If Church charities are willing to accept money from the government, should they object when required to abide by government rules on employment discrimination?

That question lies at the heart of the most recent church/state debate, in Colorado. While signaling new front lines in the battle over Catholic identity, it is also a welcome opportunity for Catholics to take a step back and remember why we're involved in social services in the first place.

In Colorado, a new bill would prohibit religious charities from considering a candidate's religious affiliation or lifestyle, no matter how inconsonant with the organization's message, in hiring decisions (see Page 4).

Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput has said he would rather stop taking government money for Catholic Charities than accept the law's requirements. That would mean, naturally, a significant cutting of the agency's charitable services.

There are two separate issues at stake. One is whether the Church should partner at all with the government on providing social services. We argue yes.

First, it's good social policy. Private charities have been shown to do more with less than government agencies. Second, government money is held in public trust, comes from taxpayers (25 percent of whom are Catholic) and is designated for the common good. Catholic agencies should put their competencies to the service of the public good.

Once we've agreed to seek such partnerships, the other issue arises: Should Church agencies really be that picky about strings attached to public funding? Again, we argue yes.

The mission of Catholic social services is not simply to feed, clothe and shelter the maximum number of people.

Catholic agencies should stand out. First, their mission springs from the Gospel mandate to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, because in those who have needs, Catholics see Christ suffering. Second, how they execute that mission should be consonant with the broader body of Church teaching on moral and social justice issues. Third, and as a consequence, Catholic social service recognizes that feeding the hungry is much more than simply handing someone a plate of food -- it involves an affirmation of the Christ-infused human dignity of the recipient, no matter how down-and-out, and no matter how difficult to perceive.

Though the Vatican usually shies away from involvement in local Church politics, Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, president of the Vatican's aid-coordinating agency, threw his support behind Archbishop Chaput when asked about the case during a recent press conference.

Cardinal Cordes framed the issue as "a great contemporary problem" for Catholic charities. While government funding allows Church agencies to carry out their work on a broader scale, he said, "this carries a risk that the spirit of a Catholic agency can become secularized."

The solution? Cardinal Cordes announced plans to sponsor a weeklong retreat, led by the preacher of the Pontifical Household, in early June in Mexico for diocesan charity directors from the Americas.

The first step, as it must be, is to turn inward to the source of Catholic identity.