Archbishop William Levada, the Roman Catholic ordinary of San Francisco, and the city’s leftist mayor, Willie Brown, squared off last February, and though the debate may continue over who drew more blood, it’s clear who was left staggering at the bell. Archbishop Levada sought an exemption for his diocese from San Francisco’s new ordinance (which takes effect next month) requiring organizations and businesses contracted by the city to provide employees’ “domestic partners” with benefits equal to those provided employees’ spouses.

Our Sunday Visitor, in attempting to defend Archbishop Levada, said the new ordinance bound organizations “doing business with the city,” whereas the San Francisco Examiner said it targeted “organizations receiving municipal funds.” For the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Francisco, “doing business with the city” means taking over five million dollars annually to run hospitals and other “social services.” Anyone scandalized by that figure should know that the Roman Catholic Church’s principal agency for dispensing social services in America, Catholic Charities, receives nearly three quarters of its operating budget from government coffers, rendering suspect such claims as “The Catholic Church is the single largest provider of social services to women” (Helen Alvare, National Council of Catholic Bishops) or “We are the largest provider of HIV housing and services on the West Coast” (Bob Nelson, Catholic Charities). Who, after all, is actually doing the providing? The Church or the State?

If the answer is unclear, it is because the relationship between the two has become more unholy than a “domestic partnership.” The Church in the modern world has grown so accustomed to taking the king’s shilling that, when it comes time to do the king’s bidding, even though it is clearly immoral, the most the faithful can hope for is a face-saving compromise. Complete capitulation is more often the result.

Which is exactly what happened to the 340,000 Catholics in San Francisco. Faced with the loss of five million dollars. Archbishop Levada gave up the threat of legal action (presumably based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, famous for overturning the sovereign State of Oregon’s laws against dope smoking) and caved in, saying “An employee may designate a legally domiciled member of the employee’s household as being eligible for spousal-equivalent benefits.” Then, to distract his flock from his semantics, he held a press conference announcing that he hoped to work with the city of San Francisco to achieve universal health care. Read: “If only we had socialized medicine in this country, I would not have to be in the difficult situation of defending the teachings of my Church.” Archbishop Levada expects his compromise will set the precedent for other dioceses that run afoul of the state’s laws. Perhaps. But for a prince of an institution that ought to be at odds with the modern state, it is an unusual claim.

In fact, Archbishop Levada’s eagerness to make peace with the state is a symptom of a deeper problem in the Church. In researching why, for example, certain Roman Catholic hospitals in America dispense artificial contraception at their pharmacies, I have been told by Church officials that Catholic health care is today faced with a “matter of survival.” Alas, to go to hell over a mere matter of markets. One is reminded of Screwtape lamenting the poor quality of souls coming into Hell these days: “The municipal authority with Graft sauce” but lacking the least hint of the “brutal avarice such as delighted one of the great tycoons of the last century,” or the “lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers” who had “trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements” but are wholly without any trace of “defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust.”

It bears mention that Archbishop Levada did more than merely miss a chance to set his Church apart from the world. He missed a chance to defend marriage and the family. He might, for example, have dismissed the city’s new ordinance by succinctly declaring that his diocese would not knowingly employ any “domestic partners” (hetero, homo, or otherwise), but that he would use this opportunity to clean his stables just the same. He might also have defended the many small—presumably family-owned —businesses in San Francisco, for which doing business with the city truly is a question of survival. How are they to weather the additional expense of insuring a profligate community—its identifying behavior and attendant health risks aside—that abuses drugs at twice the rate of the general population?

There are legitimate reasons for the Church’s involvement in Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Natural Law, alone, requires that societies look after their wretched. In the end, however, each wretched person with whom the Church comes in contact is a soul to be saved. That way is narrow, difficult, and unpopular with the world. A Church unwilling to tread that path cannot hope to light the way for others.