November 13, 2009

More on the DC situation

Perhaps the saddest thing in all this is the failure of the Archdiocesan leadership to make use of a commonplace of Roman Catholic ethics (the so-called Principle of Double Effect) to free themselves of the concerns that they are "supporting gay marriage" if they have to provide health-care benefits to same-sex spouses. If the intent is simply to provide employee benefits neutrally to all employees (as the civil law requires) any alleged "support" for gay marriage is incidental and it becomes an ethical non-issue.

The failure of the Archdiocese to make consistent use of this principle, which is long enshrined in official Roman Catholic teaching, is precisely what I mean by a disorder in thinking and application. The way around an ethical dilemma is there, ready to be put to use.

Moreover, the fair treatment of employees is, as a biblical and ethical principle, at least as foundational as the Roman Catholic reading of sexual morality, and thus an ideal candidate for the Double Effect principle, whereby an unintended evil can be accepted (if not ideal) in the interest of an intended good. The failure to make use of this principle is only exacerbated by the not-so-subtle threat from the Archdiocese to drop out of social service provision if it is forced to comply with the law.

It seems to me the Archbishop of Washington needs a good Jesuit lawyer.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


scott gray said...


contracts are two-way streets. if the city of d.c. does not wish to have contracts with an intentional community (the arch diocese of d.c.) because that intentional community is not willing to abide by the social principle of equality for all members of society, it should dissolve all contracts. (i don't know enough, but i suspect the city chooses to compromise on this issue in order to keep these contracts. is this so?)

in addition, i would say that, even if there were no overt contracts for any services with the arch diocese, there is an implied contract-- tax exemption. if the arch diocese does not wish to abide by the social principle of equality of all members of society, this implied contract (tax exempt status) should be dissolved as well, and the arch diocese should be ponying up its fair share of property taxes (and possibly lose its tax exemption on contributions as well). if an intentional community wants 'hands off' on its dogmas, it needs to be hands off on all special treatment as well.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Scott, for a provocative thought. I would note, however, that strictly speaking the contracts are not with the church as a religious body, but only with its various social service ventures -- which may well be separately incorporated not-for-profit entities. I don't know the details, and I know the Archdiocese likely has a hand on the tiller even if the entities are "independent" and certainly if not. This reaffirms my point in the earlier post, however: the issue is the extent to which the church wishes to engage in the public sphere; the extent to which it does so will necessarily lead to the need for some "entanglement" (not unlike quantum physics!).

The tax exemption issue is more complex. (I will speak for NY here, as that's what I'm most familiar with.) The state benefits nonprofits by allowing them exemption from sales tax for the purchase of things used in carrying out their work, and for property tax on buildings, and a few related items, all of which because as a nonprofit it is felt its work is of benefit to the larger society. The Feds give tax relief not to the nonprofit, but to those who contribute to it -- as a write-off on income tax. This applies to non-religious nonprofits as well.

The implied contract is, as I note, that the entity is doing something of direct or indirect value to the larger society. I can say that if it weren't for the property tax exemption, my struggling parish in an historic landmark building valued in the multimillions would not be able to function -- our property tax burden would probably take more than our whole budget! (And, in fact, in NY State, it was an earlier rector of my parish who in the early 20th century lobbied for the property tax exemption in the NY Assembly, and got it through!)

The trade off -- and I think it a fair one -- is that nonprofits have to follow the law of the land. If a problem of conscience arises, I agree they can forsake the n-f-p status, or, as I suggest here, make use of the ethical principle that allows them to continue to hold to their core beliefs.

Technically, the n-f-p status allowing tax write-offs is forfeited if an entity engages in lobbying or influencing elections. Perhaps all that is needed is more attention from the civil side to prevent such abuses when they cross the line.

Brother David said...

I believe that when it comes to ballot issues in your country, n-f-p organizations are verboten from campaigning for a particular party or specific candidates. (Un)fortunately, as the case may be, they may weigh in on social issues; abortion, minority rights, etc., as they please!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dahveed -- absolutely right about the elections.

But on legislation, the n-f-p's also have to watch themselves. There are explicit limits on the extent and the form in which 501(c)3 organizations are permitted to lobby or influence legislation, both in terms of amount of money spent, and the content of public comment. See this helpful page for a handy summary of the limitations.

seamus said...

I too regret that the rigidity and authoritairianism of the present Roman Catholic Church is undermining the riches of catholic moral theology to the point of heresy. In the sexual and abortion political debates the bishops have abandoned probablism which respects the individual conscience where even in the confessional a priest must advise the penitent of dissenting positions even if the priest disagrees with the position.
The resurgence of an ultramontane catholicism also threatens the republic and I am amazed that the encroachment of Roman Catholic extremist views is not met with a more vigourous onslaught of protestant rebuttal.

barbarab said...

What is most troubling to me is the question of why the Catholic Archdiocese is drawing the line here (and now). Surely they provide spousal health benefits to people who have been divorced and remarried an annulment. I don't think they require employees to sign a contract vowing that neither they nor their partners will refrain from non-approved methods of birth control or any other behavior the church does not approve. Holding hostage the people to whom they minister is appalling.

Unknown said...

I believe the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland [Maine] contributed over $150,000 to the Yes on 1 effort and specifically told members to vote for the proposition. That seems to me to be way beyond a grey-area and well into the forbidden zone.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog today after buying a copy of "Reasonable and Holy" from a vendor at the annual Long Island Diocesan Convention yesterday. I'm enjoying the book and the blog.

This is not a terribly important point, but I just thought I'd clarify something: It's not quite accurate to say that the federal government gives tax relief only to contributors to a not-for-profit organization (in the form of a deduction for contributions), but not to the organization itself. Organizations formed under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code are called "tax exempt organizations" because they themselves are generally not subject to federal income tax on their income (except for certain business income that is unrelated to their tax exempt purpose). That's why a church does not have to pay taxes on its parishioner contributions (but would have to pay taxes on profits from selling Mini Coopers).



Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the additional comments. Dov, you are quite correct about the exemption on income _by_ a 501c3. No tax is paid on it either by the giver or the receiver, and I should have made that clearer, particularly as I'm well aware of it in terms of my parish's own income: were any to derive from a "for profit" activity it would of course be taxable! Glad you are enjoying the book; hope that keeps up and that you find it helpful.
Peace to all (after a very long day),

Brother David said...

When Roberto and I lived in Seattle, I can remember standing in line behind church groups at Costco buying things in bulk and the cashier asking for their tax card so they did not have to pay sales tax on thousands of dollars in merchandise!

Lynn said...

It will be interesting to see if Congress lets the D.C. law stand. The Catholic Church gets a two-fer when they protest laws in D.C.

FYI, based on my experience, this type of legislative pressure won't do much to the Diocese of Washington's tax exemption. They aren't under any pressure to contract with the D.C. government They are also free to set up totally private social services It might be a different story with employee benefits, generally, as this is one of the most restrictive laws in the country.

On a more positive note, the local Catholic Charities programs (Diocese of Arlington - VA) is known to give emergency aid without religious pressure. I've even made a couple donations to them in honor of Catholic friends for birthdays and anniversaries (but I'll only give to the Arlington diocese).

TheraP said...

See, the whole point here is that RCC bishops have no need of logic! They have the truth, see? And they go straight to the conclusion, no beating around the bushes of logic! If you "fail" to accept their truth with docility, then you have departed from the truth, you see.

See how easy it is? ;-)

Your logic muddies their waters!

IT said...

I am outraged at the intrusion of the bishops into civil policies from CA to ME to DC. outraged. I slammed the door on the RC church years ago and I have no intention of being dragged back into their mediaeval bigoted patriarchy.

They deeply insult their own church's rich tradition of social justice as they attack me and mine.

Who is a Cafeteria Catholic now?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the further thoughts. My blogging time over the next few days will be restricted as I am in Chicago for the gathering of the committees, commissions, agencies and boards of the Episcopal Church (I'm chair of a new one, the House of Deputies Study Committee on Governance and Polity). We will be in many meetings until Friday afternoon; not unlike a mini General Convention.

But I do want to say to IT I am equally outraged at the extent of religious intrusion into the public sphere. The legislation in question need have absolutely no effect on the beliefs of any adherent of a particular sect, but their beliefs are intruding on the lives of people who do not belong to their sects, and that's not as it should be in a pluralistic society.

Unknown said...

OT, but the security word here just happened to be: monks

Btw, here here to all those who've commented. DC must hold the line

Anonymous said...

Fr. Tobias:

In RC moral theology, the Principle of the Double Effect is not allowed to be used in the moral case of an intrinsic evil.

The "way around this" would have been something such as transpired in San Francisco in the late 90s, where the "extra" health benefit of a worker was allowed to be given to anyone of the worker's choosing. Granted some went to same-sex partners, but others went to children, parents, etc. Seemed to have been a win-win situation, but I see that DC has no interest in that.

Fortunately, the conflict with federal law will put an end to this in time.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr Michael, your observation would have more merit if, in this case, the Roman Catholic Church were actually performing an intrinsically evil act. The church and its members are not being asked to participate in "homosexual acts" (deemed intrinsically evil by the RCC). The distance between the act and the actor in this case, and the far remove of the alleged "support of same-sex marriage" should provide more than enough conscientious insulation, and I think a very good case indeed can be made for the employment of Double Effect in this instance, and that it precisely meets the standard criteria laid out in moral theology. In particular, in this case we have to address causality: providing benefits does not "cause" the same-sex marriage, or any putative sexual "acts" within it, so there is no causal linkage between providing benefits -- which are, in fact not connected by necessity to the acts judged evil. (i.e., the "acts" would happen without the civil benefits; indeed, eligibility for the benefits must be preceded by the existence of the marriage.)

I agree that the San Francisco solution is an elegant one; but it raises two problems, one of which is solved by PDE: that it might encourage diverting benefits to an unmarried or same-sex partner (surely just as suspect in RC theology as same-sex marriage) which is essentially the same moral situation. It also appears to me that the problem in all of this lies with the (apparent) insistence that paying benefits to a couple whose relationship is not considered moral constitutes an inherently immoral evil in itself, and I do not believe that the church has adopted such a teaching, nor that it need do so.

Thanks for your input. It is always interesting to see how different thinking approaches the same issue.