Sunday, November 15, 2009

Belief and Charity, Rough Times Ahead

We humans are both physical and spiritual. Ideally these should function happily in harmony. Often they don't. This war waged within is eloquently described by many religious greats through the ages, the apostle Paul in Romans 7:23 ("another law at work in my members ... making me a prisoner"), the Sakyamuni in verse 1 of The Dhammapada ("the wheel of the wagon follows the hoof") and others.

Some of us do "not too bad," hitting an OK balance with the two sides of life, but beyond the occasional "pretty good" individual, the spiritual and secular stay at pretty stark odds. Once we get past the single self, the larger social units pretty much spin out of control. It's very hard to get even a single whole family in order, and with each broader unit the problem exacerbates. By the time we get out to big groupings, like cities and states for example the likelihood of balance between the material and the spiritual is slim. For this reason, "church - state" relations always remain in a tumult. They constantly swing this way and that.

These days a fascinating and important series of issues have arisen in this relationship. The church and not-the-church have gotten themselves tangled up in the world of help. Caring for the poor, the needy, the downtrodden, the disaster stricken is a responsibility both for the state, and for the person of faith. But these often struggle in nature and motivation. One issue I've already treated in these pages is the problems created in the world of global disaster relief by aid organizations comprised of proselytizing believers.

Here's another one that looks very difficult. The Catholic church, and the city of Washington DC are facing what looks like a possible impasse. Tim Craig, Michelle Boorstein, and later Carol Morello did a fine job last Thursday and Friday making the issues clear, and as importantly capturing the heat, the tone, the ignorances and arrogances that are coming to participate in this thorny issue:

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.

D.C. Council members are hardening their opposition to the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington's efforts to change a proposed same-sex marriage law, setting up a political showdown between the city and one of its largest social service providers.

Progress is being made in planned legislation designed to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. "Under the bill, headed for a council vote next month, religious organizations ... would have to obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians." But this puts the Catholic Church in a quandary, "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."

Catholic Charities, 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.

At issue is $18 million to $20 million in city funds for 20 to 25 programs run by Catholic Charities, but the church pointed out that it supplements funding for city programs with $10 million from its own coffers.

So, as we can see, these bodies (the city and the church) are very tightly wed. They have combined intimately to do much good, lots of lives and great work is at stake, lots of money is all tangled up together, but when something unanticipated like this happens remarkably complex issues arise.

Elected officials insulting believers is not a healthy approach to addressing a complicated matter with much at stake, but sadly bluster is all too often the coin of the political realm. Far better would be quiet discreet, reflective and respectful conversation from sincere adherents on both sides of the opinion.

Any sincere Catholic can only be happy for advances that erode bigotry and persecution. Conversely one cannot expect the Church to conform to obligations contrary to its sacred traditions.

I for one hope that a creative solution can be found that allows the pleasant marriage between city and church, that helps so many in need to persist. I think it can be done. Some fiddling about with nuances, structures, divisions on paper, and solution driven thinking can open the way for all sides to remain in the help game in good conscience. The good work and the collaboration should continue. We should not let the careless and the loud make things harden up. There is no creativity for the sake of good when the mind is rigid, and the heart is prideful.