Catholic Giving: Leveraging Cultural Change

So there is no theological problem with a new Catholic philanthropy led primarily by lay Catholics. But the lay Catholic philanthropists will soon learn what their Protestant, Jewish, and secular fellow-philanthropists have learned: Giving money away intelligently and effectively is no easy business. Like every other serious group of philanthropists in the United States, Catholic philanthropists must strive to be both strategic and responsible. That, in turn, suggests certain imperatives that ought to shape the new Catholic philanthropy in the early 21st century.

Leverage Change

Perhaps the first imperative is to understand how change is actually leveraged in complex societies like the United States. Catholics are, traditionally, great institution-builders and sustainers (just look at the bulging endowments of Notre Dame and Boston College). The challenge for the new Catholic philanthropy will be to look beyond bricks, mortar, and established institutions to grasp the truth of Irving Kristol's famous observation that the world is changed, not by big universities and not by the mainstream media, but by think tanks and small magazines.

Kristol's bon mot was, in turn, the product of convictions that Catholics should find congenial:

  • that politics is, in the final analysis, a by-product of culture;
  • that cultures are shaped by what people honor, cherish, and worship;
  • that social change is a matter of ideas, which have consequences.

Like other Americans concerned about family and civic life, many Catholics now sense that they're combatants in a culture war. What the new Catholic philanthropy must grasp is that the culture war is, at bottom, a war of ideas, which has to be fought by idea warriors deployed in those places where elite opinion is molded and shaped.

Leveraging cultural change by changing the debate on an issue has been done before, and indeed not so long ago. Every Catholic philanthropist should ponder the brute fact that welfare reform would never have overcome opposition, passed Congress, become law, and improved millions of lives if the scholarly debate on welfare had not first been fundamentally changed by a small journal, The Public Interest, of which most people have never heard and which never had a circulation over 10,000. Yet that is where the arguments for welfare reform were vigorously made year after year until Congress eventually "ended welfare as we know it."

As Catholic philanthropists look to shape public policy on issues of war and peace, biotechnology, welfare policy, health care reform, the life issues, and the family, they must learn to look beyond established Catholic institutions and toward leaner, more effective, more focused, and usually smaller institutions (like think tanks, research institutes, and activist organizations) that have been the real catalysts of change in American public life over the past generation. Catholics who want to support authentically Catholic intellectual work, journalism, and social activism need no longer look exclusively to Catholic institutions. Catholics are now everywhere, and frequently have more effect by operating outside the often-sclerotic bureaucracy of the Church.

Resist Nostalgia

The second imperative of the new Catholic philanthropy must be to resist the temptations of tribalism and nostalgia. To take the most obvious example: Philanthropically inclined Catholics often feel nostalgic loyalty to many Catholic institutions of higher education that simply are not what they were when the philanthropists were in school. Many of these colleges and universities have become thoroughly secularized, and Catholic donors who assume that giving to them is one way to support the spread of Catholic teaching are in for a rude shock at some prominent Catholic schools, where the Church's teaching is regarded, at best, as one option on a menu of possibilities. Thus, on the principle of caveat donor, the new Catholic philanthropy cannot assume that everything that now wears or once wore the label "Catholic" is in fact an institution that thinks or lives in a distinctively Catholic way. By the same token, the new Catholic philanthropy can consciously use its giving to shape change in Catholic institutions of higher education by providing the resources needed to support those reformers who are working to reclaim Catholic colleges for the great tradition of Catholic liberal education.

A similar hard look is needed when the new Catholic philanthropy engages with the Church's own charitable institutions. Here, too, dramatic change has taken place in recent decades, not always for the better. Are Catholic social welfare charities too closely tied to, and dependent upon, government? Are Catholic charities suffering from the inefficiencies that usually accompany bureaucratization and centralization? How can Catholic charities and social welfare agencies better implement Pope John Paul II's strategy of empowering the poor, laid out in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus? These are some of the questions, perhaps rude questions, but necessary questions that new Catholic philanthropists should be pressing on the Catholic institutions that seek their support.

12/18/2009 5:00:00 AM
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