American Catholics tend to vote. (Yes, we have other bad habits as well.) Unfortunately, too many vote for Democrats. Why? The tragically misunderstood “social teaching” of the Church.
It’s widely believed among Catholics that we have a moral obligation to provide for “the poor.” Note the lack of qualification. Part of the reason for that belief is the fuzziness of pronouncements on the subject from the Vatican. Sadly, the misunderstandings thereof are frequently buttressed by lower levels of the clergy. Needless to say, government “welfare” agencies and private eleemosynary organizations, both of which are always eager for greater revenues, do nothing to correct them.
You’d think more of us would be familiar with what Saint Paul said on the subject:
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. [Second Thessalonians 3:6-12]
From a secular perspective, we have the great Herbert Spencer:
On hailing a cab in a London street, it is surprising how frequently the door is officiously opened by one who expects to get something for his trouble. The surprise lessens after counting the many loungers about tavern-doors, or after observing the quickness with which a street-performance, or procession, draws from neighbouring slums and stable-yards a group of idlers. Seeing how numerous they are in every small area, it becomes manifest that tens of thousands of such swarm through London. “They have no work,” you say. Say rather that they either refuse work or quickly turn themselves out of it. They are simply good-for-nothings, who in one way or other live on the good-for-somethings—vagrants and sots, criminals and those on the way to crime, youths who are burdens on hard-worked parents, men who appropriate the wages of their wives, fellows who share the gains of prostitutes; and then, less visible and less numerous, there is a corresponding class of women. [The Man Versus The State]
And from only yesterday comes a cutting column from medieval history professor Robert W. Shaffern:
CST has been suspicious of using the state to transfer wealth from one group to another. Leo warned in Rerum Novarum that little good came from it. As practiced in modern western countries, income redistribution violated the principle of subsidiarity, which says that social ills should be addressed locally wherever and whenever possible.
In that vein, John Paul II taught in Centesimus Annus – his encyclical simultaneously celebrating the fall of Communism and the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum – that the failures of the bureaucratic welfare state stemmed from disrespect for the principle of subsidiarity, which led to “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies.”
In the Catholic perspective, poor relief must not only relieve material deprivations but contribute to the cultivation of virtues, which in turn bolsters human dignity among the poor themselves.
Those with means should be generous with their blessings, of course, for those blessings are God’s gifts and ordained for human flourishing. In justice, the needs of the deserving poor must be met. At the same time, however, the state must establish conditions whereby the deserving poor can earn a dignified living, which means policies that encourage agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, finance, etc. Intergenerational dependency isn’t part of authentic Catholic social teaching or poor relief.
The deserving poor! How refreshing to come upon that formulation for a change! For there are “poor” who are not deserving. That is, their “poverty” is of their own making. Perhaps they were profligate with their means. Perhaps they lost their incomes through poor performance, alcohol use, or worse. And perhaps they are not truly in need of anything essential to life.
“Poverty” today is a governmentally defined condition that has nothing to do with actual need. It’s determined as a percentage of the national median income. But the American median income is rather high, even in our current troubles. It allows families to afford consumption and spending practices that go a long way beyond the necessities, often deep into indulgences that are genuinely harmful to their younger members.
Treating “poverty” thus contributes to the perpetuation of dependency, from one generation to the next. Professor Shaffern makes oblique note of that in the passage cited above.
The relief of need should be judiciously practiced – and judiciousness in the transfer of funds from one person to another is not something for which governments are known. It should also be proximate: ideally, from adequately-provided-for Smith to deservedly needy Jones whom Smith knows personally. That way, Smith can be certain that his charity is doing good rather than harm. When this is not possible, charitable organizations – preferably locally based, locally controlled, and locally monitored – are the next best thing. Also, it should be given as non-fungible goods – food, clothing, shelter, fuel – rather than as cash. Cash can be misused; indeed, many “poor” are so because they don’t handle cash at all well.
Yet today, the greater part of charity is neither judicious nor at all proximate. It’s determined and awarded by enormous bureaucracies – private and public – is almost always given in cash, and is not monitored for its effects. Such bureaucracies compound the damage by absorbing an ever-increasing percentage of their funding in “overhead:” bureaucrats’ salaries and perquisites and other internal costs. Is it any mystery why “the poor” never grow fewer in number? Is it at all baffling that they propagate their “poverty” from generation to generation?
The crimes of governments are many. This one – the perpetuation of “poverty,” however defined – is among the worst of them, though it fires no shots and manacles no innocent.
In her first great novel The Left Hand of Darkness, the late Ursula Le Guin had her Gethenian character Therem Harth rem ir Estraven say that “A man who doesn’t detest a bad government is a fool. And if there were such a thing as a good government on earth, it would be a great joy to serve it.” What a pity it is that “good government” has been so starkly revealed as a contradiction in terms!