Budgetary Reform: Opportunity Knocks
The heads of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace and of Catholic Relief Services have criticized the new budget proposed by the U. S. House of Representatives because it cuts international assistance by over 13%, while reducing expenditures in other areas considerably less. The two Catholic leaders objected to “disproportionate” cuts in international aid in the following areas as morally “unjust”:
- Agricultural assistance for subsistence farmers
- Medicines for those afflicted by HIV/AIDS
- Vaccines for preventable diseases
- Assistance to orphans and vulnerable children
- Disaster assistance in places like Haiti
- Peacekeeping to protect innocent civilians in troubled areas such as Sudan and the Congo
- Support to migrants and refugees fleeing conflict or persecution in nations such as Iraq
What goes unaddressed in these criticisms is the question of whether all of these concerns are really the responsibility of government in general, or of the United States government in particular. The same question could be asked about far more—and more expensive—government programs which are purely domestic in character, but which have not yet been seriously threatened because they affect voters. Economic trends suggest their time is coming.
If a government has great wealth and great power, it is only natural to ask how this power and wealth can best be used. But nowadays it seems less natural to ask whether the government should really be so powerful or so rich. Catholic leaders, who ought to have charity (which is in most ways the opposite of government-mandated programs) as their first concern, have in my lifetime been characterized by an almost wholesale inability to think outside the Statist box when it comes solving human problems.
One typical result is a bloated government which encroaches ever more upon the rights and liberties of both citizens and other institutions, such as the Church (and which, by the simple fact that it pays millions of employees through tax revenue, significantly reduces the pool of those who can be engaged in wealth-producing activities). Another result is tremendous programmatic inefficiency, a hallmark of government bureaucracy. A third is the development of programs with little “on the ground” input, programs which seldom accomplish what they intend, and which may actually prevent more salutary adjustments to real circumstances by seeking to maintain a status quo which is unworkable in the long term.
Those issues which require military power are more properly placed in the hands of government, of course, but even here any government must seriously question how much responsibility it has for those who are outside its jurisdiction. As economic power shifts in the world, and military power shifts with it, the United States will clearly play a smaller role outside its own borders. It would not be inconsistent for Catholics to argue that this shift might well bring as much good as harm, or even more.
This, of course, is an open question. But what ought not any longer to be an open question is whether, in general, we should reduce the size and scope of those governments which are among the more powerful throughout the world. The history of the last several hundred years is a history of ever-increasing growth in the power of the secular state at the expense of all other institutions. This has led to both an impoverishment of culture and a reduction of human initiative, and above all a progressive ceding by the Church to the State of precisely the kinds of activities which are most likely to make the Church an integral and even foundational part of the larger social order.
Another result of the unremitting focus on the State, then, is that the Church herself has become emasculated. Too often she looks to Big Brother to solve problems that are best solved by the direct generosity of Catholics and other Christians, organized with few sinecures and little waste through their own local and regional structures. And in the process of giving up her immense direct social influence through works of charity, she is perceived increasingly as a social outsider, not the font and teacher of a viable way of life but merely a proponent of an irrelevant point of view.
Put another way, St. Paul never relied on the Empire to provide for those communities which were in need among the churches he founded and served.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not among those who think budgetary decisions are easy to make, or that relatively stable and wealthy societies should not seek effective ways to help societies which are suffering either political instability or poverty or both. There is immense room for healthy debate and discussion on how to accomplish this very worthy end. What troubles me is simply the reflexive assumption that government—that is, the State—bears supreme responsibility for all things and so must be brought into play to solve every problem. I regard this reflexive assumption as extremely dangerous. I have trouble figuring out how anyone with eyes cannot see these dangers. In other words, I am insisting that we must introduce into our considerations the one essential concern that our Catholic leaders never seem to address.
Without minimizing the potential pain and temporary dislocation, the tightening of the belt for governments everywhere is an exceedingly important opportunity for those, especially in the Church, who seek—or ought to seek—a more balanced social order. In such a social order, a great many things would be left to the creativity of both individual members of society and the various intermediary institutions which—absent an all-encompassing State—they naturally seek to form. In particular, anyone who would welcome an increase in respect and authority for the Church ought to be advocating that the Church learn once again to take care of her own members better than the State cares for its own citizens. This is a care that, from the heart of the Church, will also flow out into the larger community as the Church grows in strength, a strength which will come in part through practice.
Ultimately, if the moral high ground consists in demanding that the State do what we all ought to be doing ourselves, or that the State do what another institution or the Church herself could do better, then the moral high ground is exceedingly low indeed. Very likely it consists of quicksand. Part of that quicksand is an endless funding of an inept, incompetent and exceedingly wasteful political order.
For many reasons—all of them good—the Church needs to learn to lead again. There is more to charity than politics, more to service than seeking to control the pointing of the wayward pinky finger at the end of the secular arm. In our present circumstances, I might be happier if we Catholics ignored the secular power as much as possible. And I would certainly be happier if, whenever the secular power shrinks and leaves a vacuum, the Church and her members would simply step in and fill it with deeds born of love—rather than insisting as loudly as possible that the State should neither shrink nor retreat in any way.
In modern States, which almost without exception tend toward totalitarianism, very few opportunities arise to reverse the baneful impact of unbridled secular power. But one of the opportunities most to be expected arises precisely from the fact that the State must always live off of wealth that it cannot itself produce. Thus did opportunity knock in the Soviet Union when Communism collapsed under its own weight in the late 20th century. And thus, for every secularist Western state with a budget crisis, opportunity is knocking now.
Next in Series: The Question of Government Size and Scope
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Posted by: FredC -
Aug. 03, 2011 8:10 PM ET USA
To keep their jobs, government "charity" workers need the poor. They have a disincentive to bring people out of poverty. Volunteer "charity" workers would be delighted to bring everyone out of poverty.
Posted by: Cornelius -
Aug. 02, 2011 12:47 PM ET USA
A deplorable, vicious essay. Just kidding. You're not very good on liturgy, Dr. Mirus, but you're "spot on" on these prudential matters. I think this document is just another bleat from the unreconstructed Stalinists on the USCCB staff - bah, away with them.
Posted by: Howard6284 -
Aug. 02, 2011 6:20 AM ET USA
Posted by: tonydecker513018861 -
Aug. 02, 2011 12:56 AM ET USA
I Agree. Even among so called "Conservatives" the most common answer to a problem always comes from the government. Then we often wonder where all this government bureaucracy came from. We forget that our most direct responsibilities lie with those who are closest to us. So we, as individuals, are first responsible for our family. Then we are responsible for the welfare of our city. Then state, then region, then country, and so on. We must relearn the concept of subsidiarity.
Posted by: JP810 -
Aug. 02, 2011 12:08 AM ET USA
Well put Jeff!! I sincerely hope and pray our Church leaders will set aside their liberal views and allow common sense to rule the day as our Apostles sure had! I am so sick of hearing how our Church leaders think they have all the answers!
Posted by: jimgrum697380 -
Aug. 01, 2011 9:00 PM ET USA
Very good points. Politically correct points including concerns about global warming were also expressed by the USCCB. If these leaders could be as vigilant and vociferous in keeping their own house in order who knows what great things might be accomplished? Too bad that $2,000,000,000.00 got away during all those pesky court cases. It might have come in handy to help offset the budgetary shortfalls. Our nation and our Church leaders need prayers more than they do money. Let's get to work.