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.

Catholic Charities first announced its politicization in a wild-eyed manifesto ratified at its annual meeting in 1972. This declaration 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 caused people to turn to crime or drugs or prostitution.

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.

Catholic Charities would have found none of this surprising 70 years ago, but many of today's Catholic Charities agencies tend to ignore the tenets of Catholicism. Catholic Charities in Albany, New York, contemplated making abortion referrals as part of its link to a health maintenance organization. Catholic Charities in San Francisco, in order to keep its city contracts, now complies with a local law extending spousal benefits to unmarried live-in partners, heterosexual and homosexual.

At a New York City facility for the homeless that I visited recently, an outreach worker attacked welfare reform and absurdly claimed that most of her clients "work" nine-to-five jobs because they recycle bottles and cans. An all-too-typical program in Brooklyn I visited hooks up young pregnant women to public services and tries to prepare them for motherhood. Everything the program does--including filling the office with stuffed animals--conveys the idea that having illegitimate kids is just an accepted part of life.

Catholicism's traditional social doctrine doesn't look much like the big-government line that Catholic Charities espouses. 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, can undermine community and lead to self-destruction.

But Catholic doctrine also holds that man possesses the freedom to master unruly passions with the help of God's grace and so live a life of inner peace in responsible community with others.

Furthermore, many Catholic thinkers, including Pope John Paul II, have looked at the kind of society that best fosters moral development. They have stressed the idea of "subsidiarity," by which they mean that larger associations such as government should help smaller associations such as family and neighborhood, but not replace or inhibit them.

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."

Thus, as far as Catholic Charities is concerned, unless it changes its vision--embracing genuinely Catholic social and moral teachings in its programs, and abandoning its illusion that America is an unjust country--the move toward faith-based social welfare won't make a bit of difference for it or for those it serves.

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