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Catholic Culture Podcasts

When Bishops Look Too Often to the State

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 22, 2010

I was somewhat surprised by the bitterness of most of the Sound Off! comments on the U.S. bishops’ recent request to extend unemployment benefits. It’s clear that many Catholics are out of patience with the continuous lobbying of the American bishops for their preferred socio-economic objectives. This lobbying is particularly annoying to conservatives, because the American bishops tend to be politically liberal. Still, before we look carefully at the principles which ought to be brought into play here, I believe some cautions are in order.

Some Necessary Perspective

First, I notice that there has been a tendency for some to denounce the bishops as socialists, and it is necessary to insist that Catholics be very careful of their use of this term. In the interests of truth they ought not to accuse the bishops of advocating socialism whenever they advocate greater government benefits for those in need. True socialism is the ownership of the means of production by the State in the name of the people, which destroys both freedom and productivity in a single step, and although there have been government takeovers of some companies under extreme circumstances in the United States, as a general rule the means of production are privately owned. The bishops have never advocated the contrary.

No, the real debate is over which economic policies will best meet the twin goals of stimulating the production of wealth and preventing the marginalization of those who fall behind in the basic economic culture we currently have. Some people favor more government regulation, higher taxes, and greater benefits to those who are disadvantaged; some favor less. On any particular issue, this is a legitimate debate, and it is not at all necessary to resort to inaccurate name-calling to engage in this debate, as if the bishops are not at least attempting to give voice to Catholic principles. As always, we need to approach this discussion as Catholics and not as “conservatives” or “liberals”. Of course this goes for the bishops as well as their critics.

Second, conservative Catholics need to recognize that it is not wrong in Catholic social theory to engage government in fostering the economic common good. It is true that certain values tend to be lost when the government’s role as personal caretaker increases; I’ll return to those values in a moment. But there are certainly situations in which the best way to provide relief for large numbers of people experiencing significant problems is through government action. Moreover, a government which cannot provide relief to groups of citizens adversely affected by some crisis would be rightly regarded as an ineffective government, a government which is relatively useless when the chips are down. If we take a natural disaster as an example, every Catholic ought to be able to see that there are cases in which a government’s unwillingness or inability to respond to the pressing needs of those affected is to be faulted, not praised.

Third, Catholics who generally oppose the provision of government benefits to those in need, at least beyond a certain very basic point, must clearly understand that this principled opposition does not absolve them from their responsibility as Christians to come to the aid of the needy themselves, and indeed to work for other kinds of constructive and charitable programs among the churches and in the private sector as alternatives to government largesse. It is simply not possible to be a Catholic while embracing a morally-deficient conservatism, a conservatism which provides vigorously for private enterprise without also providing vigorously for solidarity in business and for private charity as well. I do not suggest that our Sound Off! contributors are guilty of this; in fact, I think it unlikely. Nonetheless, it is a critical point.

In summary, then, the human person ought to make a sincere effort to direct all social institutions toward the common good. This means that he will use individual effort, private associations, businesses, schools, the arts, churches and, yes, government to pursue a broad range of aims, according to the needs of the people in question and the opportunities and special genius of each institution. Discussion and debate about the best way to orchestrate these diverse instruments of human culture are as inevitable as they are normal and healthy. Even within the broad principles of Catholic social teaching, significant differences in approach, emphasis and policy are to be expected. Moreover, perfection is not possible in this world, so we are always dealing with the art of the possible, which is itself subject to legitimate disagreement.

Two Sources of Frustration

Now, having said this much, it is necessary also to admit a certain legitimate frustration with the American bishops which (unfortunately) sometimes expresses itself in overheated language. This frustration stems, I think, from two fundamental problems. The first and simpler problem is that the bishops have made such a mess of their primary responsibilities over the past fifty years (which responsibilities are internal to the Church herself, and not to the larger social order) that good Catholic laymen are understandably put off when their shepherds persist in trying to orchestrate affairs which are not only best left to the laity, but which belong to the laity according to Catholic social teaching itself. There is a fine line between the bishops speaking for the Catholic community on critical moral issues and the bishops usurping the proper role of the laity in crafting policy, lobbying and governing. Tolerance for the crossing of this line is waning rapidly.

The second problem is that in recent history the American bishops have tended to represent only one side of a many-sided political debate and, worse, it is a side which frequently, and perhaps even consistently, appears to misunderstand at least two key principles of Catholic social teaching, as we shall see. In fact, the American bishops—like their counterparts throughout the West—have more often than not appeared to take for granted a world in which the only strong institution is the State. Consequently, they seem almost reflexively to look to government for the solution to just about everything. This is a great marvel, for such a stance is actually contrary to their own best interests as leaders of the Church. Not only does it tend to weaken the Church (it strengthens bishops only insofar as they succeed in becoming political “players”), but it tends to concentrate ever more power in those institutions which are currently the most anti-religious and, specifically, anti-Christian in our society—namely the branches and agencies of the Federal government.

Thankfully, in just the last few years we have begun to hear from bishops who have a more robust understanding of all the elements of Catholic social teaching. But too often the majority of our bishops have focused on one single Catholic social principle—the universal destination of goods—while forgetting other key social principles which are equally important. In particular, as I mentioned above, they seem not to realize that two of these principles, solidarity and subsidiarity, are generally incompatible with a primary reliance on government. This brings me back to the values I said tended to be lost in the vision of government as caretaker.

For as sure as the sun rises in the morning, both solidarity and subsidiarity tend to be undermined when we turn too much to government, yet the combination of solidarity and subsidiarity is absolutely critical to a healthy society. Pope Benedict tried to make this point in the brilliant third chapter (“Fraternity, Economic Development, and Civil Society”) of his great social encyclical Caritas in Veritate when he argued:

The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. (39)

Solidarity: A Two-Fold Indictment

This is a two-fold indictment. On the one hand, Americans (among others) can certainly be prone to regard charity as a sufficient corrective to what we might call business-as-usual. But instead, as Benedict teaches, “Space also needs to be created within the market for economic activity carried out by subjects who freely choose to act according to principles other than those of pure profit, without sacrificing the production of economic value in the process” (37). In other words, the market itself is to be informed by solidarity. The American bishops, for their part, have given repeated evidence that they are aware of this side of the problem.

But on the other hand, our bishops have too often fallen into the trap of confusing the action of government to correct the market—especially sweeping action by the federal government—with the operation of solidarity itself. This is an extremely destructive confusion, for government action is always an involuntary imposition on even those citizens who welcome it, and the higher the level of government, the more likely such action is to be an involuntary imposition on enormous numbers of citizens who do not welcome it. Therefore, routinely turning to the State to solve problems tends precisely to undermine solidarity. Or, as Benedict puts it:

[E]conomic activity cannot prescind from gratuitousness, which fosters and disseminates solidarity and responsibility for justice and the common good among the different economic players. It is clearly a specific and profound form of economic democracy. Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State. (38)


When both the logic of the market and the logic of the State come to an agreement that each will continue to exercise a monopoly over its respective area of influence, in the long term much is lost: solidarity in relations between citizens, participation and adherence, actions of gratuitousness, all of which stand in contrast with giving in order to acquire (the logic of exchange) and giving through duty (the logic of public obligation, imposed by State law). (39)

Again, solidarity is always a free concern on the part of everyone for everyone, a common effort to seek the common good on the part of all and for the sake of all. As such it is by its very nature undermined by habitual recourse to the State, which is neither voluntary nor gratuitous. Such recourse is also, as every culture known to man has learned by bitter experience, inefficient, wasteful, and destructive of personal initiative. Moreover, the growing presumption that the State will take care of things naturally erodes our sense of responsibility for personal charity. This commitment to charity does not replace other aspects of solidarity, but it remains critical both to solidarity and, indeed, to personal salvation.

Subsidiarity and Intermediary Institutions

If habitual recourse to government tends to undermine the principle of solidarity, it undermines the principle of subsidiarity just as quickly. The principle of subsidiarity holds that human problems should be addressed at the lowest possible level because this is most consistent with both success and human dignity, for it ensures that those most affected are engaged as much as possible in the solutions. It follows that higher levels of organization and authority are to assist the lower levels as needed, rather than supplanting them. But there is an unfailing tendency, at least in modern culture, for government action to be pushed to higher and higher levels: from private associations and the Church to the town or the county, then to the State, then to the Federal government. Increasing emphasis on relatively new constructions such as the European Union, the United Nations and world courts simply confirm the trend.

Thus does habitual recourse to government invariably undermine the principle of subsidiarity, a principle which is not only essential to personal dignity but critical to the development of those robust intermediary institutions which are alone capable of effectively diversifying society and resisting the steady accumulation of power in the State. A mass of isolated individual and undifferentiated voters, bereft of intermediary institutions, is incapable of this diversification and resilience. Effective intermediary institutions are essential to human flourishing, and so it is not surprising that they are also essential ingredients in Catholic social theory.

This is another reason why I expressed astonishment that bishops should so reflexively and habitually turn to the State for every benefit. The Church, while not precisely an intermediary institution in her very identity (for there is no higher institution when it comes to the things of God), is in fact the pre-eminent intermediary institution when it comes to naturally limiting the power of the State, for she provides a healthy citizenry with a different and higher set of loyalties. She is a vital source of principles and instruction which transcend the raw power of civil government.

More than Frustration is Needed

All this is to say that the frustration is eminently understandable on the part of those who argue against the constant lobbying of Catholic bishops for greater and greater government involvement in solving social problems. I have already said that the discussion will go better if we understand the principles at stake while still allowing for legitimate differences in each given case, and this is no small point. But I’m afraid that much more is needed than intellectual care and civility.

Catholics who are firmly enough rooted in Catholic social teaching to see this deleterious trend for what it is need also to understand that there is only one way out. Practically speaking, it will prove impossible to eliminate excessive government while the social order is otherwise so weak. Moreover, the idea of waiting to pick up the pieces after a collapse should be more frightening than tempting. The hard reality is that we must be willing to sacrifice more, not less, in order to build up alternative structures of solidarity which gradually induce our fellow-citizens to turn first to something other than government for their solace and support.

While the Church still plays a major role in such areas as service to the poor, education and health care, it is a steadily declining role in favor of State solutions, and it will continue to decline as long as it remains simply a matter of perpetuating older Catholic institutions now run by those no longer deeply committed to the Faith. Instead, lay people—the same lay people who resent the enormous taxes they have to pay—need to dig deeper and begin to form the kind of intermediary Catholic associations, networks and institutions which once led the ancient Romans to realize that there were more tangible benefits to being Christian than to being Roman (not to mention, of course, the intangibles).

There is a real challenge here. We cannot discharge our responsibilities merely by damning the bishops for habitually turning to government, while we argue for less government, lower taxes and nothing more. That’s easy and, government being what it is today, one can certainly make the case that it is also morally upright. But there are good reasons why such a stance is open to the charge of selfishness. No, we must do far more than that. Slowly, inexorably, we must revolutionize social life now in solidarity and subsidiarity. We must build a veritable host of associations, institutions and structures, all operating far closer to home, which are actually more effective than government at doing the things that government should not be habitually doing.

We must do this without complaining that such initiatives are made more difficult by current tax structures. And we must do it without either wishing or waiting for everything else to crash and burn before we are willing to act.

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.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jul. 29, 2010 5:51 PM ET USA

    Why don't the Bishops ever take the initiative to found orders of active religious or lay institutes of charity? Why don't they use their considerable substance to work directly with the poor? The Church had much more vigor in this country when they did.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 26, 2010 4:09 PM ET USA

    The current hierarchy has 2 glaring holes in their educational formation: knowledge of economics and knowledge of political philosophy. I realize that not every seminarian can be a polymath, but Newman had some fascinating views that I didn't fully comprehend until I read Ian Ker's reissued biography of him. And its true that certain Bishops cherrypick from Catholic Social Teaching. There is a difference between a safety net and a security blanket.

  • Posted by: lauriem5377 - Jul. 26, 2010 8:17 AM ET USA

    After reading Jeff's column, I have tempered my thoughts as reflected in my comments to the original news article on this topic. I can agree that the bishops in the interim may need to support some governement economic initiatives since we don't have in place the mechanisms to carry out full Catholic social teaching in a non-government way. But I do look to the bishops to lead us in firm Catholic teaching and to undertake now ways to fully support catholic social teaching from our churches.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 24, 2010 1:49 PM ET USA

    For anyone interested, here is a link to a recent blog post discussing subsidiarity in the context of the concept of nullification:

  • Posted by: Defender - Jul. 23, 2010 7:30 PM ET USA

    Part of the problem is that the bishops selectively take from Catholic Social Teaching. For instance, unions have been recognized since Leo XIII as a necessary protection for the individual worker, but almost all of the bishops won't allow them to exist (or even be discussed) within their realms. Meanwhile, diocesan employees work for wages far less than their counterparts.

  • Posted by: Ken - Jul. 23, 2010 3:01 PM ET USA

    Yes, jbryant, us "conservative" Catholics are just a bunch of stupid ol' rubes who don't know nothin' about Catholic social teaching. We're just a bunch of ol' bitter clingers, right? Wait a minute, someone else has used that term already.......

  • Posted by: - Jul. 23, 2010 1:16 PM ET USA

    Your rich man's guff about CST will mean something when John Kerry isn't docking his yacht in RI to avoid MA taxes--and the same goes for the bishops. To avoid paying taxes and to keep the state money rolling in, they shut up about abortion, refer for it and contraception, allow gay groups, withhold food, water & medicine from sick people etc. You want to talk about increasing my sacrifice--how about the next time the hat passes, the pope throws in Castle Gandolfo? And ditto for the bishops.

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Jul. 23, 2010 8:09 AM ET USA

    I agree with jbryant. I am re-reading an excellent though unfortunately out of print book called "Economics as if God Mattered" by Dr Rupert Ederer, a Catholic economist who is an expert (in fact, the primary translator) in the thought and writings of Fr Heinrich Pesch SJ who was the main economist/theologian behind Pius XI's "Quadregesimo Anno" social encyclical. Ederer's book comments on the social encyclicals from Leo XIII to John Paul II and corrects both right and left errors.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 23, 2010 12:35 AM ET USA

    "There is a real challenge here. We cannot discharge our responsibilities merely by damning the bishops for habitually turning to government, while we argue for less government, lower taxes and nothing more" I have a confession to make... I am one of those "conservative" Catholics..., but funny thing..., I DO seem to give to the poor, BUT through Churches, BOTH CATHOLIC and PROTESTANT The Founding Fathers, who had a little wisdom, never intended the government to do social engineering.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Jul. 22, 2010 10:54 PM ET USA

    I am out of patience with apologists who want the power of the federal government to expand without either a common sense reason or constitutional authority to do so. When socialism triumphs in the United States it won't be under the banner of "socialism", it will be under whatever the successor is to "Hope and Change" and it will be Mexico in the 1920's or Spain in the 1930's for Catholics here. That will do for now. A full rebuttal of your column is going to take more than 500 chars

  • Posted by: jbryant_132832 - Jul. 22, 2010 8:51 PM ET USA

    Thomas Woods, who now speaks and writes for the Libertarian Austrian Economics organization Mises Institute, wrote a book called "The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy” which totally dismisses CST and any role of the Church in all things economic. Here's an interview with Chris Ferrara, author of "The Church & the Libertarian". Describes how libertarians, have co-opted economic thought among conservatives Catholics.

  • Posted by: jbryant_132832 - Jul. 22, 2010 5:37 PM ET USA

    The problem is that large swaths of "conservative" Catholics have never heard of Catholic Social Teaching, let alone read any of it, and have been sucked into the "Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity" brand of Libertarianism which is where much of the labeling originates. My advice to them would be to turn off the TV & radio and pick up G.K. Chesteron's "Outline of Sanity" or Hilaire Belloc's "The Servile State", as well as reading the section of the Catechism that covers CST for starters.