Parish Nurse or Government Welfare Worker?

By Camille Giglio

What some have even called a 'preferential option" for the poor, does not free us from the need to prudently and wisely consider the most appropriate ways in which this obligation is to be carried out. we do well to reject the confusion that equates a preferential option for the poor with a preferential option for the state.”

Rev. Robt, Sirico, Detroit News, 12-20-1992.
The Church: Lobbyist for the welfare State.

"For the first time churches have become aware that they actually have the potential to be communities of health," says Granger Westberg of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center.
Last Acts Campaign to Improve End-of-Life Care, 1998.

The Parish Nurse Program was the brain-child of Chicago based Lutheran Minister, Granger Westberg. Early in his ministry which began in the mid 1950’s, he accepted assignment as a hospital chaplain and began to perceive a need for both hospitals and church ministries to form a sort of wholistic healing partnership ministering to the whole person - mind, body and spirit.

During his hospital chaplaincy and later while on fact-finding tours in third world countries, he observed that patient/doctor relationships were missing an important element of communication.

This brought him to the conclusion that churches, along with ministering to the soul should develop an expanded ministry to the physical and mental needs of parishioners. In other words, creating health clinics within the parish context which would act as a type of preventive health care service.

In his observations he saw that:

  1. Patients often had social and emotional problems underlying the physical ills which they needed to share with an understanding and compassionate person. The doctors were too busy for this.
  2. Parishioners were not comfortable speaking with their ministers about their daily concerns, aches and pains.
  3. Patients felt more at ease speaking with women, especially nurses.
  4. What if Nurses could be established within parishes thereby creating physical and emotional healing centers right along with the Pastor’s spiritual healing?

And, so, began a life long mission for Pastor Westberg creating parish nurse training programs within the college setting.

This concept was well received within many Christian church circles but received its greatest promotion during the 1990’s when President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, became involved with the promotion of universal health care.

By the late 1990‘s the concept of establishing health clinics within the church setting was further expanded by the passage of legislation authored by then U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, known as the Faith Based Initiative. This initiative authorized non-profits, which included churches, to receive federal tax funding for partnering with the government to provide health clinic services to the general community.

Parish nursing, funded mainly with private Foundation grants, became eligible for tax funded grants. California, however, resisted what its legislators saw as mixing church and state until a Southern California Republican legislator succeeded in obtaining passage of a bill that mandated California’s participation in funding non-profit and church based government welfare

In 1998, while still a state Senator, Diane Watson,(later a U.S. Congresswoman) Chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, penned a memo sent out to all interested state and local school and community groups informing them of their opportunity to form partnerships with the state in delivering health services through establishment of health clinics which could be used to gain new applicants for the newly formed Healthy Families Program.

An interesting sidelight to creation of the Healthy Families Program was the involvement of Hellan Roth Dowden, state employee and former Director of California’s Planned Parenthood, as well as numerous other Feminist organizations and unions such as the SEIU. On Watson’s memo Dowden is listed as the contact person for Healthy Families. Her current associations and activities can be found by googling her name.

The memo explained just how community organization volunteers could qualify to become Applicant Assisters and be eligible to receive the $50.00 fee (increased from the previous $25.00 fee) for successfully completed applications for Healthy Families.

Volunteers working in a church setting assisting parishioners to complete Healthy Family applications also qualified to receive this fee. The Assister could either receive the fee or designate her church to receive the fee.

What began as perhaps a very well meaning and compassionate idea of ministering to the whole person, with the Good Samaritan as the prototype, has now assumed the mantle of the big government promotion to burrow into the churches accessing the unsuspecting faithful in the pews for a new source of welfare applicants. And, a nurse shall lead them.

Literature on the Parish Nurse Program indicates that this Parish Nurse person need not be an actual registered nurse although she often times is. If the Parish Nurse is not an actual nurse she must develop a corp of volunteer registered nurses for programs such as blood pressure screenings, vaccinations and other actual medical type services the parish nurse might want to provide that, by law, require a nurse or a doctor.

The foremost qualification for this position is a compassionate disposition, an ability to gain the confidence of parishioners, the time to spend listening to people recite their litanies of mental, emotional, financial and physical woes and, most importantly the ability to reach out and partner with a wide variety of community service provider organizations to which the parish nurse can direct the parishioner for assistance.

The position of Parish Nurse is considered so vital to the well being of the individual within the church that she is given a position of prominence within the parish equating her position with that of the Pastor.

Funding to carry out this program is often provided initially by an outside, non parish, non governmental funding source from which the parish nurse may take a remittance. Often she chooses not to. At some point the outside funding source expires and it becomes necessary for the parish to come up with the funding even to the point of applying for government assistance to continue what has now become a permanent entity within that parish. The parish has now become a partner with the state for the delivery of non religious, humanistic social services.

In 1992, this move toward encouraging church leaders to advocate for government funded welfare and health care programs within churches caused the Reverend Robert A Sirico, Director of the Acton Institute, to write an editorial entitled The Church: Lobbyist for the Welfare State, published in the Detroit News for December 20.

The editorial stated, in part:

“Polls indicate that there is a preference among Americans for social programs to promote self-sufficiency, not dependency. Yet, when Michigan Gov. John Engler last year acted to fulfill his campaign promise to reduce the size of government and proceeded to eliminate 80,000 able-bodied general assistance recipients from the roll, his most vocal critics were welfare advocacy groups headed by prominent mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic religious leaders.

It would be another matter altogether if these governmental transfer payments were actually effective in ameliorating poverty and minimizing crime. Yet, just about everyone, regardless of political stripe, seems to agree there is a crisis in the welfare system and that the massive welfare state doesn't work - just about everyone, that is, except perhaps a few ill-tutored theologians.

With all the use of that terribly obscure and unnecessarily narrow phrase ‘family values’ in this past election season, perhaps the real issue we are attempting to get at is functional values or how we go about fostering a society whose members learn how to function well and productively.

There is a growing body of literature indicating that governmental programs, owing to their political nature, instill a sense of dependency in those they are designed to help. They create the very situations they profess to cure. With the failure of socialism in central Europe and the intellectual and moral bankruptcy this represents for Marxism, the current debate shifts to the moral legitimacy and practical effectiveness of the welfare state. The welfare state fails in its objectives for the same reason that socialism failed in its - a rejection of sound economic thinking. The key practical problem with the welfare state is the presupposition that it can observe all social problems and needs, and is able to regulate the necessary sectors of society in such a way as to best meet those needs. But no one group of planners, no matter how wise and sensitive to human needs they may be, can see the deepest needs of the human soul, which frequently are at the root of economic problems.

The specific problem this confusion presents to the church is that it disintegrates charity into an entitlement and collapses love into justice. If all relations are based merely on state-enforced justice, what becomes of the virtue of love? Especially when viewed from a religious perspective, the disadvantages of an expansive welfare state are sadly apparent. Promoting the government as the resource of first resort lessens the incentive of people in the pews to become personally involved in needed projects and relegates the church to the role of lobbyist.

To the extent that the church functions as a lobbyist, rather than itself clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and performing the other traditional acts of charity, the church loses a rich source of its own spiritual nourishment. This has, in turn, led to a secularizing of the social assistance systems (schools, hospitals, orphanages, health clinics). This development minimizes the moral influence of religious mediating institutions which are so critical in helping to stabilize troubled families.”

I recently interviewed a parish nurse who had been featured in the Oakland Diocese Newspaper. She had attended a parish nurse training program in her former state of Wisconsin but could not find a position there. She later moved to her current location and recently found acceptance as a Parish Nurse in her own parish in Antioch, California.

She shared her enthusiasm for her work in a community consisting in large part of recent immigrant parishioners of low income and somewhat poor health and nutrition. Her parish and Pastor are well recognized for partnership activities with a community organizing group entitled Contra Costa Interfaith supporting Community Organization - CCISCO which is itself a partner with a statewide community organizing lobby group called PICO - Pacific Institute for Community Organizing. These groups along with SEIU and the California Nurses as well as Planned Parenthood, have spearheaded lobby days in Sacramento to advance the cause of universal health care.

I asked this Parish Nurse if she refers parishioners to the Healthy Families program? She said yes. She, further, affirmed that referrals to Planned Parenthood were also included in those references. I then asked her why a Catholic Church would be referring its parishioners to an organization that promoted abortion and family planning which are in opposition to the Catholic Faith teaching? At that point her whole demeanor changed. She stated that she merely made referrals to those agencies most appropriate for type of service needed by the parishioner. It was not her responsibility as to what services the parishioner actually accepted.

Several years ago a parish in Concord, California, also within the Oakland Diocese provided assistance to the county health department in the refurbishing of an old van to be used as a mobile medical services van for residents of the Monument Corridor. This area is heavily populated with legal and illegal residents. Members of the Concord Parish saw this van as a way to obtain needed health services unobtainable any other way. This Van parked at a local shopping center and at various neighborhood grade schools to deliver health care and referrals. People volunteered to drive patients to referral sites if necessary. Planned Parenthood was one of the referral organizations.

When I inquired about the morality of a Catholic Parish facilitating its parishioners attendance at abortion and family planning programs I was told that providing services to needy people was the first and foremost concern. Abortion was not their problem.

Genesis chapter 3 contains the story of how the devil seduced Eve into eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. He didn’t suggest that God was lying about the fruit. He didn’t suggest she should ignore God’s warning. He merely pointed out the advantages to her of consuming this fruit. The opportunities it would present to her to gain knowledge which God didn’t want her to have. You know the rest of the story. Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge assuming to herself the right to make her own decisions without outside guidance. Chapter 3 is entitled: The Fall of Man.

So, too, the seducer of the mind, the Fallen Angel, Lucifer, the Community Organizer, has approached the churches to suggest that there is nothing wrong with taking the money from the government. The work of the government is good. Take the previously forbidden money and discover what insights for good and evil it brings to the receiver? It provides social justice to the worker, the poor, the underserved. The church should be able to participate in this work of human mercy and reap the rewards of recognition and acclaim.

Does your church have a Parish Nurse?

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