Catholic Hierarchy Threatens the Capital’s Homeless

For the second time in a week, the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church has jumped into sexual politics at a time when conservatives are trying to make sexuality and reproductive rights a divisive issue in health care reform. Last week the Conference of Catholic Bishops got involved in vetting and promoting the anti-choice amendment in the House health care reform bill. Yesterday, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., threatened to cut off money provided by Catholic Charities to the poor and homeless in the capital over the issue of of gay marriage.

Once again, the Church has decided to elevate its own policies on sex to the forefront of national politics, and at a time when the entire social service sector of the economy faces dramatic change. The conservatives have seized on sex as a powerful political lever in the health care debate scheduled to go to the Senate floor next week. Now it may also become a device to influence local policy, under threat of undermining desperately needed social services in the midst of a recession.

Here is part is the Washington Post’s report:

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said Wednesday that it will be unable to continue the social service programs it runs for the District if the city doesn’t change a proposed same-sex marriage law, a threat that could affect tens of thousands of people the church helps with adoption, homelessness and health care.

Under the bill, headed for a D.C. 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.

Fearful that they could be forced, among other things, to extend employee benefits to same-sex married couples, church officials said they would have no choice but to abandon their contracts with the city.

“If the city requires this, we can’t do it,” Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Wednesday. “The city is saying in order to provide social services, you need to be secular. For us, that’s really a problem.”

Several D.C. Council members said the Catholic Church is trying to erode the city’s long-standing laws protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination. The clash escalates the dispute over the same-sex marriage proposal between the council and the archdiocese, which has generally stayed out of city politics.

On the one hand, you could say that the Church is simply standing up for its beliefs, which hold both abortion and same-sex marriage as unacceptable. But by choosing these means to advance their beliefs, the Church hierarchy has placed its mission to control sexuality and reproduction before its mission to help the sick and the needy. In doing so, they are serving the agenda of hard-line conservatives, and setting themselves apart from rank-and-file Catholics, who strongly support both health care and charitable work for the poor, and have far more nuanced views on same-sex marriage and reproductive choice than the Church fathers do.

In fact, the current predicament has its roots in decades of conservative policymaking. It began in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan shuttered psychiatric hospitals, dumping thousands of mentally ill people onto the streets, where they were joined by ranks of the poor abandoned by the shrinking social safety net. Reagan’s solution was to tell faith-based charities to take care of them. This, of course, gave these charities the opportunity to impose their religious beliefs on the needy. Yet even in this environment, churches have seldom made threats such as this one, which could harm thousands of the District’s most destitute people. As the Post lays it out:

Catholic Charities, the church’s social services arm, is one of dozens of nonprofit organizations that partner with the District. It serves 68,000 people in the city, including the one-third of Washington’s homeless people who go to city-owned shelters managed by the church. City leaders said the church is not the dominant provider of any particular social service, but the church pointed out that it supplements funding for city programs with $10 million from its own coffers….

Since the 1980s, the homeless have been a commonplace fixture in Dickensian Washington. They beg from downtown street corners as the lawyers, politicians, and lobbyists brush past. Their presence in the capital brings shame on the nation as it is–but if the Church makes good on its threat, they may be worse off still. And over what? 

“Lets say an individual caterer is a staunch Christian and someone wants him to do a cake with two grooms on top,” said council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 6), the sponsor of the amendment. “Why can’t they say, based on their religious beliefs, ‘I can’t do something like that’?”

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