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.
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 60s, over half by the late 70s, and more than 60 percent by the mid-80s, where it has remained ever since.
Under its pugnacious current president, the Rev. Fred Kammer, S.J., the organization has expanded and professionalized its advocacy work. But the policies it advocates hurt, rather than help, the poor. Catholic Charities was the nation's loudest opponent of the 1996 welfare-reform law, lobbying hard on Capitol Hill and meeting with President Clinton president to try to derail it. Kammer prophesied that the new law would be "a national social catastrophe." But today, with the welfare rolls having plummeted 50 percent in just three years. and anecdotal evidence suggesting that many former recipients are happy to be liberated from dependency, these dire predictions seem ludicrous in retrospect.
The teeming array of Catholic Charities services to the poor fall into two broad categories. The first, emergency help, includes food-assistance programs, such as soup kitchens and temporary shelter. 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 help, AIDS hospices, educational programs such as English as a second language and Head Start. The organization also provides counseling, neighborhood-based programs like Big Brothers, senior centers, refugee resettlement, health care, housing, and adoption.
Government pays for most of this activity, and with government funds come restrictions. All federally subsidized charities must follow time-wasting rules that reduce flexibility and use 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 citesstudies 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.