Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Get Ready to Pay Twice if You Want Change

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 18, 2011

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster has criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” program, which is designed to promote the development of local and volunteer initiatives. As Cameron has stated, “We know instinctively that the state is often too inhuman, monolithic, and clumsy to tackle our deepest social problems.”

But Archbishop Nichols, who supports some aspects of the program, is becoming concerned about the slashing of benefits to the poor: “It is not sufficient for the government, in its localism program, simply to step back from social need and say this is a local issue,” he said. “A government cannot simply cut expenditure, wash its hands of expenditure and expect that the slack will be taken up by greater voluntary activity,” he added. “The poorest are taking the biggest hit while at the same time you see huge bank bonuses and profits, and this is not right.”

I don’t know how sincere Cameron’s program is, whether it is a genuine turn toward subsidiarity or simply a way to cut spending. But Archbishop Nichols seems to overlook the fact that a certain amount of dislocation will have to be tolerated if Western societies are ever to escape from the extremely negative pattern of state-dependency which has developed over the past century. This is not an easy issue to resolve, but clearly it cannot be resolved by insisting that the government deal with everything until all problems are solved some other way.

I’d be far more comfortable with Archbishop Nichols’ comments had he identified a specific need that is no longer being filled by big government (as opposed to big society) and called upon Catholics to step in and fill the gap. Actually, “that the slack will be taken up by greater voluntary activity” is exactly what ought to happen, and Christians, at least, ought to be willing to sacrifice something to make it happen. There can be little question that poverty and unemployment can best be addressed on the local level, where those providing assistance can get to know those in need and engage them in creative personal solutions to their own problems.

Archbishop Nichols also alludes to something Pope Benedict XVI talked about in his great social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, namely the characteristic Western social dichotomy between market and state. The Archbishop is right to point out that there is fundamental injustice at work in a society which accords huge profits and bonuses to those in the financial sector without taking due account of the needs of those who are seriously disadvantaged. But Benedict pointed out that it is corrosive of society that the market, acting without solidarity, should amass great wealth and that the State, acting without solidarity, should seize that wealth and force its redistribution. The pattern is destructive to its very core.

Rather, the Pope said that all social operations—particularly business operations—must from the first be characterized by solidarity, in which the legitimate needs of all stakeholders are taken into account. Therefore, it would seem that instead of demanding State action here, Archbishop Nichols should be doing two things: First, he should gather Church leaders together to spearhead a varied effort to preach and teach solidarity, and to encourage it in practice in businesses throughout all dioceses; Second, he should personally make contact with those who are getting the huge profits and huge bonuses and work on establishing an appropriate charitable fund devoted to short-term help and long-term local economic initiatives.

Sooner or later, somebody has to start thinking—and flexing the muscles of his manhood—outside the Statist box, if we are ever again to have a rich, varied and healthy society composed of strong subsidiary communities. It ought to be obvious by now that the last thing we need is more whining about how the highest level of government isn’t solving all of our problems. In reality, the highest level of government never solved them anyway. I doubt there has ever been a Statist program which has resulted in long-term decreasing poverty and dependency. To the contrary, such programs mostly tend to salve our consciences by creating the illusion that something has been “taken care of” when it really hasn’t.

We need to think hard about these issues sooner rather than later. The United Kingdom, apparently, has an opportunity just now, an opportunity that the Catholic Church should be in the forefront of seizing. The Church is never at her best which she is claiming to help people by making their case to government. She is at her best when she is claiming to help people by helping them.

I’ve said before that Catholics need to be ready to pay double for social improvement just like they do for education in the United States. There may be a time when we have to pay taxes we’ve grown unfortunately accustomed to paying while at the same time once again stepping up the activity of our own social organizations with our own resources. At least we ought to hope for such a time and we need to get used to such sacrifices.

Fair? Perhaps not. But that’s how Christian societies—which are by nature caring societies—get built.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: Tex132 - Apr. 19, 2011 5:39 PM ET USA

    Amen! I'm in a lot of discussions about politics these days. People say the welfare state should be severely cut back. I agree but not to the point where people like me who payed FICA on my paychecks for 44 years should no longer get our disability checks. People looking to the government to save them has become a habit that has never worked and will never work. Only work and Faith in God will get us to where we need to be.