LEVITTOWN, Pa. — From at least as early as the beginning of the 19th century, Catholic religious orders, churches, and individuals were providing charitable help to those in need in the newly formed United States of America and its territories.

State and local governments were providing various degrees of funding to such efforts because they saw that the projects served the whole community.

In his 2009 book "Faith. Works. Wonders," Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, currently director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans and president from 1992 to 2001 of Catholic Charities USA, cites an 1804 letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Ursuline sisters of New Orleans. In the letter Jefferson assured the sisters of his patronage and protection of their ongoing charitable work despite the fact that the territory of Louisiana was no longer part of Catholic France.

Public approval, appreciation and sometimes funding of religiously based charities has continued to this day, though varying widely from region to region and historical eras.

In 2001, soon after he was inaugurated, President George W. Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to encourage public-private partnerships.

The office -- which continues under President Barack Obama as the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- does not itself fund charities, but promotes efforts such as micro-loan programs with the Small Business Administration and children's summer feeding programs in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

David O'Brien, professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton in Ohio, noted that through the 19th century, charitable work was mainly the province of religious orders, some independent parishes and heroic individuals who drew others into their work.

State and local governments helped support efforts such as hospitals, soup kitchens, and orphanages in an attempt to fight (address) "the ongoing problem of the urban poor."

Around the turn of the 20th century came what he called the "organized charity movement," which sought to avoid duplication of poverty-fighting efforts while responding to obvious needs. This also was the era of the first professional social workers, and the foundation in 1910 of Catholic Charities USA, which continues as an association of independent agencies organized mainly at the diocesan level.

Sectarian charities of various denominations began to be funded in part by city and local governments as communities sought to attack the root causes of poverty.

During World War I, the U.S. Catholic bishops established the National Catholic War Council to oversee war-related activities in the church; address pastoral, social, charitable and public policy concerns; and obtain government recognition for war work.

"This recognition gave Catholic societies equal status with non-Catholic groups that had been traditionally designated by the government as the only private agencies to be involved in governmental welfare programs," according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia.

The council was later renamed the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the precursor to today's U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As World War I drew to a close, the federal government organized a national campaign to help veterans, O'Brien told Catholic News Service, and this developed into the United Way and Community Chest movements, which also cooperated with Catholic and other religious charities and shared in government funding.

The Great Depression and the New Deal saw further growth in public-private cooperation, which blossomed again in the 1950s and 1960s with the War on Poverty and the vision of the Great Society.

Generally speaking the parameters of the government aid required only that charitable help be given on a nonsectarian basis and without proselytizing.

Questions arose about whether agencies could use membership in their faith group for hiring preferences, especially in leadership and board positions; generally it was determined that leadership could be reserved to membership in a faith group and other hires limited to those willing to adhere to the broad goals of the charity.

In "Faith. Works. Wonders," Father Kammer wrote: "Since the late 1800s, the partnership that religious social service providers and other organizations have developed with cities, counties, states and the federal government involve regular contracting to care for vulnerable infants, protect children from abusive family situations, operate group homes for severely disabled adults, resettle refugees, provide training for the unemployed, and house elderly residents."

The largest fraction of funding for most Catholic Charities agencies now comes from local, state and federal government sources. Catholic Charities USA reported that in 2010 the nationwide network of diocesan agencies had revenues of about $4.5 billion, of which 60 percent -- about $2.6 billion -- was awarded by government entities.

"Governments are more likely to contract out social services to religious and other agencies that specialize in such services than to provide direct social services themselves," Father Kammer continued.

The priest, who spoke to CNS and provided excerpts from his book, noted that such an arrangement is "similar to the building of government ships and airplanes, done by major corporations, or medical research that is funded by government at university medical schools.

"In addition, in the social arena governments largely retain to themselves the direct functions of income support programs such as Social Security, unemployment compensation, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and Supplemental Security Income," he added.

"(Governments) also determine eligibility for income programs and benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid and Medicare," he wrote. "On a number of occasions, when social service arrangements between religious providers and governments have been challenged, the U.S. Supreme Court has sanctioned such social service contracts, distinguishing such programs from its much more restrictive rulings on public aid to religious elementary and secondary education."

In recent decades, there has been some erosion of the public-private partnership because of conflicts between perceived rights of individuals to particular services and the Catholic Church's conscientious choice to provide services only in accord with church teaching.

For example, in two states, Massachusetts and Illinois, Catholic agencies stopped providing adoption services because under laws recognizing same-sex union, the courts would have required them to place children for adoption with homosexual couples or single homosexual adults.

Other conflicts have surfaced in states wanting charities to limit services to those living legally in the United States. Provisions in a 2011 Alabama law would have, among other things, mandated criminal penalties for people who transport undocumented migrants, even to a doctor's appointment or to church for Mass or to receive help from a charitable agency. The law has been put on hold because of several lawsuits.

On July 6, lawyers from both sides asked a federal judge to reconsider the Alabama law based on a June 25 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld status checks in Arizona's tough immigration law but rejected the rest.

On the federal level, the U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services office was denied funding late last year to continue its outreach to foreign-born victims of human trafficking because MRS would not offer its clients referrals to the "full range of reproductive services," including abortion.