Are Catholics required to support a continually expanding welfare state?

Rev. Thomas V. Berg, professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, NY, and James C. Capretta, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, have written a relatively short but very helpful analysis of criticisms leveled by some Catholic bishops at Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan. After discussing the uproar caused by the mid-1990’s welform reforms (I recall that one of the first homilies I ever heard, as a new Catholic, was about the “evil” nature of those reforms), the authors write:

The mistake that some Catholic leaders made in 1995 and 1996 is the same mistake some seem to be making today, which is to equate more federal spending on programs for the poor with the morally superlative approach from the perspective of Catholic social teaching.

Such thinking is oddly negligent of a pillar of Catholic social thought, namely, that no institution is more vital to a healthy society than intact families, with married fathers and mothers raising their children together. Unfortunately, over the past half century, we have witnessed the near total destruction of the family in low-income neighborhoods all across America—neighborhoods in which federal anti-poverty support is ubiquitous. Today, out-of-wedlock births are the norm in these communities, not the exception, with more than 70 percent of African-American children born to unwed mothers.

The hard truth is that the implosion of the nuclear family has coincided precisely with the ramping up of federal low-income assistance programs since the 1960s. Why? Certainly the breakdown of the family is a complex social phenomenon, with many causes. But there’s little doubt that large-scale federal assistance to low-income households with single parents and dependent children has contributed to the destruction. In effect, the federal government has underwritten massive irresponsibility on the part of low-income fathers. They don’t need to act responsibly because the federal government has woven together a massive financial assistance system for single mothers with kids. The result is that multiple generations of low-income Americans have now grown up in neighborhoods almost entirely bereft of a responsible male presence.

This is not a success story to be defended at all costs, especially from the perspective of Catholic social teaching.

There also seems to be a considerable lack of understanding among Ryan’s Catholic critics of the actual state of federal spending commitments for these programs. Listening to them, one might think that the government has been on a long-term campaign to squeeze programs for the poor and reduce or even eliminate their funding. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, spending on these programs has exploded over the past three decades. Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution recently testified that spending on the ten largest federal programs for the poor increased from $126 billion in 1980 to $626 billion in 2011. That’s a $500 billion jump in spending, in real terms (after controlling for inflation). The idea that the entirety of this massive run-up in outlays is off-limits and should not be subject to budgetary scrutiny defies common sense.

They later make this essential point:

Second, Ryan’s very public attempt to apply these principles to the federal budget have drawn helpful attention to a specific, and often misunderstood, dimension of moral thought, namely, the distinction between the level of principles, and the level of prudential application of those principles. Ryan’s proposed federal budget entitled “The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal” contains page upon page of prudential judgments that, if implemented, would affect (not eliminate) funding for social programs such as food stamps, housing for the elderly, and people with disabilities. Unlike matters where absolute moral norms come to bear (such as abortion or euthanasia), the moral realm of prudential judgment (such as applications of the principles of Catholic social teaching) is open to differing approaches and even opposing interpretations. Some Catholic bishops have opined on specific aspects of Ryan’s proposed budget. Their views should be given serious and respectful consideration by the Catholic faithful and indeed by the broader American public; their views on these matters should not, however, be given the same weight as when they formally and authoritatively teach on matters of faith and morals or render moral judgments in specific matters under their jurisdiction.

Read the entire piece, “Catholic Social Teaching and the Ryan Budget”, on the Public Discourse site. Criticisms of Ryan’s budget plan are, of course, both completely legitimate and helpful, insofar as they continue to advance and clarify the arguments being made and shed light on the pros and cons of suggested solutions. But, as is too often the case, any cuts (real, imagined, or otherwise—that is, not actual cuts, but reductions in rate of growth) to federal government spending are viewed by some—judging from the language they use—as a grave sin on par with murder, adultery, and other actual grave sins. The point is not that Ryan’s budget is beyond criticism or improvement, but that since it is proposed in good faith by a Catholic seeking to follow principles of social doctrine, it should be addressed with serious arguments, not hysterical or misleading hyperbole—especially since, as Fr. Berg and Mr. Capretta, the record for the latter ranges from dubious to very poor. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.