values and God-fearing behavior, Catholic Charities 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 are the reasons for poverty, rather than his own attitudes and behavior.


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.

A vigorously moral approach guided Catholic Charities from its formal inception in 1910. Edwin J. Cooley, chief of Catholic Charities' New York City probation bureau, was representative of this virtue-oriented mind-set. Speaking at the organization's 1926 annual conference, he contended that juvenile crime sprang from bad habits and dysfunctional values, and that the best way to lessen its incidence was to remake those habits and values through religious faith and moral instruction.

But this understanding of poverty 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.

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