Ethics & Public Policy Center

Philadelphia and the New “Tolerance”

Published in First Things on October 26, 2020


Philadelphia is a tough place. It’s the home of the famously overserved football fans who, as a special Christmas treat several decades ago, pelted their stadium’s Santa Claus with snowballs. It’s also the home of outstanding universities, medical centers, and major corporations—all oddly underappreciated. Philadelphia gets no respect. Squeezed between the power centers of New York and Washington, it can seem, to a newcomer, like the City of Unbrotherly Shove. The air itself has calluses from so many different ethnicities competing to breathe it. Philadelphia was a major port of entry for the tidal wave of immigration in the 19th century. Many of the immigrants were poor Irish, Poles, Italians, and other Romish aliens. The Know Nothing reaction was ugly, and it led to some of the worst anti-Catholic violence in American history.

But for those willing to drill beneath its hard shell, the city’s original DNA tells a great American story. E. Digby Baltzell captured it when he compared the Puritan intolerance of colonial Boston with Philadelphia’s Quaker spirit. With the exception of Maryland (which they soon lost), Catholics were welcome nowhere in the early colonies. But in Pennsylvania they were, if not “welcome,” at least tolerated. And that tolerance, over time, bore very good fruit.

Unhindered, the Church in Philadelphia grew rapidly into a huge network of medical, educational, and social services open to the general public. By 2016, said a University of Pennsylvania report, the economic halo effect of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and related Catholic entities—i.e., their positive economic impact on metro Philadelphia—amounted to $4.2 billion annually. The City of Philadelphia’s General Fund budget for the same year was $4 billion. The UPenn report did not monetize the long-term, and ultimately more important, human value of the social services provided by the Church, like food banks, after-school care, immigration counseling, homeless shelters, inner-city Catholic schools, and foster care.

Philadelphia has always had a large number of children in need of foster care. Archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS) worked with the city for decades to place such children in safe and welcoming homes. Like other foster care services, CSS conducts in-home studies to ensure the reliability of foster parents. CSS is highly regarded for the quality of its services, which it operates as part of its Catholic mission. Thus, it does not do in-home studies that endorse placing a child with a same-sex foster couple. Instead, it refers same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples to one of the many other capable agencies that would be a better fit. Historically, no one has suffered because of CSS operating principles—quite the contrary; which is why the city has always valued and relied on CSS.

That changed in 2018, when the city abruptly refused to renew its partnership with CSS, based on potential CSS “discrimination” against same-sex couples. No offense against any specific person or persons had occurred. No specific case or failure of service had triggered the city’s action. The decision was purely ideological; a redefinition of acceptable tolerance to exclude certain now-intolerable convictions. In talks with city staff about the decision, said CSS sources, the hostility of senior city leadership to Catholic beliefs about marriage, family, and sexual morality was palpable. CSS approached the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to secure legal counsel, and aggrieved CSS foster parents sued the city. The case will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in early November.

A vast amount of ink has been spilled in recent years arguing for “diversity” and “tolerance” in American society. Some of these arguments are admirable and sincere. Some are cynical and vindictive. The latter applies in Philadelphia. Three years ago, CSS served 130 families superbly with a staff of ten. Today, despite the city’s punitive actions, 18 foster families have stayed with CSS, which can now afford only one staffer. The burden of the city’s trumpeted concern for equity and tolerance is being borne by real children who need safe and healthy foster homes; good foster parents eager to serve; and an excellent social service ministry blackballed simply because of the religious convictions that inspire and guide it.

Baltzell, that keen scholar of America’s Protestant establishment, wrote perceptively of the striking differences between “Puritan Boston” and “Quaker Philadelphia.” But of course, that was before today’s revisionist “tolerance,” and the new and rather nastier Puritans who now run Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate in Constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame. He writes from Philadelphia.

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