Doing God’s Work & Rendering Unto Caesar

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington released a statement (“DC Council Committee Narrows Religious Exemption in Same Sex Marriage Bill“) last Tuesday (Nov. 10, 2009) concerning legislation currently pending in the DC City Council. The archdiocese has concerns that this legislation, Bill 18-482, “Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act of 2009”, does not contain strong enough provisions to protect the rights of religious institutions which disagree with the bill’s main purpose, namely to permit same-sex couples to civilly marry in the District, and to have all the same rights, benefits and privileges currently limited to opposite-sex married couples. In addition to allowing same-sex couples to marry, the law would not require any individual person or any religious group to officiate at or solemnize same-sex marriages; the legislation explicitly protects this right of religious freedom.

I am not an attorney, and I have no doubt that there are legitimate questions of law that should be thoroughly addressed by the Council before this legislation is approved and passed on to the mayor of Washington for his signature. I trust that the Council is addressing these concerns, especially to ensure that the final version of the Bill that is enacted into law is able to withstand any possible legal challenge claiming the law does not provide sufficient protections for religious freedom.  

While I am not a lawyer, I do know something about Catholic teaching and moral theology. It is here that I find the archdiocese’s statement — characterized by the Washington Post as an “ultimatum” — problematic. The archdiocese declares that pending legislation, “…could prevent [emphasis added] social service providers such as Catholic Charities from continuing their long-term partnerships with the District government to provide critical social services for thousands of the city’s most vulnerable residents.”

No wonder that the Post reported this as an “ultimatum,” because the Church is essentially saying:  either exempt us from provisions of the law with which we disagree, or we will be forced to discontinue being a service provider for thousands of DC’s neediest residents.

There are two problems with such a declaration.

Forced into a Corner? Not really!

First, the legislation would in no way require the termination of the “long-term partnerships” between the District and Catholic Charities (or any other Catholic entity). While Catholic Charities may choose not to continue such partnerships in a world where same-sex marriage is allowed in the District, this decision would be Catholic Charities,’ and not the District government’s.

Doing Good with Acceptance: The Principle of the Double-Effect

Second, even from the perspective of Catholic faith, the termination of such partnerships would be the Church’s choice, not an obligation. This choice would be free and not required by Catholic social or moral teaching. There is a widely-accepted principle in Catholic moral thinking called the Principle of the Double Effect. This principle is a way of thinking through whether or not an action which has two effects — one good and one bad — is morally permissible. Catholic Charities could very validly and correctly apply this principle and still maintain its city partnerships in order to continuing doing the good work it has done in Washington for decades.

Although moral theologians may disagree on some fine points, there are generally four conditions that must be met in order for a double-effect analysis to adjudge an action as acceptable.

  1. First, the action itself must be either morally good or morally neutral.
  2. Second, the evil or bad effect must be unintended.
  3. Third, the good effect must not be caused by or a result of the bad effect.
  4. And fourth, the good effect must proportionately outweigh the bad effect.

Here’s how it would work. For argument’s sake, let’s say that Bill 18-482 has been enacted and is now the law within the District of Columbia. The Archdiocese of Washington (or any of its entities) is now faced with the decision of whether or not to continue current or seek new contracts with the District government to provide social services.  From the Archdiocese’s perspective….

  1. The “action” is continuing or entering into a contract to provide social services to the needy.
  2. The “good effect” is the provision of such services (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick and dying, etc).
  3. The “bad effect” (from the Church’s perspective, not mine) is the Church’s compliance with the District law requiring all organizations receiving District funds not to discriminate against same-sex couples (e.g. by providing spousal benefits to a gay Church employee, or by considering same-sex couples in adoption applications along with opposite-sex couples).

How would the four conditions of the Double-Effect Principle fare in this scenario? Clearly the action itself – continuing or entering into contracts – is at the very least morally neutral. There is nothing per se that is bad or evil about contracting (unless you’re re-modeling your kitchen, but that’s another matter!). Second, the bad effect – following the DC law prohibiting discrimination against same-sex couples – is obviously not the intent of Catholic Charities, but would rather be their compliance with a law with which they do not agree. Third, the good effect of their contracts – the continuance of financial support from the DC government in doing good for the thousands and thousands of people in need – is a result of the action itself (i.e. the contract) and has no causal connection to the “bad effect.” And finally, this good effect, which would allow the Church to continue in an uninterrupted fashion the numerous programs it manages that help those in need, clearly outweighs any “harm” that the Church could envision by its full compliance with DC law.

Does the Church really want to be in a position of saying that the physical, material, social, healthcare, educational, and yes spiritual needs of so many thousands of Catholic Charities’ clients went unmet simply because the Church would have had to comply with DC law? Would such compliance be so evil, so horrible, that it was worth abandoning such a core facet of the Church’s mission and the Gospel call to serve those in need?

While I in no way share the Church’s perspective that compliance with this law would be bad or evil, even Jesus advised his followers to ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s’ (Mt. 22:21). The Church is presenting itself here not as an actor, but as a victim, as if it were being forced out of doing God’s work because it didn’t want to give Caesar his due. This is a false choice — the DC Council shouldn’t buy it, and neither should we. 

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