Action Alert!

The True Meaning of Catholic Action

by Gregory M.A. Gronbacher, Ph.D.


This article by Dr. Gregory Gronbacher of the Acton Institute on the true meaning of Catholic Action is based upon a presentation he made to the 1998 Chicago Wanderer Forum during which he states that, "social justice is not primarily the result of political and economic structures, but rather of 'faith working in love.'" Dr. Gronbacher focuses on the following principles, gleaned from Catholic social thought, which are of central importance to the welfare reform discussions: solidarity, preferential option for the poor, subsidiarity, personal virtue and responsibility.

Larger Work

Forum Focus


7 - 17

Publisher & Date

The Wanderer Forum Foundation, Inc., Summer 2000

The promulgation of Pope Leo XIII's social encyclical Rerum Novarum marks a decisive moment in the Church's efforts to engage the social issues raised by the modern world. As a result of the Church's intensified commitment to social justice at the end of the nineteenth century, the Church increasingly entrusted the responsibility of social transformation to the laity. Under the influence of Pope Pius XI, a formal organization called Catholic Action was initiated in an effort to train and empower the laity to reestablish the social order on Christian principles. As a direct result of Pius XI's initiative, Catholic Action played a very central role in influencing public policies implemented by the U.S. government during the earlier decades of the twentieth century.

One example would be the labor movement that preceded the Great Depression. Influenced by the work of Fr. John Ryan, Fr. Peter Dietz of New York organized Catholics to become actively involved in the cause of labor. Some of the issues addressed by the labor movement were the eight-hour work day, child labor laws, the right to organize, housing, and social insurance against unemployment. Unfortunately, such efforts have either dwindled or have moved in a more ideological direction to an understanding of social reform that reflects socialist political thought more than Catholic social teaching. Although Catholic Action per se eventually faded from the scene, it provided the impetus for the laity to play a much more central role in the Christianization of the social order.

As the Second Vatican Council so eloquently articulated, the laity must be the leaven of society. The importance of a lay apostolate to the Church's evangelization is evidenced by the call for the laity to infuse the institutions of society with Gospel values. Cognizant of its limited sphere of expertise, the Magisterium of the Church articulates principles of social ethics that are then to be applied prudentially by the laity in concrete circumstances that make up the infinite exigencies of temporal life.

Catholic laity now have a unique opportunity to contribute again to American culture and public policy. Four years into national welfare reform efforts, a coherent theology or philosophy of compassion has failed to emerge to guide the continuing restructuring of public assistance programs. Public policy conducted without a vision for its ultimate purpose usually fails to achieve its ends. Current welfare reform efforts — while making great strides — will eventually lose unless a cogent guiding set of principles is offered for furthering the process.

The non-Christian and secular ideologies that helped create the welfare state as we know it lack a genuine and meaningful love for the poor. Such ideologies are capable of generating only "warm-fuzzy" sentiments concerning poverty relief and social assistance. Therefore, not only have these theories produced a flawed system of government hand-outs on the practical level; on the theoretical level they have fallen short of an adequate understanding of the virtue of charity — a virtue motivated by a genuine love for those in need.

Catholic social teaching, which reflects the love and concern of Christ for all His children, is capable of offering the principles that can guide the continuing welfare reform efforts. Yet this body of teaching and its principles — which have universal appeal and relevancy — need to be promoted, taught, explained, and forcefully presented in a public and persuasive manner.

Current Welfare Reform Efforts

In 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (the Welfare Reform Bill), heralding the beginning of the end of the Great Society programs instituted by Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Clinton thereby redirected the forces in the so-called war on poverty.

In fact, the bill was a long time coming. By the mid-1980s, reasonable people on all sides of the issue had recognized the failure of the war on poverty to live up to its goals, and a national discussion about changing tactics was underway. Sociologist Charles Murray steered the national discussion perhaps more than any other public thinker did. In his book, Losing Ground (1987), Murray demonstrated the counter-productivity of contemporary welfare programs. The actual number of poor people had declined only slightly, new social ills afflicted the poor (drug abuse, crime, and gang warfare), and the total costs for years of government welfare programs neared the trillion-dollar mark. Murray also noted that the ethical dimensions of social assistance programs and state-sponsored charity were often glossed over by political rhetoric that focused on concerns of expediency and efficiency. Yet welfare, as Murray pointed out, is most properly a moral issue.

In the early 1990s, Murray and others who advocated reform still met with stiff resistance. The defenders of the status quo often attacked reform proponents with charges of racism, greed, and callousness. Many of the attacks insinuated that the well-off were reluctant to continue to bear the burdens of less fortunate fellow citizens. This criticism may in some cases be accurate. Such complaints, however, did not answer the question that reformers posed: Is the current system the only or best method of meeting the demands of charity, welfare, and compassion? The culmination of that national conversation was the signing of the Welfare Reform Bill in 1996.

We are now nearly four years into the reform process of a system that is over 30 years old. The two most notable reform policies are the transfer of welfare responsibilities to the states and the limitation of welfare benefits to forty-eight months. Are these reforms working? By almost any measure, the answer is yes. Four years is too brief a span on which to base any definite conclusions, but the early indications point to positive trends in the progress of the poor.

The first success is attitudinal. Across the country, as local welfare offices seek to meet the stricter demands and shorter time frames of federal assistance, they have moved away from an "entitlement" mindset to an "empowerment" mindset. Agency name changes reflect these attitudinal shifts. For example, the long-standing Aid to Families with Dependent Children became Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

The increasing number of former welfare recipients in the workforce is the second success of welfare reform. While much work remains to be done to employ former welfare recipients and to address concerns for the "working poor," many former beneficiaries of government aid across the country are leaving the welfare rolls for the workplace. Michigan's "Project Zero," for instance, has seen 22 localities reach the stated goal of zero able-bodied people on public assistance.

As more recipients' time limits for benefits expire, as more former recipients become established in their jobs, and as we continue to consider the data, we will be able to make better judgments about the long-term impact of these recent reforms. Until then, there is cause for at least some satisfaction, as we consider the shrinking welfare rolls and increasing employment rates.

A Faulty Philosophy of Welfare

The development of the welfare state over the past 30 years has been motivated, in part, by a materialist understanding of economics and poverty that borrowed heavily for its central conceptual hardware from various themes of Marxist philosophy. The further tragedy has been that these Marxist notions are typically veiled behind a thin veneer of concern for the poor. Consequently, an authentically Christian understanding of compassion has been preempted by what might be called political compassion.

The social engineers of political compassion have taken three traditionally Christian concepts — welfare, compassion, and charity — and have made them the objects of frequent but misleading usage. The simple definition of welfare is "well-being." However, a person's existence is not merely material, and thus, well-being must encompass more than just material aid. Similarly, compassion means, literally, "to suffer with." The proper response of compassion is, at its core, personal by nature, not bureaucratic. Finally, authentic compassion provides the motivation for charity. Charity means "love" or "care" which cannot be coerced or planned by governmental institutions.

In The Tragedy of American Compassion (1996), Marvin Olasky argues that the welfare state, as a materialist institution, has essentially nothing to do with compassion in its fullest sense. Authentic compassion is exercised voluntarily and addresses individuals' nonmaterial as well as material needs. The person with genuine compassion suffers with individuals in need, providing long-term help rather than conscience-salving but ultimately ineffective material aid. Consider the example of a single woman with children who is experiencing severe financial difficulty. It is hardly compassionate to send her to an impersonal government office, have her stand in line and fill out forms in triplicate, and then wait for the processing of a check. Is anyone exhibiting genuine compassion for this woman or are her needs simply processed, filed and then appeased with money? And furthermore, does the money she receives necessitate any act of charity on the part of taxpayers?

Programs such as those of the Great Society initiatives launched by President Johnson demonstrate an inner logic that stands in contradiction to both the nature of poverty and the dignity of the human person. The ideas that the poor are victims and that poverty is institutional and political capture the essence of government welfare and the misperceptions that often perpetuate government dependency, social conflict, and covetousness.

The Poor are Victims

The overwhelming conviction of those advocating elaborate government welfare schemes is that poverty is a result of greedy capitalists who make their profits on the backs of the poor. In other words, some people are poor because others are rich. Such ideas — frequently expressed in the print and electronic media, social science literature, and in government rhetoric — help persuade the poor that they are always the victims of the well-to-do. And since the poor are always impoverished because of another's greed, the remedy proposed by those who subscribe to this philosophy of "political compassion" is always to redistribute wealth through government (coercive) means. The justification for government wealth distribution is that the poor are entitled to the wealth that has been wrongfully taken from or denied to them by the wealthy.

Contributing to this mindset is a misrepresentation of what the Church refers to as "structures of sin." In the secular understanding, "structures of sin" are often identified exclusively with the marketplace and political institutions as opposed to the individual choices and personal sins that are merely reflected in these institutions of society. With such an understanding, social reform must occur on an institutional level only, as opposed to a personal level. With such a view, poverty is rarely seen as a moral problem, a result of bad choices, or the effect of impersonal forces such as disease, poor timing, or accidents.

Poverty is usually seen as a social ill inflicted on the poor by some social "system" that is upheld by another class of people. The Pope describes "structures of sin" as follows:

"If the present situation can be attributed to difficulties of various kinds, it is not out of place to speak of structures of sin which, as I stated in my Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitenti, are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove" (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n.36).

Though it is true that economic exploitation and political corruption exist, a "victim mentality" easily spills over into an entitlement culture. It breeds contempt, envy, greed, and idolatry of wealth. It spawns what might be called a "Robin Hood theology," in which Christian compassion and charity are reduced to taking from the rich to give to the poor. According to this view, the poor are always, or nearly always, the victims of oppression perpetrated by the wealthy. Underlying this philosophy of victimization is a Marxist worldview which sees the world as divided into economic classes of people. These classes, by their very nature, are at war with one another for a control of the scarce resources available. It's a winner-take-all scenario. It is also illogical because it assumes that wealth is static and fixed. According to this Marxist philosophy, in order for the poor to obtain wealth, they will have to overtake the rich and seize their wealth. Then the cycle repeats itself. It is a prescription for conflict, with no vision of a common good and no hope of sustained harmony. Moreover, it ignores the centrality of personal conversion in the upholding of the common good.

Poverty is an Institutional and Political Problem

With the rise of secularization and socialist ideologies, the second half of the twentieth century witnessed the politicization of poverty. Material destitution has slowly faded as a moral problem calling for spiritual and faith-based solutions, and has become a matter of public policy divorced from anything but political considerations. Several causes can account for this shift in how poverty is understood. First, both the New Deal and the Great Society programs imparted a certain confidence on the American people that government programs could essentially eliminate poverty in our country. Secondly, because of a growing public demand for social justice that had resulted from movements such as Catholic Action, the government increasingly expanded its scope in response to these demands. Clearly the influence of Fr. John Ryan can be seen in this shift.

Such beliefs, however, have unfortunately paved the way for "social engineering" via government programs, and have sent a tacit message that churches are unable to adequately address the problem of poverty. Also, large government programs have diverted taxpayer money away from private institutions, leaving less for personal charitable giving. Finally, the rise of the newly trumpeted government programs has lessened the motivation for private efforts. Why conduct a soup kitchen from a church basement when the state provides one a few blocks away?

Several subtle, but powerful, changes have occurred as a result of the politicization of poverty. At least two should be noted here. The first is the depersonalization of the poor. For the ostensible reason of increased efficiency, government bureaucracies have created statistical profiles for the poor. These statistical averages and the images they conjured have become the focus of relief efforts. The poor are no longer the family down the street, but now a "class" of people who fit certain criteria. Concern has shifted from individuals and families to the poor as a special interest group. Those in need have been depersonalized and grouped into neat conceptual categories.

This depersonalization further reinforces the understanding of poverty as political. The focus has turned from feeding people to lobbying, voting, testifying before committees, and forming political action committees (PACs). These have become the new weapons to combat poverty. While such political action may be a part of genuine efforts to eradicate poverty, it seems strange to note the slow disappearance of ideas such as charity, alms-giving, volunteering time, loving the poor, and personal involvement.

The second change that has occurred as a result of the politicization of poverty is the treatment of poverty as solely a material problem. Poverty affects the entire person. A dearth of material possessions can lead to limited education and decreased social opportunities. Poverty, therefore, can easily lead to social alienation and withdrawal from mainstream society. The effects of such alienation are material, spiritual, moral, and emotional. Yet secular philosophies of welfare tend to treat poverty from a materialist perspective. In other words, poverty is understood only in terms of the equal distribution of property. While it is true that poverty is primarily a matter of the lack of material possessions, to address poverty simply by eliminating material inequality skews the correct approach to its eradication because it views wealth as static. If poverty is viewed from this perspective, and if one also believes that poverty is the result of exploitation of the poor by the rich, then the logical solution to poverty is wealth redistribution. In this view, the way to empower the poor is by providing for their basic needs through welfare programs.

There are many problems with such a view. First, the healthy functioning of a productive economy — in which poverty is overcome by participation in productive enterprise — is gradually encroached upon by a welfare state where government takes from those who produce so as to give to those who do not. The government does not produce wealth, nor can it create jobs. Any wealth it distributes and jobs it "creates" are taken from someone else. This is what might be referred to as the unintended consequences of government programs. Second, such statist approaches essentially undermine the dignity and the moral necessity of work and eventually place such a significant drag on the economy that higher inflation, higher unemployment and the demoralization of honest work are the inevitable outcome. Third, the necessity of property rights as the foundation of a just and humane economic order is often ignored. Finally, this view neglects spiritual and moral causes, such as moral virtue, that are necessary for authentic human flourishing.

Generating a Theology of Compassion

Charity is the greatest social commandment. It respects others and their rights. It requires the practice of justice, and it alone makes us capable of it. Charity inspires a life of self-giving: "Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it" (Luke 17:33; Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1889).

The principles of Catholic social teaching are naturally pertinent to the welfare reform debate. The Church's social teaching, carefully developed over the past hundred years and more, provides many useful insights about politics, economics, and other social areas. Yet Catholic social teaching is both relatively unknown (even among educated Catholics) and often vulnerable to misinterpretation. Catholic educators and clergy must increase their efforts to teach the faithful about the Church's social teaching. If society fails to appreciate the Church's message of compassion then let it not be a result of never hearing it. What then is the orientation of the Church's social teaching in regards to welfare? The answer is complex, but knowable. The Church teaches that the state (read government) has a role to play in ensuring that the needs of the poor are met. This fact stems from the general responsibilities of the state to protect and promote the common good. However, granting this truth does not mean that government need be the primary or central provider of that aid. This is aptly illustrated in the following quote from Pope John Paul II:

"If Pope Leo XIII calls upon the State to remedy the condition of the poor in accordance with justice, he does so because of his timely awareness that the state has the duty of watching over the common good and of ensuring that every sector of social life, not excluding the economic one, contributes to achieving that good, while respecting the rightful autonomy of each sector. This should not however lead us to think that Pope Leo expected the state to solve every social problem. On the contrary, he frequently insists on necessary limits to the State's intervention and on its instrumental character, inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them" (Centesimus Annus, n.11).

Of course, the general duty of the state (or any other social institution) — to uphold the common good — does not dictate the proper course of action in any concrete situation. Thus, the state's general duty to provide for the needs of the poor does not necessitate the vast enterprise of the current welfare state. The Church generates guiding principles, not public policy. It falls outside of the expertise and mission of the Catholic Church to go beyond normative guidelines for social policy. Actual social and political models and actual programs must be the result of men and women of good will seeking to serve the common good.

To further illustrate this point in a manner germane to our present topic, consider Pope John Paul II's following statement:

"In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of state, the so-called 'Welfare State.' This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the 'Social Assistance State.' Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. 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 by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. 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. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care" (Centesimus Annus, n.48).

Reading such a powerful and cogent statement as the one above appears to leave little room for any Catholic to endorse current welfare efforts without qualification. Yet sadly, some do, either by misunderstanding the Church's teaching, remaining ignorant about it, or disregarding it for the sake of other concerns. Whatever course our actions take, our reform efforts must be principled or they run the risk of being hijacked by political interests, to the denigration of legitimate social concerns. Americans tend to be pragmatic, avoiding discussions of political or social philosophy as integral parts of their public policy debates. Avoiding such discussions, however, can produce policy solutions that are worse than the problem itself. Welfare reform, if it is to be anything but random and haphazard, must rest on certain foundational ideas. We propose that Catholic social teaching has much to offer the welfare reform debate. The well-developed teaching of the Church on social issues can serve as a guide to people outside the Catholic tradition in their efforts to help the needy. The following principles, gleaned from Catholic social thought, are of central importance to the welfare reform discussions: solidarity, preferential option for the poor, subsidiarity, personal virtue and responsibility.

A. Solidarity

The term solidarity expresses the unity of all people. Solidarity reflects the fact that human beings are social creatures and that they have certain obligations toward each other. Solidarity, therefore, provides the justification of, and motivation for, any welfare effort. Our solidarity with all members of the human family implies a special commitment to the marginalized. If the goal of familial relations among all people is to be fully realized, then compassion is called for when people suffer the ills of poverty, discrimination, oppression, and social alienation. Yet our response of love must be voluntary in order to be virtuous. The pope has described solidarity as follows:

"[Solidarity] then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. This determination is based on the solid conviction that what is hindering full development is that desire for profit and that thirst for power already mentioned. These attitudes and 'structures of sin' are only conquered — presupposing the help of divine grace — by a diametrically opposed attitude: a commitment to the good of one's neighbor with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to 'lose oneself' for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to 'serve him' instead of oppressing him for one's own advantage" (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n.38).

"The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others" (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n.39).

Welfare reform must be informed by the principle of solidarity in as much as poverty relief must move beyond "good intentions." Only a genuine concern for the good of others will prompt the kind of initiative that leads to social harmony. Welfare cannot be abstracted from the duty that each member of society has to care for those who are more needy than themselves.

B. Preferential Option for the Poor

Solidarity applies equally to all persons. Contrary to popular sentiment, we are our brother's keeper in the sense that we must constantly be concerned with the genuine well-being of all. Yet, while no one escapes the boundaries of solidarity, the poor and marginalized still deserve special consideration in the eyes of the Church.

It will not be superfluous therefore to reexamine and further clarify in this light the characteristic themes and guidelines dealt with by the Magisterium in recent years. Here I would like to indicate one of them: the option or love of preference for the poor. This is an option, or a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n.42).

A preferential option for the poor is one of the more beautiful teachings in the Church's corpus of doctrines pertaining to the centrality of compassion in Christian discipleship. Yet for the Church, this phrase has a somewhat differently nuanced meaning from that given by liberation theologians. According to liberationists, a preferential option for the poor invariably implies some form of collectivist solution to poverty that seeks to eradicate any material inequality among people. A preferential option for the poor, within this context, is often presented as a preferential option for poverty. The assumption here is that if everyone were poor, the common good would be achieved. People of this mindset, would argue that the solution to the unequal distribution of wealth is for everyone to embrace voluntary poverty. Hence, the tendency of the liberationists has been to canonize the poor and demonize the rich.

According to the Church's understanding, however, a preferential option for the poor does not mandate voluntary poverty for all, but rather describes the disposition that all Christians ought to have toward those who are in need, regardless of how much wealth they might have. The counterpart to a preferential option for the poor is the principle of the universal destination of all material goods. Material poverty is not a virtue — charity is. Indeed, the Church has always sided with the lowly, the downtrodden, the needy, the uneducated, and the marginalized. It does so because Christ commands it. Thus, the Church admonishes those of us who are better off to keep the poor always in mind and do what we can for them.

"'If a brother or a sister be naked,' says St. James; 'if they lack their daily nourishment, and one of you says to them: "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," without giving them what is necessary for the body, what good does it do?' (James 2:15-16). Today no one can be ignorant any longer of the fact that in whole continents countless men and women are ravished by hunger, countless numbers of children are undernourished, so that many of them die in infancy, while the physical growth and mental development of many others are retarded and as a result whole regions are condemned to the most depressing despondency" (Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, n.45).

As God's love is personal, so must our love for the poor be personal. It should demonstrate that we have a preference for people in need. This implies our performing the, at times, difficult task of giving more than merely financial assistance. It means giving time, going to neighborhoods we would rather not enter, dealing with people who are sometimes difficult, perhaps of a different race, and of different experiences than our own.

This is not an easy task. Yet it is a task called for in the Gospel. In addition to becoming personally involved in the lives of the poor we must remember that we do so to help alleviate their poverty and bring the good news of Jesus Christ into desperate circumstances.

C. Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity speaks primarily to the role of government in relation to the rest of society. Subsidiarity is an idea that crystallized in the late 19th century work of various Christian theologians. These theologians understood society to be composed of many institutions, each of which has a natural function according to its nature. Families raise children, markets produce and distribute wealth, churches preach the gospel and perform charitable works, governments provide for national defense and rule of law.

The Church has always claimed that when these social institutions work together, each respecting the others' roles and not unnecessarily interfering in their natural functions, then the common good of all can prevail. However, when the more powerful social institutions, most notably the political, interfere over long periods of time in the functioning of the other social institutions and rob them of their natural duties, social decay occurs. This is the case today with the widespread statism that exists in America. Statism is a culture's unhealthy reliance on the government to solve what are essentially problems of personal responsibility. It is outside the realm of prudence for the government to abdicate the moral and social responsibilities of its people. A statist mindset leads to the government usurpation of functions other social institutions — such as the Church, the family, and the market — are by nature more equipped to perform.

The welfare state is just one example. The Protestant thinker Abraham Kuyper referred to subsidiarity as "sphere sovereignty." Kuyper argued that political institutions have the natural responsibility to provide a just legal framework so that all people can cooperate in achieving the common good. Yet, he also noted, it should be understood that the government cannot and should not be charged with fulfilling the obligations of each and every human right. Families, churches, smaller private organizations, and networks of concerned individuals are better suited to aid the poor than is a large government bureaucracy. Society would be better off if we learned to rely less on government for social welfare. To deny these communities their natural obligations to provide for the common good is to violate subsidiarity and to weaken the social fabric. Kuyper's insights are echoed in the thought of Pope John Paul II:

"By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibilities, the social assistance state can lead to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients" (Centesimus Annus, n. 48).

The initial national conversation concerning welfare reform focused on the role of government, the inefficiency of bureaucratic agencies, and the epidemic of multi-generational dependency among the poor. For a more thorough and effective reform to be implemented, we need to heed the words of Pope John XXIII, here articulating further the principle of subsidiarity:

"At the outset it should be affirmed that in economic affairs first place is to be given to the private initiative of individual men who, either working by themselves, or with others in one fashion or another, pursue their common interests. But in this matter, for reasons pointed out by our predecessors, it is necessary that public authorities take active interest, the better to increase output of goods and to further social progress for the benefit of all citizens. This intervention of public authorities that encourages, stimulates, regulates, supplements, and complements, is based on the principle of subsidiarity as set forth by Pius XI in his Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: 'It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. Inasmuch as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them'" (Mater et Magistra, n. 51-53).

Pope John Paul II has this to say on the matter:

"Another task of the State is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the State but to individuals and to the various groups and associations that make up society. The State could not directly ensure the right to work for all its citizens unless it controlled every aspect of economic life and restricted the free initiative of individuals. This does not mean, however, that the State has no competence in this domain, as was claimed by those who argued against any rules in the economic sphere. Rather, the State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis. The State has the further right to intervene when particular monopolies create delays or obstacles to development. In addition to the tasks of harmonizing and guiding development, in exceptional circumstances the State can also exercise a substitute function, when social sectors or business systems are too weak or are just getting under way, and are not equal to the task at hand. Such supplementary interventions, which are justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of state intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom" (Centesimus Annus, n.48).

The resurgence of private and church-based charity is an important aspect of welfare reform. Private and church-based charity is in accord with subsidiarity and allows for the exercise of genuine compassion. The federal government should only be involved in cases of clear emergency, when the more intimate associations of family, church, and local government cannot do the job, and then only for brief periods so as not to replace the social functions of the more intimate associations. Members of churches and other private social associations should become directly involved in the lives of the poor people in their communities, encouraging them to become independent. This process will, in turn, revivify local churches by encouraging them to recapture their original sense of social mission and ministry. Private charity is more in accord with human freedom and the nature of virtue. It is a free and, therefore, more meaningful moral response. We improve both the lives of those to whom we give and our own lives through this process. Decentralization would provide for less costly ways of helping the poor by removing red tape and regulation. Local solutions allow for a flexibility that is simply not possible at the federal level.

Private charity is less likely to establish a culture of dependency. An impersonal check given without any expectations for responsible behavior leads to a damaged sense of self-worth. Assisting someone out of love can help develop a vision of worth and dignity within those helped. The beauty of local efforts to help the needy is that they humanize welfare, allowing one person to help another to pursue his creative potentials.

There are those who doubt the ability of the private sector to meet the overwhelming needs that exist. To overcome this mentality, we need confidence that the American people are up to the task. We also need to recreate a culture of compassion in America by getting people involved in the daily care of their needy brothers and sisters once again.

D. Personal Responsibility

The Church has always taught that by our nature as sons and daughters of God we possess an inherent dignity. And because of that dignity and the freedom which it entails, we can properly speak of rights and privileges. Among these rights and privileges is the enjoyment of a standard of living in accord with our dignity. On this most will agree.

However, the Church has never stated that such a standard of living is to be handed to people. For it is not an entitlement, but a goal of human action. People must demonstrate self-discipline, responsibility, and some sense of social accountability. If they do so, and still fail to achieve the economic status necessary to live in dignity, they deserve our help. We should be willing to offer monetary, emotional, and other kinds of support to people who can't help themselves, and to those on whom hardship has fallen through no fault of their own.

We should also be willing to help those who have grown dependent on government handouts and have lost a sense of self-discipline, social accountability, and self-respect. However, our help should be tailored to their situation. Such people should be helped to find jobs, weaned from government dependency, and afforded the respect due to them as human beings, not by paying their bills, but by enabling and expecting them to do so. This effort will also serve to prepare people for assuming and exercising their right to economic initiative as spoken of in the Catechism.

"Everyone has the right of economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all and to harvest the just fruits of his labor. He should seek to observe regulations issued by legitimate authority for the sake of the common good" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.2429).

The goal of aid programs, whether private or governmental, should be to meet immediate human need while equipping individuals to reenter the mainstream of society. A lack of education, poor decisions made in crucial moments of life, systemic family breakdown, substance abuse, loss of employment, illness, and disability all can lead to an individual drifting to the margins of society. The result of this process of marginalization is poverty.

Work expresses and fulfills the dignity of the human being. It contributes to the development of personality and makes civilization possible. Society as a whole must generate conditions that lead to the existence of job possibilities for everyone. The just salary or wage is an essential part of social justice. A salary must meet the needs of the worker and his family.

"Needs" in this sense refer not merely to the basic ones, but also those required for the development of society and the integrity of the human person. In this regard, we must point out that where practical human experience teaches that certain forms of economic organization, e.g., market economics, can more effectively create wealth and the conditions for a just wage, then the virtue of prudence requires that societies adopt such solutions.


The welfare state has been a fixture of American life for decades, but now we must begin to imagine our society and economy without it — a mental exercise akin to what many Soviet intellectuals faced in the late 1980s.

Authentic charity cannot be centrally planned any more than an economy can. The spontaneous efforts of private individuals, houses of worship, and charitable organizations will work, even if it is imperfect. Yet this will not happen unless we place the impetus for charitable giving back where it belongs — in the hands of individuals who through their own efforts or organizations can fulfill their moral obligations to the less fortunate.

"Choice" is an idea dearly valued by Americans. Given our nation's history and our love of liberty, it is not surprising that freedom — the ability to choose and act in accord with our own will — is so highly regarded in our land. In the early days of the Great Society programs, enhancing freedom was often cited as a motivating factor for the construction of the social welfare state. Welfare as a government initiative was conceived, in large part, to give the poor a chance to experience the full blessings of freedom.

Government assistance, beyond meeting immediate material need, provided an opportunity for the "down and out" to get "back on their feet" and reenter the mainstream of society. Public aid was intended to maximize choice by giving people the chance to overcome the restrictions of poverty and unemployment.

Twenty-five years into the programs intended to free people, the nation has begun to realize that welfare, in many cases, has crippled the prospect of liberty for many. Instead of maximizing choices, government-sponsored welfare has led many down the path of dependency. The incentives to find work, to engage mainstream society, to become self-sufficient, have been removed. For thousands of Americans, choices have become more limited, not enhanced.

Let us concentrate a moment on the statement from Gaudium et Spes that the Church is to be "leaven in society." This phrase "leaven in society" is bantered around repeatedly today by Catholics of many political stripes. Yet what exactly does it mean?

Leaven lifts the mass in which it is inserted. The analogy implies that Catholics are to empower, enliven, and encourage the societies in which they live. If the Church truly professes a preferential option for the poor, then each member of the Body of Christ must exercise their choices with this preference in mind. This means not only helping the poor in all the ways necessary, but also speaking out on their behalf to the rest of society, reminding all men and women of their duties of solidarity.

Sociologically speaking, the Church is one social institution among many in civil society. Christians, of course, understand that the Church is more than a social institution and recognize it as the Mystical Body of Christ. Yet also as a social institution the Church must instruct, encourage, and lead by example. What other institution in society has the Gospel mandate to care for the marginalized and needy? If the Church wishes to be true to her Lord, then she must be the first to accept the responsibilities of solidarity with all. Thus, the time has now come for Catholics to renew their vocation as Christians to be salt and light to a world in desperate need of genuine hope. It does not fall primarily upon the government to perform the corporal works of, mercy, but upon the faithful. When our Lord came into the world to announce the good news of salvation, He did not reveal a political philosophy or leave behind the blueprints for a welfare state. He very simply commanded his followers to feed the poor, clothe the naked — in short to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. This commandment to "love" as Christ has loved requires a personal commitment on the part of each Christian to those who are poor. The testimony of charity towards those in need is the foundation of hope upon which a just social order must be built. Social justice is not primarily the result of political and economic structures, but rather of "faith working in love."

The overall approach of the Catholic Church in America must be holistic in the sense that poverty is addressed through a variety of means. The USCC Social Justice Department needs to ask whether its efforts are best spent in its current agenda of reorganizing the power structures in parishes. Catholic Charities USA, Inc., needs to continue its operations on behalf the needy, ever careful that government funding (and thus government regulation) does not erode its evangelical emphasis. Yet Catholic Charities cannot do the job alone. Each individual parish must be actively involved in meeting the needs of the poor in their midst. Such an approach is part of the practice of subsidiarity. Each Catholic should be actively involved in some corporal work of mercy. The Bishops as pastors and teachers have a special obligation to lead the Church in this mission to the poor. Think about the powerful witness of sixty-five million American Catholics actively engaged in meeting the true needs of the marginalized in a personal example of the love of Christ!

The Church is the institution in society that is best equipped for assuming the responsibilities of social welfare. It is to Christ, present within His Church, that the poor should turn in times of need. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the faithful, both the laity and the clergy, to provide the moral impetus to dismantle the welfare state. Why is it that the Church through its parishes, institutes, and ministries is not providing job training, foster care, employment agencies, housing assistance? If Christians would assume these responsibilities, then others might become convinced that indeed the private sector is equipped to provide for the needs of the poor, and can do so in a manner uplifting to both the dignity of each person and society in general.

Each Catholic, laity and leadership alike, has a unique opportunity to influence the course of events in the United States in coming years. As our nation struggles with its commitment to the needy and searches for the true meaning of compassion, let us offer our Church's teaching by instructing others in it and by living it. Only a powerful witness to such principles will capture the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans and inspire them, as Christ suggested in the parable of the Good Samaritan, to "go and do the same" (Luke 10:37).

Dr. Gregory M. A. Gronbacher is the director of the Center for Economic Personalism, the academic research division of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, MI. He holds a Ph. D. in philosophy from the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy in Dublin, Ireland, where he also was a lecturer. Dr. Gronbacher researches and lectures on the synthesis of free market economic science and Christian personalism as well as political and social philosophy and Catholic social thought. This article encompasses some of Dr. Gronbacher's ideas from an address he gave at the October 1998 Chicago Regional Wanderer Forum, which examined the infiltration of the Industrial Areas Foundation into U.S. Catholic institutions.

The Wanderer Forum Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 542, Hudson, WI 54016-0542.

This item 3221 digitally provided courtesy of