Caring for the Least

It looks as if we are going to be hit with a full court press by “progressives” to stem the tide of Catholic voters moving toward the Republican Party. The strategy is to link the social welfare programs of the Democratic Party with Christ’s call to care for the least of our brethren.

Columnists Fr. Richard McBrien and Sr. Joan Chittister are already huffing and puffing and waving their arms looking to trap in the backcourt, while Catholic columnists such as Mark Shields and Maureen Dowd are doing their part in the secular media to close off the passing lanes.

They are telling us that it makes little sense to work to protect the rights of the fetus if we are not going to provide the child with government assistance to secure its educational and medical needs after it is born; that the Democrats’ commitment to poverty programs makes them “more moral” from a Catholic perspective than the Republicans, notwithstanding the Democrats’ positions on issues such as abortion and homosexual marriage; that Republicans are “indifferent to the plight of the poor.”

Are those who take this stance sincere? For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that they are. Let’s take them at their word and accept that they can’t see how a Catholic would back a candidate who is more concerned with corporate profits and keeping taxes low than with than with supporting federal programs that care for the least of our brethren, even if that candidate is “with the Church” on the question of abortion and homosexual marriage. My question is why Catholics who favor the social programs of the Democratic Party as a way of promoting social justice cannot give the same benefit of the doubt to those who think those programs do no such thing.

Why do they assume that greed is what motivates those who think we have been on the wrong track toward dealing with poverty since the days of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty? You would think liberal Democrats who have spent their lives arguing against closed-mindedness and for “dialogue” would be willing to accept that there are Catholics who are sincere in their conviction that there are better ways to promote social justice than by giving more money to Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton to spend.

Consider the following observations by Myron Magnet from the February 25th issue of The Wall Street Journal. Magnet is editor of The City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The Manhattan Institute is a free-market think tank. But so what? If what Magnet says makes sense, it makes sense. Or, to be more precise, if a Catholic is convinced that Magnet makes sense, why accuse that Catholic of being a greedy Republican indifferent to the plight of the poor?

Magnet starts by agreeing with the Church’s teaching that we have a responsibility to care for those who genuinely cannot care for themselves. The man is no Social Darwinist: “Yes, we need a safety net,” he writes. “But we don’t need a European-style welfare state. What’s called for is the traditional American ‘opportunity society,’ as much a boon to the poor as to everyone else.” In other words, Magnet is offering not a way to escape our responsibility for social justice, but what he believes is a better way to care for the least of our brethren.

Magnet prods us to reject the “liberal orthodoxy about how to help the poor, which a half century’s worth of experience has discredited. If you want to help,” he argues, “liberate them from dependency through welfare reform; free their communities from criminal anarchy through activist policing; give them the education they need to succeed in a modern economy by holding their schools accountable; and let them enjoy the rewards of work by taxing their modest wages lightly — or not at all.”

What does he mean by “liberating them from dependency through welfare reform”? He contends that welfare payments often provide the “money to fuel self-destructive behavior. Rather than understand that an inner transformation is what such a person needs, the welfare worker might well try to persuade him that his plight stems from an unjust economy, which provides him insufficient opportunity, or even purposely keeps a fraction of the population unemployed, so as to hold down the wages of those who are working. His problem thus is the result of vast, impersonal forces, of which he is the victim (and doubly the victim if he is black in “racist America”). In other words, capitalism is inherently defective and unjust, and therefore we need a welfare state to mitigate its harshness.”

But is it fair to contend that a caseworker might lead a welfare recipient to think along these lines? I don’t find it implausible at all. At the risk of being insufficiently nuanced, Magnet’s rendition of what a caseworker might say to his client sounds very much like what you can find on a regular basis in the pages of America and the National Catholic Reporter.

Magnet contends that Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty “created a corrosive self-pity and resentment among the children of its beneficiaries, and their children’s children. The self-pity led to drink and drugs, the resentment to crime and violence.” The result has been “a perpetuation of irresponsibility, dysfunction, and failure over generations” that makes the urban underclass and rural poor ill-equipped to take advantage of the opportunities for work in this country that millions of recent immigrants, legal and illegal, have seized upon to advance themselves economically.

What does Magnet propose as an alternative to the welfare state? Pretty much what has been advocated by supply-side economists over the past few decades. “What has always made America exceptional is limitless opportunity for everyone, at all levels — the ability to find a job, to advance up the ladder as you improve yourself, and to prosper. The poor especially have flocked to these shores for just this chance, and proved the promise true. A giant welfare state,” in contrast, “hampers the job creation that makes all this opportunity possible.”

At this point, many Catholics, on both the Left and the Right, will bristle, protest that Magnet is overly confident in the workings of the free market. They will argue that he offers an unfair, one-sided picture of the effects of poverty programs on the poor; that there are millions of Americans who have relied upon temporary government support to get through times of economic distress to go on to become productive, contributing members of society.

Fair enough. If a Catholic takes this position he is expressing a political point of view — to which he is entitled. He is reacting to his observations about the impact of poverty programs on the poor and the economy in general. He is expressing confidence that the federal government can be an effective instrument of social justice. There is nothing contrary to the Church’s social teachings in thinking that way. One could point to numerous passages in the social encyclicals that support such a point of view.

But it is also in line with the Church’s social teachings to look at the world around us and conclude that Magnet is on target; that the European welfare-state model cannot work; that less government involvement in the economy promotes the economic growth that creates the jobs and economic opportunities that continue to draw immigrants to our shores; that jobs are what the poor need, not more government programs, no matter how well-intended those programs may be. The social encyclicals leave room for prudential judgment about what level of government regulation of the economy is called for at any particular moment in time. That is what the principle of subsidiarity is all about.

Magnet’s line of reasoning may be wrong. That case can be made. Get out your calculator and give us the numbers if you think so. But it is a cheap shot to assume that those who agree with him are expressing a disregard for the social teachings of the Church.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage