The Republican-controlled Congress recently cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood and the vote has been projected as a great victory for Catholic opposition to abortion. However, the premise behind this proposed legislation threatens to send Catholicism back to the days of the Know Nothings in the 1840s.
At issue is whether a corporation like Planned Parenthood can receive government funding for some services and still spend privately raised money on others. Until now, the answer to that question has been, “Yes!” Just like food stamps are used to pay for milk while cigarettes must be paid for with a person’s own cash, common sense has generally recognized that accepting government subsidies or grants does not strip a person or an agency of the freedom of how to spend their own money. The money is in two different piles. This Republican vote, however, stripped Planned Parenthood of federal funding for mammograms, pre-natal care, nutrition programs, etc. because they use private money when spending 3% of their budget on abortions. The agency was denied the right to put money any longer into two separate piles.
How do we know that today’s law that gives government the power to take away an agency’s freedom to spend its own money will never be used against the Catholic Church? Some 67% of Catholic Charities funding comes from government sources. But Catholic teaching also supports efforts to serve immigrants, even if they have no longer have documents to work or reside here. Similarly, the Catholic bishops advocate a path to citizenship for the undocumented. What is to prevent the Republican foes of immigration reform from cutting off all funding for Catholic Charities by using the same logic that attacked Planned Parenthood? After all, the nature of law is that it applies to everyone. To argue that the Catholic Church will be treated differently under the law than Planned Parenthood is to suggest that religion is established in the United States – which is clearly unconstitutional.
I also reject the idea that Republican lawmakers could never pass legislation that repudiated Catholic teaching. In my district, the congressman is Lou Barletta, former mayor of Hazelton, PA and an implacable foe of Catholic social justice for Latino immigrants. At an October 2007 forum sponsored by the University of Notre Dame, Barletta demeaned not only the Church’s social justice but also disparaged Cardinal Mahoney. Barletta boasted to me before a later public debate I had with him that he “set the Cardinal straight.” Not exactly the obedience to the Ordinary Magisterium you expect from the pious laity!
I recognize that my direct experience with Barletta is my own. However, I think most Catholics believe that the current cooperation between government and church-related agencies is working just fine. The church can decide that it does not want to abide by government restrictions on how public funds are spent, as for instance when the church refuses to place foster children in homes where the parents were of the same sex. But that decision came from the Church’s side. Government should not be allowed to dictate to Catholics what they may or may not do with free will donations. Big Brother government is bad for democracy.
The still larger question is whether cutting off funds to social services can be pro-life. The United States has the highest infant morality rate in the developed world, largely because of the death of pre-maturely born infants. That rate was lowered for the first time in 30 years in 2010 by Obama Administration programs for education and nutrition of pregnant women in line with the intention to provide alternatives to abortion. There is no indication from Republicans that they will restore to other agencies the funds they have cut off. Scarcely a pro-life approach!
Today, the cuts are supposed to be on account of opposition to abortion; tomorrow they might be on account of opposition to immigration reform. The Republican Congress has made acceptance of any federal funds an excuse to take away the freedom to spend private money on issues that politicians do not like. The restoration of anti-Catholic Know-Nothingism is a threat we cannot ignore.