DC archdiocese abandoning poor?

Photo of a Collection PlateAs a rule, GetReligion doesn’t deal with opinion columns. However, the headline on this fiercely opinionated effort by Petula Dvorak of the Washington Post really caught my eye the other day:

Catholic officials shouldn’t forsake D.C.’s poor in gay marriage fight

The issue, once again, is the announcement by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to stop accepting city government money for social-work programs rather than change its doctrines to fit in with the District’s plans to legalize gay marriages. Of course, the city already has some gay-rights laws on the books and, so far, it appears that the church has managed to find ways to hire gays and lesbians who still support the church’s teachings. But now a new line about to be drawn and everyone is dealing with it — including the press.

For Dvorak, this means that Catholic leaders are about the throw the poor out into the streets, proving that the archbishop and his troops are, in reality, bad Christians. Thus, we read:

By trying to play political hardball with the District, no matter how carefully they word their objection to the bill, officials at the Archdiocese of Washington and Catholic Charities are telling our city’s most vulnerable people — homeless families, sick children, low-income mothers — that they are willing to throw them on the table as a bargaining chip.

What the Church is doing is an uncharitable and cruel maneuver.

But here is my journalistic problem. Look at the headline again.

Has the church said anything about cutting the amount of money that it spends on the poor? If anything, I would imagine that church officials will — when the city money is cut off — move heaven and earth in an attempt to raise more money on their own in order to continue as many of these ministries as they can at current levels. Is it “forsaking the poor” for the church to decline to compromise on its doctrine in order to work with the city, if the church continues to invest as much of its own resources on the poor as before? Is that an accurate way — in terms of basic journalism — to frame the issue?

After all, the city can turn to the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, Reform Jews, Unitarians and others who are willing to accept its new mandates on moral theology. The city has other options. It can go ahead and spend its money. Right? Surely these other churches can step up and cooperate and do the work?

If you think this isn’t a religious issue for Dvorak, read on:

The problem is that taking a stand like this goes against the mission of the Church and the important lessons it has taught millions of followers.

I’m not going to make this an argument in favor of same-sex marriage. Anyone who opposes such basic civil rights will find themselves on the wrong side of history. It’s a civil rights issue, and I believe the argument should end right there. But in this case, the message the Church is sending with its actions is wrong, and it has left me and countless other Catholics heartbroken.

Now, I know that this is a column. I totally understand that Dvorak has every right to state the issue in this manner and the Post has every right to run her column. She is also candid, confessing that she now stands on the outer fringe of the church in which she was raised, clearly because she strongly disagrees with many of its doctrines.

40+Stacks+2Meanwhile, over in the newspaper’s hard-news pages, this is what we read, as the writers and reporters face this collision between gay rights and religious liberty:

“It’s a dangerous thing when the Catholic Church starts writing and determining the legislation and the laws of the District of Columbia,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Human Services Committee.

Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, countered that the city is “the one giving the ultimatum.”

“We are not threatening to walk out of the city,” Gibbs said. “The city is the one saying, ‘If you want to continue partnering with the city, then you cannot follow your faith teachings.’ ”

Under the bill, headed for a council vote next month, religious organizations would not be required to perform or make space available for same-sex weddings. But they would have to obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians. Church officials say Catholic Charities would have to suspend its social services work for the city, rather than provide employee benefits to same-sex married couples or allow them to adopt.

Other than the usual vague language about “religious organizations” — a term that could apply to all kinds of groups, with different rights under our nation’s history of church-state separation — that’s actually pretty straight forward. Note that church officials are allowed to accurately state that its charities would have to “suspend its social services work for the city,” not suspend its social services work — period. That’s a crucial fact.

And later, we read:

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he plans to meet with his colleagues Friday to discuss the issue. But he added, “I don’t know where the compromise would be.

“It seems to me if they choose not to provide those services, we will have to find someone else,” Gray said.

Yes, they will. And this story is not likely to go away any time soon. As the Post team notes:

Linda C. McClain, a law professor at Boston University who is studying the same-sex marriage debate nationwide, said the outcome of the standoff between the District and the Church could have far-reaching implications for other states.

“This case really pits the commitment to religious freedom against the importance of anti-discrimination,” McClain said. “The courts have been pretty clear that you can’t force a religious organization to express a message it doesn’t agree with. … But it’s a tougher case to say you won’t be able to provide services to the poor because of this.”

But there is the point, again, that journalists must grasp. The city is rejecting the church on a crucial point of doctrine, as it is free to do (subject to the actions of voters and courts). The church is also free to reject the city, in defense of 2,000 years of teaching on this particular issue.

The city is poised to make a choice and, then, will try to do its work. The church will strive to do its work, as best it can. From the church’s perspective, governments come and go.

Meanwhile, the doctrines have clashed and that is that. Is the church rejecting the poor? The skilled professionals in the Post newsroom need to think twice before they draw that conclusion from the current facts.

A reminder: We will be discussing the journalistic decisions made in these two Post articles, not the subject of same-sex marriage and the Catholic Church’s teachings on that doctrinal issue. Think journalism.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dalea

    What surprises me is the lack of digging into actual employment practices of both the city and the church. We are presented with a hypothetical situation: if same sex marriage is recognized the church will not pay spousal benefits and to reach that goal will close down its city sponsored charities. Are there actual employees who would marry a ss partner? That would seem to be step one, to determine if this might actually happen.

    It would be helpful to know if the church extends spousal benefits to second or third spouses in the case of divorce. What are the church’s current policy towards all marriages that conflict with doctrine? Knowing this would really clarify things.

    I like that the article brought up that in other places the RCC has not had the problems forseen in DC.

    Late Thursday, however, Graham said he had changed his mind after reviewing same-sex marriage laws in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont. He asked why the Church has not abandoned services in those states.

    “If the Catholic Church has been able to adjust in Connecticut, I think they can certainly adjust here,” Graham said.

    I find some confusion on the actual agreements involved. Does the church own the shelters, rent them from the city or is it simply paid to administer them? The article includes this:

    At issue is $18 million to $20 million in city funds for 20 to 25 programs run by Catholic Charities, said Edward J. Orzechowski, the charity’s president and chief executive officer.

    This could really use more precision; 20 and 25 are signifigantly different sums. I would like to see some clearer explanation of just what the services are and how they are structured. Which would probably require a business reporter.

  • Ed

    Something fairly vital is missing, perhaps deliberately.
    What is the percentage of all Catholic Charities outlay for shelters and/or other programs for the poor that comes from DC coffers?

    I hear they’re going to throw us out.

    Nice, heartrending quote, but not substantiated. It msy well be, as tmatt writes, that Catholic Charties will devote enormous energies to recoupeany any loss from the District.
    Yes, an opinion piece doesn’t necessarily have to be objective, but there’s far too much left unsaid here. However, if you have an axe to grind…

  • MarkF

    … I am proud of my Church and of my neighboring diocese of Washington. Into the void left my the anti-life DC government will come new life and support for the poor from generous Christians. And lets hope that some of the help will come in the form of spiritual healing to help others from acting out in homosexual actions.

    … Pray the rosary daily, go to daily Mass as often as you can, Eucharistic adoration, and praying Divine Mercy. And speak up, get involved, and create vibrant Catholic culture again.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    If the Post had any sense of fairness they would print an op-ed piece that takes the Catholic side. I know that newspapers have no obligation to balance out their op-ed pieces, but even the NY Times sometimes does it.
    Jay Severein–current talk show host in Boston and former conservative political activist–was talking just today about times the Times had approached him to write an op-ed piece from the conservative point of view so as to balance things out.

  • Dennis Hayden

    I am wondering where the Social Work ethics stand for social workers working in a social work agency such as Catholic Charities? I am referring to the social work code of ethics;
    4.02 Discrimination

    “Social workers should not practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical disability.”

    Dennis Hayden, retired social worker

  • Domenic C.

    I sense this is a lot of hot air on part of both parties with neither telling the whole story. From the Federal 990 forms it appears Catholic Charities simply is paid by the DC government to administer its (DC’s) programs. It does not appear to be programs initiated by Catholic Charities and funded by the city. About 97% of the funding received by CC is grant administrated monies, not fund raised by donations to Catholic Charities.

    You have the same situations with other non-profits. A good example is AARP, which receives some $80 million in Federal grant monies. One of the programs operated by AARP is where they provide tax preparation for individuals.

    Should Catholic Charties decides to stop running the programs DC will simply find other non-profits to fill the gap. The DC Catholic Charities will probably stop funding care for the poor but I doubt if the Catholic Church will stop supporting the poor.

    If both sides provided a clearer picture of their involvement in this issue it would save everyone a lot of hassle.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    “The DC Catholic Charities will probably stop funding care for the poor but I doubt if the Catholic Church will stop supporting the poor.”



    What does that mean? Why would DC Catholic Charities stop funding care for the poor? Please explain.

  • sunshine

    What does that mean? Why would DC Catholic Charities stop funding care for the poor? Please explain//

    It’s actually the other way around: DC Catholic Charities will be ineligible for the funding that the DC Council provided in their contracts with the CC to provide social services on the District’s behalf.

  • teresa

    Dear all:

    I was led through a link on Fr. Z.’s blog to a hateful atheist website where they defile the Church on this occasion. I tried my best to argue that the Church will still help the poor and that we can’t change our belief to accommodate the government, and that I think personally that children should better be given to heterosexual couples for adoption.

    And then all of them threw themselves upon me and I have seen nowhere such excessive use of four letter words. Almost very second of the word they wrote is such.

    And I didn’t insult myself but insisted on my point. And then it occurs to me: they are not liberals. … Someone else there who is against the Church but a true liberal, was also called with dirty names. …

  • teresa


    it is better that we don’t collaborate.

    Let the council find someone else, only they will discriminate the Catholics, but this can be ignored.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Please take your discussions of the ISSUES elsewhere. Stick to the press coverage angles covered at this blog.

  • http://crappychristian.com Marie

    The article is one of many poorly written ones from the Post. A fun game I have is finding the typos and dropped sentences, bonus for things continued on another page that just disappears. The article failed to provide in depth examples of the RCC in other cities where SS marriage is recognized, how many other religious institutions partner with the city government…. I’m sure there is a drug treatment program run out of some non denominational church. The RC isn’t the only religious charity in town working with the city, just probably the biggest.

  • teresa


    I hope I am not disturbing, but I had thought that some Christian will lend me a ear.

    If you forbid it. I won’t disturb you nor visit here anymore.

    Sorry and thanks.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Visit is fine.

    Send us an email. That’s fine.

    But we try to keep the comments on the subjects covered by this weblog.

  • sunshine

    Late Thursday, however, Graham said he had changed his mind after reviewing same-sex marriage laws in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont. He asked why the Church has not abandoned services in those states.

    “If the Catholic Church has been able to adjust in Connecticut, I think they can certainly adjust here,” Graham said. //

    Both the Vermont and Connecticut legislatures acted to protect religious freedom as well as marriage equality. The Vermont law recognizes the right of clergy to not preside over same-sex marriages; the right of religious organizations to refuse the use of their facilities to celebrate a same-sex marriage; and the right of fraternal benefit societies, such as the Knights of Columbus, to refuse to provide insurance benefits to same-sex partners of its members if the organization has religious scruples against doing so. The Connecticut law includes those three safeguards for religious liberty but goes farther still. It insulates religious organizations from liability for refusing to provide any goods or services when the request for such goods or services arises from a same-sex marriage – so, for example, a religiously affiliated college would not have to make its married student housing available to a married same-sex couple. And the Connecticut law exempts adoption and foster care services run by religious organizations from any obligation to serve same-sex couples, so long as these services are not government-funded. Thus, in Vermont and Connecticut, religious liberty became a shield for religious freedom against the intrusion of same-sex marriage on traditional religious values.

    Catholic Charities asked the DC Council to include these exemptions in the DC same sex marriage legislation so that DC CC would remain eligible for DC social services contracts.

    The DC Council — very POINTEDLY (and derisively) — refused.

    Reporting on the CT and VT legislation within the article would have provided a very different perspective, on both the issue at hand and the Council’s agenda.

  • dalea

    It would be helpful for the press to explain just what exactly ‘government-funded’ means in the context of the same sex marriage debate. It appears that the DC Council has a rather different view than the governments in VT and CT. Which is making following the coverage difficult.

  • dalea

    DailyKos has a diary up in NewMedia style that covers this topic?


  • jenny schmitz

    Let’s all settle down. The facts are simple. Clearly, as all must agree, God is the one Being entitled to judge persons. Any one of us choosing to judge persons equates themselves as equal to God. I believe the greatest sin, through Greek mythology and christianty and any other belief, is to equate one’s self to being equal to or above God. So, again, unless you believe you are worthy and able to take on God’s roll as the judge of human kind, step back for a moment. We don’t have the right to judge anyone. It is each one of us that is judged by God; not some social network, sexual preference, criminals,saints, priests, reverands, quakers, Jehovah Witness’s, Mormons, athiests, or any other persons. Our job is to always include and not exlude any persons. Our role in life is to love, except,forgive, and be void of judgement towards all persons. Either give your life to all persons, as Jesus did, or select who you will “give your life” to. The choice is yours.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Jenny, folks ….

    What does this have to do with the journalism issues we deal with here at this weblog?