A white neon sign on West 32nd Street just a few steps from Seventh Avenue announces the seemingly unlikely presence of the Franciscan Fathers, an order of Roman Catholic friars that emphasizes all that is absent in the tumult of midtown: simplicity, spirituality, reflection. The friars have been there for some 150 years, when the area surrounding their church and friary was farmland. The Franciscans started handing out bread during the Great Depression, and they have never stopped. Passersby on their way to and from Penn Station are familiar with the lines of hungry people that form on the south side of West 32nd Street with disheartening regularity.
The Church of St. Francis of Assisi fits the description of what the Bush administration calls a “faith-based institution.” There is no question of its primary mission, which is to provide spiritual sanctuary for Roman Catholics. One recent morning, a dozen or so worshippers were scattered in the church’s pews, most of them on their knees, a few with their heads in their hands. “Like St. Francis, who had a ministry in the marketplace, we bear witness by living in the midtown commercial district and ministering to people trying to find peace of mind,” said the Reverend Brian Jordan, who lives at the friary.
Peace of mind and spiritual succor, however, are not the only services available at St. Francis. Trained counselors offer immigrants advice on getting green cards or U.S. citizenship, and steer them away from those immigration lawyers who demand exorbitant fees for little or no service. The friars run three residences for mentally ill homeless people. And in the evenings, every 12-step program imaginable sets up shop in the friary, alongside adult-education classes covering topics such as “Coping With Relationships,” “It’s O.K. To Feel Angry,” “What to Do if Mental Illness Strikes You or Your Family” and “The Artist’s Way.”
Under President Bush’s faith-based initiative, places like the Church of St. Francis could expect to receive government money for the astonishing array of social services they provide. And those services are available to anyone who walks into the friary; nobody asks to see a homeless person’s baptismal certificate or diploma from an accredited Catholic school. In that sense, the social services St. Francis provides are no different from those of secular, taxpayer-funded organizations.
You might expect, then, that the Franciscans would welcome the President’s initiative, and his appreciation of the work they perform with little or no public recognition. But Father Jordan is skeptical, for reasons ranging from the sacred to the secular.
“When I heard about what I call the new F.B.I. [faith-based initiative], I wondered, ‘What exactly does that mean?'” Father Jordan said. “Does it mean that faith-based groups are going to do the work that government is supposed to be doing? That would be passing the buck on to somebody else.”
Those are not the words of a political partisan, it should be noted. Father Jordan, like his brother Franciscans, stays away from partisan politics and is dubious of some notable clergy who act like ward bosses. He and other clergy like him share with the secular left a fear of mixing church and state, although for different reasons. Liberal critics of the Bush plan are worried about the state’s role in funding the church; Father Jordan’s concern is the church’s role in accepting money from the state.
“Faith-based groups are called to be prophetic by the memory of their founders, whether it’s Jesus, Moses or Muhammad,” Father Jordan said. “Are these groups compromising any of their prophetic quality by abiding by government guidelines? The government can’t treat these institutions like government employees.” He cited the battle over government funding of Catholic hospitals, which refuse to perform abortions. Government can’t force religious organizations to compromise on matters of faith and morals, but what happens when religious principle conflicts with secular law?
When, on some happy day yet to come, keepers of the national dialogue become bored by a certain former President, the faith-based initiative may yet find its way into public discourse. When it does, however, most of the attention will be focused on the government’s end of this proposed bargain. Very few pundits will talk about the compromises that churches will or may make to become Caesar’s partner.
Despite his misgivings, Father Jordan isn’t entirely prepared to dismiss the F.B.I. “One thing I do like,” he said, “is that this program could become a fertile ground for producing new leaders in faith communities in African-American, Latino and Asian neighborhoods. If these programs are honestly sustained, we could see the birth of new leaders who could provide sound moral leadership without partisan politics.”
What we would make of such leaders, of course, remains open to question. They wouldn’t seem a good fit for the talk-show circuit, and isn’t that where we see leadership in action these days?