True Charity

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

October 5, 2005


            In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many people have done extraordinary acts of generosity. Throughout the country churches have extended themselves to thousand of evacuees by providing housing, food, financial assistance and spiritual care.

            For Christian churches this is not just a good deed. It is an essential part of our gospel mission. Without this charity, we are not truly the followers of Jesus Christ and we are not fulfilling His command to love our neighbor.

            That is why I was distressed to read in the Washington Post on September 27, that FEMA was contemplating reimbursing churches and other faith-based groups for their charity to Hurricane victims.

            This is a very bad idea, not only for the churches but for the government.

            In the rush to redeem itself after its incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal government seems determined to throw money in every direction. But churches should not take this money for three important reasons.

            First, it was charity, not a reimbursable government expense. Were we giving freely from out hearts and out of our substance, or were we giving with an eye toward getting reimbursed?

            If churches take federal dollars, these acts of kindness become a government program, not a sacrifice made in the name of the Lord and for the love of our brothers and sisters. When you do an act of charity, you should not look around for someone either to praise you or reimburse you. 

            Secondly, what happens the next time? As sure as the sun will rise in the morning there will be another natural disaster and or humanitarian crisis. What happens then? Won’t people be skeptical about giving and cynical about our motives? If churches, Catholic or otherwise, go to their people for support, they might say to us, “Why should I give? You are just going to turn around and ask the federal government for reimbursement.”  Government reimbursement will be a short term gain, but a long term loss.

            Thirdly, it is an inappropriate entanglement of government and religion.

            I really do believe in the separation of church and state. Not so much because it is good for the state, but because it is very good for religion.

            In general I agree with the axiom, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” If the federal government pays the piper, it is only a matter of time before it will start calling the tune. Then in short order the Salvation Army will no longer be able to mention salvation. And, very likely, Catholic charities will not longer be Catholic.

            If we accept federal money for charity to hurricane victims, what will be the restrictions? Are we allowed to put bibles and rosaries on the cots in the shelters? Are we allowed to offer a prayer before serving meals? Are we allowed to offer religious services and prayers in the shelters paid for by federal money. Can there be a chapel?

            Some churches have argued that they have 20 years of wear and tear on their facilities after housing evacuees. Good. They should wear it proudly. Jesus would be very happy to see that kind of wear and tear.

            The whole church, everywhere, should be willing to join together to help individual congregations bear relief expenses. My own parish has spent nearly $20,000 to various churches along the Gulf coast to help with their hurricane expenses. That is how it should be done; church to church, not government to church.

            We should not kid ourselves. We are not rendering a sacrifice to God if we are asking Caesar to pay our bills. And once we invite Caesar into our temples to pay for our “charity,” we may never get him out.