Drive through just about any American town, and you will encounter St. Jeanne Jugan, St. Vincent de Paul, Ven. Dorothy Day, St. Katherine Drexel, or Our Blessed Mother. Under the patronage of these saints—and many others—Catholics in our country have built and promoted an impressive number of institutions dedicated to charity and justice. From healthcare and education to social services and community organizing, Catholics have created a legacy of institution-building that we are grateful to inherit. These institutions play a crucial role in serving the common good.
Despite their contributions to the common good, some Catholic faith-based service providers find themselves in a precarious position.
In Philadelphia, the city recently barred Catholic Social Services from placing children with foster families, despite CSS’s long track record of successful placements. Although it faces a shortage of foster families, the city decided to shut out an organization that cared for over 2,200 children in the past year because the organization’s Catholic convictions about marriage and family do not allow them in good conscience to place foster children with same-sex couples.
Recent legislation in Oklahoma and Kansas protects the rights of faith-based adoption and foster care providers to continue to serve children without sacrificing their religious principles. But that legislative victory was hard-fought, and the law’s proponents were accused of being bigots for working to ensure that faith-based organizations are able to continue their work with integrity. We cannot take for granted that Catholic institutions will continue to have the freedom to serve.
The services offered by Catholic institutions are unique and irreplaceable.
As Steve Roach of Catholic Charities in Springfield, Illinois has noted, religious adoption and foster care organizations are well placed to recruit families from their own faith communities. The rise of the opioid epidemic has led to a corresponding rise in the number of children in the foster care system. The loss of faith-based service providers in places like Illinois, Massachusetts, California, and DC means that there are fewer avenues to recruit people of faith to serve as foster families.
Catholic organizations are often respected for their excellence even on secular terms. But they provide something more: love. Catholic social services are rooted in the mission of Jesus Christ and thus animated by love. While the state is responsible for promoting the common good, it cannot provide love, which is a fundamental—indeed, the most fundamental—human need.
During Religious Freedom Week, the bishops ask us to reflect on the theme of “Serving Others in God’s Love.” Religious freedom is a human right to be “immune from coercion,” so that no one is forced to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs. The bishops are dedicated to encouraging religious freedom efforts for people of all faiths in all parts of the world. For Catholics in the United States today, religious freedom means that we have the space to build on our Church’s legacy of serving others in God’s love through our network of institutions.
We can advocate for that space today. The federal Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act (H.R. 1881 / S. 811) would protect the religious liberty of child welfare service providers, including adoption and foster care agencies. Contact your U.S. senators and representatives and ask them to cosponsor the federal Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act.
Aaron Matthew Weldon is the Program Specialist in the USCCB Office of Religious Liberty. Follow USCCB religious freedom activities at @USCCBFreedom