Obama’s executive order and the danger of reliance on federal contracts

By Phil Lawler

  Jul 22, 2014

Just as American Catholic bishops were volunteering to help President Obama—by handling the thousands of children from Central America who are entering the US illegally—the White House has announced that the President doesn’t want help from the Catholic Church.

How else should we interpret the peremptory executive order with which Obama cut off federal contracts for any organizations that discriminate against homosexual or “transgendered” persons. This executive order is not aimed solely at the Catholic Church; many others will lose federal contracts. But perhaps the “unprecedented and extreme” presidential action will help awaken the American hierarchy to the fact that this administration is not—to put it mildly—a reliable partner.

President Obama justified his brash initiative by assuring his lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgendered (LGBT) supporters of the “irrefutable rightness of your cause.” But as Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has pointed out, that “irrefutable rightness” was not so evident to the legislators who for almost 20 years, annually refused to approve similar LGBT protection in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). And even when that bill finally passed last year, Congress included a provision that exempted religious employers. There is no such exemption in the presidential order; by fiat, Obama has set a policy that Congress would not approve.

A statement from the US bishops’ conference boldly insists that the executive order “should be opposed.” Yes, but how? President Obama did this by himself. He did not ask for (and would not have received) Congressional approval. So there is no point in a lobbying campaign. Maybe the bishops could organize a letter-writing campaign, hoping to change the President’s mind, but anyone who has been watching this show for the past 6 years realizes that would be a waste of time and energy.

So how can the Church respond? That’s easy. Stop taking federal contracts. President Obama doesn’t want help from the Catholic Church. Say it’s a deal; don’t give him any.

What would that mean, in practical political terms? Let’s just take one major issue: those children flooding over the southern border. The US bishops’ office of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) estimates that about 90,000 unaccompanied minors will arrive in the US this year—up from an average of under 7,000 in previous years. The federal government is already straining to provide shelter for these children while their cases are processed. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if “the largest resettlement agency in the United States”—the bishops’ MRS office—withdrew from that effort.

But you might ask: What would happen to all those vulnerable children, if the US bishops didn’t help? It’s a good question. Whatever one might think about how and why the young migrants are pouring across the border, the fact remains that something must be done with them. Could the Church help to give them temporary shelter and support, while we wait for their cases to percolate through the immigration machinery?

And when we ask that question, we bump into an inconvenient truth about the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services. The last latest annual report from the MRS shows a total budget of just under $71 million, of which nearly $66 million—or nearly 93%—came from federal grants and contracts. For every dollar MRS raised in private donations, more than $1,000 came directly from Uncle Sam.

Without federal grants and contracts, then, the bishops’ program would shrivel to a tiny fraction of its current size. For now, the federal grants to the MRS are safe; the executive order of July 21 applies only to federal contracts. But how long will it be before the other shoe drops?

For decades, some concerned Catholics have warned that by accepting (and, more important, energetically lobbying for) government support, Catholic charities have compromised their independence. President Obama has now illustrated that point.

One consoling thought: If the bishops’ office of Migration and Refugee Services lost all its federal monies, the annual budget might plummet down to $5 million or less. But what would be left would be a recognizably Catholic charity, not a federal program administered through the bishops’ conference.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas