Tuesday, July 10, 2012

McGurn: Community Organizers Sue Obama

Wall Street Journal

What Chicago would be like with the contraceptive mandate—and without Catholic Charities. 


July 10, 2012 

Saul Alinsky may have dedicated his “Rules for Radicals” to Lucifer. Even so, the father of community organizing knew that his efforts would have gone nowhere in his hometown of Chicago without the help of an institution that had been serving the city’s poorest communities long before he arrived: the Catholic Church.

In 1939, Alinsky famously worked with the church to organize the “Back of the Yards” slum on the edge of the Chicago stockyards. Nearly 50 years later, a young Columbia graduate named Barack Obama followed in his footsteps. From an office in the rectory of Holy Rosary Church on the city’s South Side, the future president began his career as a community organizer.

Now the one-time allies are at loggerheads. On Monday, Catholic Charities of Chicago—the social-welfare arm of the archdiocese—joined other Illinois Catholic organizations to file a lawsuit against the Obama administration’s mandate that would force these Catholic groups to offer free contraceptives through their insurance, in violation of church teaching. The suit’s message is direct: Mr. President, your mandate will make it impossible for us to do our jobs.

Judging from how President Obama now sounds like George W. Bush when he talks about the Catholic Church, the president appreciates the political harm his mandate is doing. At a campaign stop last Thursday in Ohio, he repeated what has become a stock line: “When I first got my job as an organizer for the Catholic churches in Chicago . . . they taught me that no government program can replace good neighbors and people who care deeply about their communities [and] who are fighting on their behalf.”

In terms of religious liberty, the new lawsuit breaks no new legal ground. What it does is offer a window into how much the decency of daily American life depends on churches using their free-exercise rights. Our nation’s third-largest city provides an especially compelling example.

Chicago’s Catholic Charities employs 2,700 full- and part-time staffers delivering relief aimed at helping people achieve self-sufficiency. They do everything from stocking food pantries to helping people with HIV/AIDS, resettling refugees, housing seniors, and training people for jobs.

Last year alone, that translated into 19 million meals in the form of groceries for single moms, another 2.5 million meals served to the hungry or homeless, 458,000 nights of shelter for families and children, and 897,481 hours of homemaker services for seniors. And these numbers don’t include the thousands of inner-city children served by the archdiocese’s Catholic schools but not on the Catholic Charities budget.

When you ask the Rev. Michael Boland, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, what percentage of those he serves are Catholic, he answers that he doesn’t know, because they don’t ask. The Obama administration’s mandate would change that. Particularly galling, he says, is the charge that his church is engaged in a “war on women”—when 80% of those his organization serves are women and children.

As the lawsuit puts it: Enforcing the mandate could soon require Catholic Charities to “stop providing educational opportunities to non-Catholics, stop serving non-Catholics, and fire non-Catholic employees—actions that would betray their religious commitment to serving all in need without regard to religion.”

Yes, the bulk of the Catholic Charities budget these days comes from government funding. There’s a perfectly legitimate public question about what accepting that funding means for both society and the church.

It’s not, however, the only public question. Another important one is this: Will our society rely on civic institutions or the government to deliver these services? Does anyone really believe we would be better off turning over the work of Catholic Charities to states or the feds—with their higher costs, greater bureaucracy, and loss in efficiency?

In a recent report, Catholic Charities notes that it costs Medicaid (read: taxpayers) $43,000 per year for every senior in a nursing home. By contrast, Catholic Charities provides day care for seniors at $6,461 per year, home-delivered meals at $1,188 and services such as housecleaning for $4,028. Any one of these services can keep an elderly citizen in his own house instead of being sent to a nursing home (one of the great drivers of Medicaid’s escalating costs).

Overall, 92 cents of every Catholic Charities dollar goes to recipients, which is one reason Catholic Charities is so often chosen for contracts. The church can provide such value because for every staffer, it has nearly seven volunteers. That works out to a volunteer army of 17,000 people, larger than Chicago’s police force.

It’s worth asking what Chicago might look like if these religious volunteers were limited to employing and serving only those who share their faith. And not just Chicago. Across America, volunteers with other faith groups are also reclaiming lives and neighborhoods in a way that even Mr. Obama says is far superior to any government program.

Something he might want to mention to his secretary of health and human services.

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