Here's what would happen if America's Catholic outreach disappeared

by MARY REZAC
Wed, Jul 15th 2015 03:10 pm
Catholic News Agency  [ View Original Article ]
Social services like this Catholic Charities and Temple Beth Zion food pantry in Getzville, staffed by Eileen Nowak and Assistant Rabbi Adam Scheldt, may be impacted by challenges to the tax exempt status of religious institutions. (File Photo)
Social services like this Catholic Charities and Temple Beth Zion food pantry in Getzville, staffed by Eileen Nowak and Assistant Rabbi Adam Scheldt, may be impacted by challenges to the tax exempt status of religious institutions. (File Photo)

DENVER, COLO. (CNA/EWTN News) - A few months ago, Erin McCroy was walking the streets of Denver with Murphy, a 20-something missionary with Christ in the City, an outreach for people who are homeless.

McCroy, who had just become the office manager for the group, was trying to learn what the daily life of a missionary looked like.  

"I was out walking with him to get familiar with the ministry, and they're all so happy to see him," she said. "He's only 22, and all of these 50 or 60 year-old men, they look to him like a spiritual father. He's the only non-homeless person they interact with who talks to them, who knows anything about them."

On this particular day, one of Murphy's friends pulled him aside and asked if he could talk.

"Later, I asked Murphy what they wanted to talk about, and he said, 'Oh, his mom had just passed away, and he just really hadn't been able to process those feelings with anyone. So I just listened to him and empathized."

That day, McCroy saw firsthand what the Christ in the City mission is all about - friendship with the poor comes first, material support is secondary.

But it all could come to an end, should Christ in the City and other religiously affiliated non-profits lose their tax exempt status in the coming months and years following the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage.

Just days after the June 26 decision, New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer declared in a column that "now is the time" to abolish tax exempt status for religious institutions that do not recognize same-sex marriages. Even prior to the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. told Justice Samuel Alito that tax exemption statuses for religious schools and universities opposed to same-sex marriage is "certainly going to be an issue."

The Catholic Church is among the largest charitable organizations in the country. A 2013 report by Forbes ranked Catholic Charities alone as number five in the nation, and this doesn't account for other Catholic charitable organizations such as Christ in the City, St. Vincent de Paul societies or charities run by religious orders or local parishes.

But according to Oppenheimer, the holes left in the public service arena by all the non-profits that would have to downsize, or even close, could be filled by the government.

"Defenders of tax exemptions and deductions argue that if we got rid of them charitable giving would drop. It surely would, although how much, we can't say. But of course government revenue would go up, and that money could be used to, say, house the homeless and feed the hungry. We'd have fewer church soup kitchens — but countries that truly care about poverty don't rely on churches to run soup kitchens," he argues.

But Christ in the City is about so much more than mouths to feed and bodies to house, said Irma Montes, outreach coordinator and former missionary with the ministry. The Christ in the City missionaries are able to be involved in aspects of their friends' lives (they call them friends, not the homeless) that government programs simply could not reach, due to liability and funding limitations.

"What needs to happen first is you need to befriend the people on the streets and show them that you love them and that they have dignity and they deserve to live a better life," Montes explained.

"I don't think the government, because it is the government, has that capacity of showing people that they have human dignity and that they deserve to have a better life," she added. "It's much more about cost-effectiveness. It's going to be cheaper for the government to build housing units to put people in, but now you have isolated people that don't have community. So they might be out of sight, but that doesn't solve the problem of that person changing and living a different kind of life."

As part of their mission, Christ in the City hosts lunch in the park every Wednesday and every second Saturday. They ask local parishes and church groups to take turns preparing and serving the food, and everyone sits down to share the meal in downtown Denver.

McCroy said pulling off lunch in the park, without the free food and volunteer hours from local parishes, would cost the organization around $260,000 a year.

"That figure would be if you only had one employee who oversaw it and still had volunteers to help," she said, "and we do it for nothing."

But without tax exempt status?

"I don't think we would exist," said Montes.

In a July 13 article for The Week, correspondent Damon Linker wrote an opinion piece about why everyone - conservatives and liberals - should fight to maintain tax exempt status for religious institutions. The whole purpose of the exemptions, he said, came about because it is assumed that churches and their outreaches do something the government cannot when it comes to forming good morals and values in people, making them better citizens.

"That might sound quaint to our cynical, hyper-modern ears," Linker writes. "Some of the most secular among us may even think that this thumb on the scale in favor of encouraging faith smacks of the government 'establishing' religion."

"But of course the First Amendment doesn't just preclude a religious establishment. It also protects religious 'free exercise,' and it is on those grounds that the elimination of tax exemptions for churches should be opposed by all Americans, liberal and conservative alike.

The issue lies in the definition of 'free exercise.'

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said his perspective on the matter may be a bit jaded because of what happened to the Catholic foster care system in Illinois just a few years ago.

In 2011, Illinois began denying contracts for most of Illinois' Catholic Charities affiliates that were involved in foster care and adoption, because they refused to place children with same-sex couples. The result: the Catholic Church was forced out of a service in which they had played a vital role for more than 40 years, and hundreds of children were moved to other non-profit adoption and foster care agencies.

"In the name of tolerance, we're not being tolerated," Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield told the New York Times in 2011.

If attacks against tax exemption became more widespread against other Church charities and institutions, it's not hard to imagine that many other Catholic ministries would be similarly forced out of business, Gilligan said.

"It's simple math. If our institutions are taxed, that money will have to come from somewhere, they will begrudgingly comply, therefore less money will be available to provide the services that we once provided. And the ones who will suffer the most are those most in need."

"And then the next step is, one could argue the most dangerous, is the growth in government to now do those services," Gilligan added. "Is that the society we want in the quest for redefinition of marriage? I don't know. We're concerned about the answer to that question."

At the parish level, Fr. Javier Nieva, DCJM, of St. Mary's in Littleton, Colo., is concerned about tuition at his school and the parishes various outreaches, should their tax exempt status come under fire.

"Tuition would go up: it probably wouldn't be affordable anymore, at least for the majority of people who are currently enrolling their children in the school," he said, adding it could displace many of the school's 470 students.

"I would have to let many people go, reduce the staff to the bare minimum, and get rid of some programs," he added. "We would also have to downsize. We have property, about 20 acres or so, so we'd have to pay taxes on it, and it's not cheap."

A loss of tax exempt status could also mean a loss in revenue for the parish and school, since the tax break on charitable giving is among the motivations for some people's donations.

"If the parishioners are really committed and they don't mind that much, it won't be so radical; but it would probably change the face of the Church," Fr. Nieva explained.

Not only would the parish have to rely on people's now-taxed donations, they would also need to lean more heavily on their parishioners for volunteer support for various programs and ministries in case they would need to let people go.

"The Church has been around for 2,000 years as a divine institution, so we wouldn't disappear," Fr. Nieva said, "but it would change. Economically we know the consequences of paying taxes."

In the meantime, Fr. Nieva said that Catholics need to be more vigilant about what the Church teaches and why, and to be prepared to defend it in the public arena.

"What many people don't realize is that things most likely are not going to stop with this decision, and everybody goes back home," he said.  "Most likely they're going to be pushing, and they're going to see how it's going to affect the services that the Church can offer, but we cannot be silent about it."

The best thing Catholics can do is to listen to their bishops, to pray for conversion, and to fight the temptation to hide from the world.

"We still have to be visible, to fight for these and other rights in the public arena."
 

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