No Innovator He

No one can accuse Pope Francis of ambiguity. On May 9th, in an address to the Secretary General of the United Nations and other U.N. executives [1], the Holy Father called for, among other things, “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.” He has thus dispensed with the common rhetorical feint that the requirements of Catholic Social Teaching pertaining to the poor can be satisfied with private charity alone.

As a practical matter it has always been obvious that, in the modern world, the needs of the impoverished cannot be attended to solely by private institutions that would rely exclusively on voluntary donations. Not only would such bodies be unable to access the necessary resources for such a mission, but a social arrangement of that kind would provide an unwarranted benefit for those unconvinced of the moral imperative to care for the needy.

But the partisans of private charity alone have up to now sought refuge in the warning of St. John Paul II against the “Welfare State” which is found in the encyclical Centesimus Annus [2], and so an examination of that warning should be studied. A close reading of the encyclical reveals that the refuge those partisans have hoped for is imaginary. Writing about the intervention of the State in the economic sector, the Holy Father says this about the Welfare State:

“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.” (48)

It must be acknowledged at once that this paragraph does indeed say that much of the role assumed by welfare agencies would be better served by private and local organizations in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. The problems associated with the Welfare State according to the Holy Father are this:

“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 neighbours 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.”

The Pope is not saying that there is no social obligation to the poor. Much less is he rendering aid and comfort to the fanciful notion that taxing one citizen for the benefit of a less fortunate other is some kind of theft. But centralized government welfare systems have a tendency toward bureaucracy, waste, and, ultimately, an impersonal and monolithic disregard for the very people who are intended to be served.

But what is to be done? Is Pope Francis contradicting St. John Paul II when he says that the State has a role in the redistribution of wealth? Not at all.

John Paul II was addressing the organizational configuration of the Welfare State, and its attendant problems, not the governmental funding of aid to the poor. On the contrary, in the very same encyclical, he decries the circumstances observed by his predecessor, Pope Leo XII, where “the worker was not even sure of being able to sell ‘his own commodity’, continually threatened as he was by unemployment, which, in the absence of any kind of social security, meant the spectre of death by starvation,” (4) and applauds the modern day “assistance provided in cases of unemployment” (19) as a means “to deprive Communism of the revolutionary potential represented by masses of people subjected to exploitation and oppression.”(19)  

It is undeniably a tenet of Catholic doctrine that there are “sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women,” [3] and that this is “in open contradiction of the Gospel….” What’s more, their “equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace,” and it “is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies.” [4] 

Pope Francis is no innovator when it comes to Catholic doctrine. His talent has been to make people more aware of what that doctrine has always been.

Jack Quirk