America’s first native-born saint survived a pandemic in New York City. Born on the eve of the American Revolution, Elizabeth Ann Seton — a Manhattanite who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Alexander Hamilton and John Jay — was quarantined twice in her short 46 years of life as yellow fever ravaged the globe. “Yellow jack,” as that pandemic was grimly called, claimed the life of her father, New York’s first public health officer. Just two years later, Elizabeth lost her husband too — leaving her a penniless mother of five.
But it’s what she did next that embodies the Catholic Church’s long legacy of pioneering solutions for the social problems of the day. The plight of her family and those around her prompted her to form a religious order that established some of the fledgling nation’s early schools and orphanages.
Her story has been very much on my mind during the coronavirus pandemic. Wherever there is suffering, there too is the Catholic Church. During the peak of the pandemic, our hospitals overflowed, our soup kitchen lines stretched for blocks, and just weeks ago, our schools were opened for many of New York City’s most underserved children.
Adoption agencies at risk
In Philadelphia, to give another example, Catholic Social Services delivered 2,000 meals a week to homebound seniors and another 565 “grab and go” meals each week to children no longer getting a healthy meal at school. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s ongoing ministry to support and accompany those most affected by the pandemic comes as no surprise; before the pandemic, one study pegged the value of the Archdiocese’s contributions to the Philadelphia area at around $4.2 billion annually.
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Most of the Church’s ministry was established in the face of crises and epidemics, much like what we are experiencing today. And yet our charitable work seemingly never escapes the ageless adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Since this nation’s very beginnings, the Church has gone to meet the needy, only to be met with opposition from those who disagree with its beliefs. Such needless opposition is as on trend today as it was in Elizabeth Seton’s time. And now it threatens to destroy a ministry serving the neediest children that Elizabeth was essential in founding.
Today, Nov. 4, the Supreme Court hears oral argument in the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. At issue is whether the First Amendment protects the right of the Catholic Church’s foster care agency in Philadelphia to place vulnerable children with loving families without violating its sincere religious beliefs about marriage, that marriage is between a man and a woman. The other side argues that our agencies lose all religious liberty protections when they partner with the government to serve those in need — an obvious prerequisite for serving children who have been removed from their homes by the government. This novel claim has far reaching implications.
There are more than 8,000 faith-affirming foster agencies that partner with governments nationwide — not to mention the countless thousands of Catholic soup kitchens, homeless shelters, prison ministries, immigration legal services, and other social services supported by the Catholic Church. Were the government permitted to tell these crucial ministries which religious beliefs are permitted — and which are proscribed — solely because these ministries partner with the government, we would all be the poorer for it.
Catholic Church’s legacy of service
Thankfully, however, the Supreme Court has rejected similar attempts to cabin religious freedom before. When the federal government argued in the 2011 case of Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC that the First Amendment does not apply to a church which “decide(s) to open its doors to the public,” a line of argument that the court’s justices both (liberal and conservative) called “amazing” and “extraordinary.” The court rejected it 9-0. And the court rejected the argument again in a subsequent case dealing with Blaine Amendments — anti-Catholic laws passed in the 1800s to exclude Catholics schools and charities from public benefits and programs.
Then as now, there is no good reason to exclude the Church from serving those in need.
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The Catholic Church doesn’t operate the largest non-governmental network of adoption and foster care agencies just because it cares about vulnerable children. We do so because our faith compels us to care for those in need. Our calling to care for the orphan is as old as our faith. As the book of Exodus admonishes, “You shall not wrong any orphan or widow. If you ever wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely listen to their cry.”
Likewise, the Catholic Church’s legacy of caring for abandoned, abused and neglected children is as old as our nation. Its women religious left a particularly enormous legacy on this front, be it the orphanages, hospitals, and schools founded by Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity, Mother Joseph’s Sisters of Providence, or by the larger-than-life St. Frances Cabrini. In the Philadelphia — which is working to cut ties with the Catholic Church’s foster care agency because of its religious beliefs about marriage — the Church has been helping children and placing them in loving homes for over 200 years.
The Church serves these children without discriminating on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, religion, or race. Indeed, the only discrimination to be found is that of Philadelphia officials who target our ministries because they disagree with what the Church believes. Our nation has slowly but surely rooted out such bigotry. It should finish the job.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan is the archbishop of New York.