Click here if you don’t see subscription options
The EditorsOctober 24, 2011

In a now infamous Republican presidential debate, the candidate Ron Paul shrugged off society’s responsibility to care for a hypothetical young man, comatose and declining, who had been too vainglorious to pay for health insurance. “That’s what freedom is all about,” Paul said, “taking your own risks.” Should society just let him die? While Paul struggled to respond, members of the audience whooped and cheered. “Yes!” came the answer.

Paul offered another option. In his youth, he explained, the churches, not the government, took care of such unfortunate folk. “Let the church do it” has proved an appealing notion on the 2012 campaign trail. According to this proposition, if government would only get its budgets and bureaucrats out of the way, the American people, led by their churches and enriched by tax breaks that would accompany the dissolution of the state, could assume the moral and practical obligation for the general welfare. Taking Paul at his word and ignoring the substantial evidence of human misery that has gone unaddressed in America, could the churches respond today as he suggests?

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate decided to take a look at the potential for church-based welfare. C.A.R.A. concentrated its analysis on one federal program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called “food stamps.” Last year this $68 billion program supported the diets of 18.6 million households. Assuming that every Catholic parish household would increase its weekly giving five-fold, from an average of $9.40 a week to just over $50 each week, C.A.R.A. reports that the Catholic Church in the United States could, after paying its own not insignificant expenses, conceivably pay for half the current federal food stamp budget.

Coming up with the revenue for the rest of what government does thus appears a daunting task. Last year Professor Wayne Flynt, of Auburn University, speculated that the 10,000 or so houses of worship in his home state of Alabama might be able to take care of its poor residents. “All you have to do is for your congregation to adopt 50 to 100 poor people,” he said, “and mentor them, and love them, and educate them and nurture them…. And I’ll guarantee you that if you do that, it will be closer to what Christ intended than Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare.” And the chances of that? “They will never do it,” Flynt said. “[T]he churches will not do it.”

The conceit that churches and charities could replace government neatly ignores a few mundane facts about charities and giving. Many church organizations already receive the lion’s share of their budgets from government grants and contracts for services. And many of the clients charities serve are not the kind of people who evoke much sympathy from givers: the chronically unemployed, the disabled and sick, the drug-addicted, the poorly educated and, most poignantly, the children of all of these people. With government out of the way, are most citizens really prepared to open their hearts and wallets to address the many and complex needs of society’s broken and vulnerable people?

And the psychological, even spiritual effects of such a wholesale conversion of government interventions to voluntary services is worth considering. Would it not reduce petitioners for assistance into powerless objects of pity, literally charity cases? Should families bankrupted by a medical crisis, workers driven from their jobs by economic structural changes beyond their control and even people disabled by their addictions have to come hat in hand for handouts? Such a structure degrades human dignity and promotes a smug delusion of autonomy and self-reliance among a patron class of society’s winners, separated from, even pitted against, those in need.

The Catholic concept of subsidiarity has been invoked of late to offer a faith-based foundation for the American ideology of self-sustenance and the virtue of communal indifference. The concept does indeed discourage an overbearing government response to social concerns that could be ably addressed at lower levels of social agency. But subsidiarity does not exclude all government response to social need. Indeed, Catholic social teaching argues that it is the obligation of government—from local to state and on up to the federal level, as circumstances require—to protect human dignity that might be diminished by deprivation. The Catholic tradition, in fact, maintains an affirmative view of the positive role of government in addressing needs that have not been satisfied by the market system. And from this perspective the church accepts a collaborative, supplemental function with government, not replacing it or standing as a counterforce to it.

We all share responsibility for the common good. It is an obligation we can partly meet through our government—a higher association of our neighbors and friends and family, acting on behalf of all.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
12 years 9 months ago
YES, LET'S RETURN TO THE FEUDAL STATE OF WESTERN CULTURE...where merchants and their councils run commerce, and the church is left to care for the indigent peasantry left in the wake.
Mike Evans
12 years 9 months ago
A state which cares for its most vulnerable and weakest members seems to be what Jesus was saying in Matthew 25. With church attendance of all faiths well below 50%, the burden of charitable activity would fall exeedingly unevenly upon the few remaining faithful. Unless there are huge numbers of volunteers receiving virtually no pay (as the religious sisters did in the past), there is no one to staff and operate these charitable activities. The attitude is very much like the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. And we all know how that turned out. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
John Rogers
12 years 9 months ago
1 Not all charities are church-sponsored.  There are countless non-sectarian humanitarian, educational and rehabilitiative agencies so putting the burden of the non-governmental sector on churches alone is pummeling a straw man.  Similarly, why can't we talk about a 'society' that cares for its most vulnerable instead of a 'state'.  The state is a creature of society, not the other way around.
2 I think Professor Flynt must have been being sarcastic when suggesting that state bureaus would "love them, mentor them, educate them and nurture them' more than private individuals and groups.  I"ve been very fortunate, but have been a client of unemployment offices, and love, mentoring, education and nurturing were rarely present, proceeded at a snail's pace, and ended very promptly at four pm.
3 Consider the possibility that 'letting the state do it' robs people of the opportunity for virtue, sets the state as a barrier between donor and donee, and absolves peole of the responsibilitly to care.  Money extracted from the fortunate by the threatening IRS does not make one a cheerful giver; voitng to extract money from OTHER people doesn't make them cheerful givers either.  But it coarsens us enough so that we can to pass up the collection for SNAP kids  because we already gave at the IRS, snd the SNAP administrators have much better benefits and guaranteed retirement plans than most.
Paul Bradford
12 years 9 months ago
There are a couple of ways to think about evangelization.  One way is to attempt to draw people back into the pews.  "Catholics Come Home" is one such initiative.  Of course, what's the point of asking someone to 'come home' if you can't engage in a discussion with them about why they went away?

Maybe people went away because they rejected the gospel, but I doubt it.  More likely they want a chance to hear the gospel without being required to 'come home' to Our Lady's.  When we address the entire society (and the entire world) irrespective of religious identification and challenge our governments to recognize that, indeed, we are our brother's keepers, we must do unto others as we would have done unto us and we must love our neighbor as ourselves, we take Church to the people; which is a better strategy than trying to insist that the people get themselves to Church.
Paul Bradford
12 years 9 months ago
John Rogers,

I think you misunderstood Prof. Flynt's comments.  He was suggesting that churches could do a BETTER job than state agencies of tending to the 'whole person' with respect to the poor.  Mentoring, loving, educating and nurturing would be a better fit for a parish than for a state agency.

Flynt would probably agree with your critique of government services; but something is better than nothing - and the churches are doing nothing.  

I agree with you that it would be better for people to share what they have voluntarily and cheerfully than have to be coerced by the IRS.  Would you agree with me that it would be better if mothers completed their pregnancies voluntarily and cheerfully than have to be coerced by anti-abortion statutes? 

I don't suppose a society of saints would need any laws at all.
12 years 9 months ago
It appears that the SJ after the names of editors stands for State Jesters who take a vow of obidence to the DNC and welfare state.
Joan Carroll
12 years 9 months ago
Church-controlled welfare is the source of the child abuse scandals in Ireland.
Anthony MARTIN
12 years 9 months ago

You are political wrong! At least in the eyes, of those who, love to lay the title of Responsibility, on others. Therefore, your problem, is of your own making!

This attitude replaces, a lot of guilt, with self serving interest. If you are poor and hungry, then don't bother me, with your problems.

............it works for far too many, these days !!

Lisa Weber
12 years 9 months ago
No one suggests that we should depend on charitable donations to maintain roads, schools or fire departments.  We maintain these things for the common good.  Taking care of the disabled, elderly and poor is also done for the common good, and therefore deserves government support.  Debating whether programs are effective or not is certainly reasonable, but verbally abusing the unfortunate is not.
Ronald Pagnucco
12 years 9 months ago
In line with the Republican logic, I propose that we cut the military budget in half and allow Americans to donate what they think is appropriate. Civil society organizations can help with fudnraising if they like. If people are not willing to donate money for national security, why would they donate money to charity? This would also respect the freedom of citizens to not pay for wars and military policies that they find morally ubjectionable or that they think are are not necessary, and give citizens more democratic conttrol over military policy. We have a voluntary military - and we also should respect the freedom of soldiers to legally refuse to fight in wars they conclude do not fulfill Just War criteria, selective conscientious objection,which the Catholic church and many other chuches support in theory at least -  and much of the military budget should also be voluntary as well.
C Walter Mattingly
12 years 9 months ago
@Ron (#10),
"In line with the Republican logic...If people are not willing to donate money for national security, why would they donate money to charity?"
If you are willing to substitute the word "conservative" for "Republican" (to be sure their are aome crossover liberals and conservatives among the parties), be assured that the studies indicate that those conservatives as a group have been and are willing to donate money to charity, as the liberal humanitarian Nicolas Kristof has noted in his article, "Bleeding Heart Tightwads," NYTimes, 12/08. Kristof cites a conclusion from one of the studies about the chronic and often severe shortage of blood supplies that afflict US hospitals and emergency rooms. If those who define themselves as liberal would donate blood at the same rate as those who define themselves as conservatives, the numbers from the study demonstrate, the chronic US blood shortage would entirely disappear. 

As to your question, "why would they donate money (as well as time and blood) to charity" at so much greater a rate than liberals, we can only speculate. Perhaps since conservatives tend to emphasize individual responsibility, they believe it is their personal responsibility to help those less fortunate than themselves, whereas liberals tend to think something/someone else (the government, those wealthier than themselves) are responsible.  In any case, this disparity holds true for all income levels. A dramatic example of this trend can be found in the 2005 tax returns of liberal VP Biden and conservative former VP Chaney under their charitable deductions line.
annmarie pettenon
12 years 9 months ago
The first thing that popped into my head was Dickens-is Ron Paul suggesting that we return to the kind of society that Dickens wrote about? What's next work houses for people who can't pay their bills?
Ana Blasucci
12 years 8 months ago
RE: Church, Not State?
The sixth paragraph powerfully illustrates the topsy-turvy nature of modern Progressive thought.
Those who might need to seek assistance from faith institutions in the event government steps back from such tasks are portrayed, in terms worthy of a Dickens novel, as thus humiliated and their dignity broken.
To come to the government is less corrosive to dignity?  With the impersonal treatment?  Long lines? Myriad personal questions?  Paperwork by the ream? Documents and ID's to be presented? 
Perhaps we don't know as a fact whether faith institutions and private charities can relieve government as much as some would like of these social assistance tasks, but moving in that direction incrementally, with a view to finding out, wouldn't be a bad experiment.  In the meantime, if just half the waste, fraud, and redundancy could be eliminated from all levels of government, there would, at least, likely be little cause for budgetary worries about government provided assistance.
No; when one comes to a house of faith for help, he should be received as Christ would receive him.  If the response from a too-human outreach worker is less than sterling (which of course never happens in government), one must remember that it's God's house.  Before God there is no shame in poverty or need.  If one's wastefulness or sinfulness were the cause of such, even then faith is the venue where this can begin to be healed, even if amid a bit of healthy embarrassment.
12 years 8 months ago
We all have an obligation to help our brothers and sisters. This is our primary
responsibility. This Help can be shared by our churches,private groups, the
government,and individuals. There is a need for All in this important work.
But there is one area never mentioned by your editorial group. There is need for
recepients of this help to take it only when needed and use it efficiently. There is a great deal of waste. Many who take it must realize that the waste in these programs is the taking of resources from those in greater need. With the monetary limits on what all groups can spend, there is a need to request Responsibility not only of the givers but also the receivers.
Thank you, Joe Bliss

The latest from america

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures, with blood on his face, is assisted by guards after shots were fired during a campaign rally at the Butler Farm Show in Butler, Pa.
My fellow Americans, I have some bad news: This is who we are.
Kevin ClarkeJuly 15, 2024
We need to pray—and ask some hard questions.
Greg KandraJuly 15, 2024
"Together with my brother bishops, we condemn political violence, and we offer our prayers for President Trump, and those who were killed or injured," said Archbishop Broglio, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Many political and faith leaders, even as they prayed for Trump, also asked for prayers for the country as a whole, and particularly America’s polarized political landscape.