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Federal Social Programs and Catholic Principles

By Peter Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 05, 2005

One of the fundamental differences between the “liberal” and “conservative” mentalities, at least in the United States, is the penchant of one for glorifying social programs and the other for glorifying capitalism and a free market system. Over the decades, but particularly today, politicians on both sides court the Catholic vote.

The Catholic who votes liberal because of the social programs that are the legacy of 60-plus years of American socialization does so out of a sense of obligation. The argument is that the welfare system and other similar systems promoting social equality are more in line with Catholic teaching—on the grounds that we, as a society, are obligated to consider the poorest of the poor before we consider ourselves. They believe the federal government to be the best (though not necessarily the only) vehicle for accomplishing these social goals.

The Catholic who votes a conservative ticket in order to quash these programs also does so out of a sense of obligation. He believes several things, listed here in order from ethical to preferential. First, he believes in the self-determination of man—that in both giving and receiving the individual should be able to exercise a freedom of conscience that is compatible with his beliefs. Second, he believes in the principle of subsidiarity; that which is possible to do on a local level should be done on a local level. Third, he believes that he knows better how to dispose of his money than does the federal government.

Conservatives paint left-leaning liberals as being socialist, teetering on the edge of advocating a system that has led to outright socialism (and economic problems of significance) in Europe. Liberals paint conservatives as being unconcerned with the plight of the poor.

The question is: which group is right?

Pope John Paul II wrote a considerable amount against socialism and in favor of individual freedom. But at the same time, he also spoke of the responsibility of the state to be mindful of the poor and less privileged.

However, earlier than that Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum helped to establish the blueprint which has been largely followed by his successors. He commented, “It is not right for either the citizen or the family to be absorbed by the state; it is proper that the individual and the family should be permitted to retain their freedom of action, so far as this is possible without jeopardizing the common good.”

Those who follow politics in the United States know that our country, while still far from being a socialist state, has developed alarming socialist tendencies. One of the most egregious examples of the citizen or family being absorbed by the state is the federal welfare system, which is to a large degree emblematic of the problems behind our federal social systems. For the sake of brevity, in this article I’ll focus on it as my primary example and allow the reader to apply the expressed principles to other federal social programs.

I believe that our federal welfare system violates Catholic principles on two central points. First, it diminishes the individual citizen’s right to exercise discretion in charitable giving according to his conscience. This is true both because he may find the federal programs to which he is contributing immoral, and also from a financial standpoint. Second, it violates the principle of subsidiarity because it deprives particular communities of dealing with their poor in a case-by-case manner.

In a piece titled Subsidiarity at Work: a Catholic’s Vision of Social Policy, Senator Rick Santorum points out the progress that has been made in the past two decades to reform the welfare system in the United States. In advocating further change, Santorum points out the negative effect of a welfare state that does not sufficiently respect subsidiarity by quoting John Paul II in Centesimus Annus:

“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than concern for their clients…. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need.”

The current welfare system is a self-perpetuating problem that regards the poor purely from an economic standpoint. It is a system that cannot hope to treat the person as a unique individual in order to genuinely encourage self-reliance or self-determination. By providing a wide safety net that does not discriminate in a meaningful manner, it removes the “effect” in “cause and effect” and therefore disintegrates accountability.

I am not taking the perspective that the federal government should have no involvement in helping the poor – nor do I suggest that it should surrender the necessity of apportioning some tax dollars expressly for that purpose. The argument could definitely be made in favor of the federal government possessing the ability to assist in dealing with multi-state national disasters that cripple local abilities—as is the case with Hurricane Katrina. In this case it is difficult, if not impossible, to provide timely aid to the poor without federal involvement.

However, the Church makes a point of the rights of the individual citizen and family because it knows that decisions made closer to home are likely to value the person more, and are therefore more likely to be ethical and appropriate decisions. When it comes to helping the poor, this is particularly true. An organization such as the Saint Vincent de Paul society operates much more effectively than does the federal system in providing necessary income and encouraging personal growth and development. It treats both the symptoms and the causes of poverty in a manner impossible at the federal level. For this reason, Catholic social teaching traditionally holds that building a strong society requires that responsibility for the care of the poor be given primarily to private charitable organizations and secondarily to local government.

There is another argument to consider: without the federalization of charitable giving to the poor, most people would not exercise their freedom in the proper manner. This means that left to our own devices, we will be selfish with our money and not assist the poor.

I agree that this might be a concern. One of the foremost problems with our citizenry is that it regards freedom as the power of self-determination (purely and simply) rather than the power to do the will of God. This is logical to a certain extent: despite an undoubted faith in God, our founding fathers left the legacy of a constitution that either favors an Enlightenment view of “freedom” and “liberty” or, at a minimum, expects citizens to know what these words mean. Inevitably, the constitution is a fairly good guide on how to build a decent government, but philosophically it cannot be looked to as a moral compass.

One could write books on the subject of which economic principles are more in line with Catholic teaching (and many have been written). My goal is to point out that the Kennedys and Kerrys of this world do not successfully represent a socialist form of government (for that is what it is) as being more in line with authentic Catholic teaching. The fact of the matter is that many of our country’s social systems do not pass the litmus test for approval by Catholics, and many more can be properly debated from either perspective as we struggle to define the common good in relationship to individual freedom and the principle of subsidiarity.

Ultimately, some social responsibilities may be best handled on a federal level, and some on a state or local level. Equally, there are some areas of the country in which a purely capitalist, free-market system may not be in the public’s best interests. Catholics of good will can certainly deliberate and support different policies. We live in a flawed society with flawed members. In principle a free-market economy that values subsidiarity offers the best chance for meaningful personal liberties exercised in an ethical manner. Moreover, it would be proper to state that the Church, though careful not to make policy judgments except in extreme circumstances, favors this perspective as well.

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