Though there is clearly much to celebrate, the 100th anniversary of archdiocesan Catholic Charities isn’t so much about nostalgia as about gearing up to face the challenges of the next 100 years. How to move forward in an era of social and political discord was the subject of the first Edward Cardinal Egan Forum Sept. 26 at the Sheen Center in lower Manhattan.
Father J. Bryan Hehir, professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Harvard Kennedy School, delivered the keynote address at the forum named for the late Archbishop of New York and sponsored by the Magnificat Foundation.
He was joined in a discussion afterward by Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and Robert Niehaus, chairman of GCP Capital Partners, and chairman of the New York Catholic Foundation and Student Sponsor Partners.
Father Hehir began his address by laying out the biblical mandate found in Genesis and the prophets of the Old Testament, and particularly in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, as the foundation of Catholic Charities’ work. He also described the scope and depth of that work in greater New York.
“Four hundred thousand people served through 90 distinct agencies, at a cost of 790 million dollars; I suggest to you this is the face of Catholicism, which our Holy Father Pope Francis has called the Church to be in every diocese and every country, namely a Church at the service of those who are vulnerable or suffering in any way. In dioceses throughout the country, Catholic Charities is an expression and demonstration of how this ancient teaching takes shape in a modern post-industrial society.”
Father Hehir said Catholic Charities’ work has evolved over 100 years from being a service aimed at the burgeoning Catholic community, funded by Catholics, to one serving a much broader and more diverse community across a much more complicated social landscape. He noted that Catholic Charities, while still heavily dependent on the generosity of lay Catholics, is staffed by a pluralistic roster of professionals, and its financial support is matched by funding from city, state and federal contracts.
Father Hehir said the problems of poverty, hunger and homelessness remain, joined by new questions exemplified by the “stubborn inequality” in both rural and urban America, the opioid epidemic and other addictions, and the rising tide of teenage suicide across the country, which make Catholic Charities’ mission in the 21st century much more complex.
Father Hehir described Catholic Charities as a “bridge institution,” solidly rooted in the Church but not contained within its walls, connecting the resources, skills and the dedication of Catholics to the needs of the wider American society. He called this relationship a partnership in the common good. “The common good and Catholic Charities are well located at this moment in time,” he observed, “as we try to heal the fissures and fractures in our public life.”
He said Catholic Charities should serve as a bridge between its specific ministry and the wider community of Catholics. Pointing to the history of the Church in America, he explained that Catholics, once on the margins of U.S. society, have moved solidly into the mainstream since the end of World War II, and are now part of all segments in society from government to various professions. Still, the Church, to a great degree, resides at the edge of American life, Father Hehir said.
“The edge today is black, white and brown,” he explained. “The edge is documented and undocumented children and adults. The edge is in the heart of our cities and the conflicted territories of our national borders.” And he pointed out one more challenge that has emerged within the Church and in the broader society in recent decades, the destabilization of the middle and working class.
“Many of the individuals and families in this stratum of the middle class have long been our donors to Catholic Charities,” he said. “So, we need to pay attention to this bridge also. There are multiple bridges that need to be built within the Church and the country today.
“I propose, for debate at least, that there is no other institution, religious or secular, that has this kind of structural presence in our society.”
In the discussion that followed, Douthat commented on the challenge the Church faces in navigating what he termed the modern world of “post-Christian politics.”
“One thing that you see happening in both political factions is the development, not fully fledged in any way, but hints of a really kind of post-Christian politics,” he argued. “On the left, the activist left in particular, you can see...movements for racial justice and racial equality that would have been connected to the Black Church 25 or 30 years ago and today are almost entirely secular...And on the right, in the rise of Donald Trump particularly, in some of the fringier but still influential groups that supported him, you can see a sort of European-style blood-and-soil nationalism that’s not usually part of the American political tradition that has overlaps with Christianity in certain ways but is also post-Christian in certain respects. A lot of Donald Trump’s supporters in the primary campaign came from the least churched, most secular portion of the Republican Party.
“So, you have this growing secularization in both extremes of American politics, even as our pluralism seems to be breaking down and fragmenting.”
Father Hehir reminded the audience that because of what the Church proclaims itself to be, it is being watched. He noted the words spoken by French Nobel Prize-winning author and agnostic Albert Camus in an address Camus gave to the Dominicans serving in Paris at the end of World War II.
“He closed this way. He said, ‘We cannot create a world in which no innocent children suffer, but we can create a world in which fewer children suffer. And if we look to the Christians and don’t find help, where else can we go?”