Thursday, January 25, 2007

Dorothy Day on the nonprofit model of religious incorporation

Came across some juicy bits by the great Dame of the Bowery, Dorothy Day writing in 1972, as I was doing some research on nonprofit law. I've always been impressed by Catholic Workers who made it a point to refuse tax-exempt status, both for themselves and their donors.
Christ commanded His followers to perform what Christians have come to call the Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the harborless, visiting the sick and prisoner, and burying the dead. Surely a simple program for direct action, and one enjoined on all of us. Not just for impersonal "poverty programs," government-funded agencies, but help given from the heart at a personal sacrifice.
On another level there is a principle laid down, much in line with common sense and with the original American ideal, that governments should never do what small bodies can accomplish: unions, credit unions, cooperatives, St. Vincent de Paul Societies. Peter Maurin's anarchism was on one level based on this principle of subsidiarity, and on a higher level on that scene at the Last Supper where Christ washed the feet of His Apostles. He came to serve, to show the new Way, the way of the powerless. In the face of Empire, the Way of Love.
We believe also that the government has no right to legislate as to who can or who are to perform the Works of Mercy. Only accredited agencies have the status of tax-exempt institutions. After their application has been filed, and after investigation and long delays, clarifications, intercession, and urgings by lawyers - often an expensive and long-drawn-out procedure - this tax-exempt status is granted.

As personalists, as an unincorporated group, we will not apply for this "privilege." We have explained to our donors many times that they risk being taxed on the gifts they send us, and a few (I can only think of two right now) have turned away from us. God raises up for us many a Habakkuk to bring his pottage to us when we are in the lion's den, or about to be, like Daniel of old.
You simply can't plot this stuff along any of our modern political axes. There's plenty here to offend Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker definitely represent one end in the spectrum of models for church-state relations. The mainstream view in the Catholic Church is represented by your average diocese, Catholic college or hospital -- chartered or incorporated under state law, subject to IRS rules, but benefitting from 501(c)(3) tax-deductible gifts and exemptions from federal income and local property taxes. They've become part of the welfare state, yet shielded from excessive state entanglement, supposedly, by the free-exercise clause and the general principle of separation of church and state.

That shield has been eroding over the last couple of decades, so as I've peeled more layers of the regulatory and managerial onion that Catholic nonprofits clothe themselves in, I'm increasingly sympathetic to Lady Day's critique, especially alongside declining ascetic discipline and consciousness in the Church. Nowadays the model for charity is to get filthy rich and then give tons of it to a foundation in your or another fat cat do-gooder's name while claiming a fatty tax deduction and an on-TV hug from one of your grateful (but photogenic of course) beneficiaries. Nowadays dioceses are turning to Goldman Sachs and Wachovia to underwrite multimillion dollar bond issues to finance capital expansion projects, again, supposedly to support the Church's "charitable work." Nowadays "capital expansion" has become part of religious nonprofit lingo as "fasting" and "almsgiving" have dropped out. But I'm still torn. The Catholic Church has never seen itself as separatist. Of course, neither has the Catholic Worker.