On Funding Faith-Based Social Initiatives

Experts say debate over Bush plan reflects deeper issues of faith

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

George W. Bush's first few weeks as president were anything but quiet, and one reason for all the noise is his proposal to provide federal assistance for faith-based social initiatives.


Assoc. Prof. Ellen Mahoney (SON), who serves as a parish nurse in Lawrence:
"...I have the advantage of knowing people in their wholeness as part of our church community. I'm not constrained by the episodic, disease-activated medical model, but can make a real difference in people's health and quality of life." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Although short on specifics, Bush's plan has spurred commentary throughout Washington and the media on issues such as church-state separation and the role of public morality. The discussion has caught the attention of Boston College administrators and faculty representing a range of disciplines and professional expertise.

Boston College's Jesuit and Catholic traditions provide it with a unique vantage point on the merging of faith and spirituality with social outreach. Administrators and faculty cite the University's commitment to the spiritual formation of its students - tomorrow's social workers, teachers, nurses, lawyers and business managers - as well as BC's own brand of faith-based social initiatives, which range from a degree program for parish nurses to the PULSE Program.

If the Bush proposal has raised provocative, even troubling questions about its scope and intent, the BC representatives say, it also indicates the great need for dialogue among Americans on basic matters regarding faith, spirituality and belief.

"We don't have a legal definition of what constitutes a religious or faith-based organization," said Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life Director Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science). "It's one thing if an established Catholic or Jewish group were to seek funding, but what about, say, Rastafarians, or Scientologists or spiritualists? What criteria do you use?"

In fact, Wolfe and his BC colleagues say, perhaps the key problem in discussing the Bush proposal is agreeing even what the word "faith" means.

"When you think about it, so much of what goes into working on social initiatives is derived from a kind of faith," said PULSE Program Director David McMenamin. "It may be faith derived from a religious denomination, but not necessarily; it may stem more from something very deeply spiritual and personal. In that sense, you have to ask, what isn't a faith-based social initiative?"

Graduate School of Social Work Interim Dean Richard Mackey said, "As social workers, how we behave with our clients is based on values like acceptance, empathy and being non-judgmental. I consider those values, which I practice as a social worker, a dean and a teacher, to be very Christian and Jesuitical.

"Are there other faiths that prize these values? Certainly," said Mackey, who had a Catholic upbringing. "I think it is in the area of social justice that faiths may come together in expression of those values."

Prof. Patrick Byrne (Philosophy) says Bush's proposal seems to define faith-based as "based in a religious community." But this too invites considerable interpretation, according to Byrne, referring to the teachings of Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan.

"Lonergan has a way of talking about faith in a way that doesn't place membership in special confessional communities as the first consideration," Byrne explained. "Faith is knowledge borne out of religious experience in the Christian and Catholic context. God bestows this love on all human beings unconditionally, regardless of confessional allegiances.

"Hence, anything any person does out of the experience of God's grace would be faith-based. In particular, the faith of Jews and Christians holds that all humans are all created in the likeness of God, with His love. We are therefore enjoined by that knowledge to treat everyone accordingly.

"This has a relevance to faith-based social service programs, because frequently those in need have been battered by life experiences. Such people are not always pleasant to deal with, no matter your skills, training and education. But the faith knowledge that these people are the likeness of God has a great deal to do with how you treat them.

"Now, no one I know in organized religion practices this to perfection. But ideally, as a religious faith community, we come together to help one another understand that love. I'd like to hope this is what Bush means."

The Jesuit Institute, for which Byrne serves as interim director, has sponsored numerous seminars and other discussions of faith and its intersection with science, public policy and other areas. The basic purpose, Byrne said, "is to try and establish a common language for these kinds of conversations.

"Talking about faith in relation to various disciplines and social issues was a largely unexplored territory. The Jesuit Institute represents a proverbial toe in the water."

Assoc. Prof. Ellen Mahoney (SON) embodies a religious ideal of combining faith and social outreach, as a nurse serving the parish of United Riverside Congregational Church in Lawrence. She sees her relationship with the people she serves as multifaceted.

"I am their nurse, but I'm also a regular member of the community," she said. "Whereas visiting nurses do so much good, I have the advantage of knowing people in their wholeness as part of our church community. I'm not constrained by the episodic, disease-activated medical model, but can make a real difference in people's health and quality of life."

In this role, Mahoney says, she knows that spirituality is an integral part of her dealings with the community. She recounts helping one elderly woman with a severe leg problem, who lamented to Mahoney that she wouldn't be able to attend church the next day. When Mahoney entered the church, she encountered a group of the woman's friends, one of whom clasped Mahoney's hands in hers and proclaimed, "Healing hands!" The women then took turns grasping Mahoney's hands and repeating the phrase.

As much as the women's response might have impressed, perhaps even moved Mahoney, she says she feels it is important to maintain her sense of her professional expertise.

"What I did wasn't mystical, it was nursing," said Mahoney. "I think one of the most important things I can do is to spell out what a nurse can do, whether it's providing medical assistance, helping someone to get health care services, or just talking, listening and being present."

BC is also helping to advance the potential role of parish nurses, through a three-year program in which students earn a master of art degree in pastoral ministry and a master of science degree in nursing in a variety of advanced practice specialties.

If BC administrators and faculty deal with questions on faith and social service, students also have opportunities inside and outside of the classroom. The PULSE Program, which combines community service with theological and philosophical readings, has formed ties to numerous agencies and organizations that consider faith integral to their work.

"A lot of the groups we deal with, although faith-based, structure themselves so their work grows out of faith, but not as a means for proselytizing," McMenamin said. "As part of students' placements, we ask them to talk with people in their agency, to see what motivates the people there. The students see a faith commitment at work, whether based on religion or use of gospels and prophets, that calls for justice.

"The challenge is to teach students how they can integrate faith into their work, no matter if they enter social services or any kind of profession."

BC students also can select from an increasing slate of faith-based service programs, offered during spring break [see story on page 3] and at other times during the academic year. As laudable as the zeal to participate is, however, administrators and faculty note there is some concern as to how seriously students consider the faith component in such programs.

"Service is a wonderful thing, but if we stop there, we're missing a valuable dimension: reflecting on why we serve and what we learn about ourselves from serving - that we're part of a community that is shaped, ultimately, by faith," said Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Joseph Appleyard, SJ.

"Certainly, non-believers can and do get involved with issues of social justice that go to the heart of our faith," he said. "But for a place like Boston College, with its history, tradition and mission, you cannot get very far in performing service to others without raising questions of spirituality and faith. To talk about spirituality is at least a start, though that term can be pretty vague, but who knows where the conversation will go? The challenge is to find ways of drawing people into that conversation and getting them to think about their lives in different dimensions."
No matter the fate of Bush's proposal, Fr. Appleyard says, BC must be clear about its mission.

"We need to keep encouraging students to engage in service activities and programs which enable them to learn about their own values and their identities as human beings," he said, "and this, ultimately, rests on a perspective of faith."

The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life will host a discussion on funding faith-based social initiatives on March 19 in Devlin 101. For more details, visit the center's World Wide Web site, www.bc.edu/publife.

 

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