The alliance of political and religious forces pushing back against the welfare state is overdue, and the challenge is enormous. It has also created a new and terrible temptation for the Church.
Earlier this month, Mark Steyn wrote an article at NRO in which he painted a very accurate picture of my hometown. St. Johnsbury is nestled in the hills of Northern Vermont, surrounded by what used to be dairy farmland. A visitor might travel there expecting to find an old-timey safe-haven of family friendly French-Canadian Catholic neighborhoods. Imagine entering this little hamlet through a tunnel-gate of pines and maples on an old dirt road, passing the silos and cornfields of Passumpsic on the way to the Congregational Church. There you'll meet some of the folks who keep the town’s community together (whether it wants to be or not). If you leave the church and hang a right down Eastern Avenue, you’ll come to Depot Square, where very few of the folks from any local churches can be found – except a Catholic social worker or two. In the dead waters of Depot Square, there’s no one left who does the work that first built and kept St. Johnsbury alive. Many tenants of this government-subsidized section of housing are second- and third-generation dependents who’ve never had a full-time job in their life.
“Their grandparents got up at four in the morning to work the farm,” writes Steyn, “and their great-great-great-whatever-parents slogged up the Connecticut River, cleared the land, and built homes and towns and a civilization in the wilderness.” But those days are tragically over. He goes on to describe the new St. Johnsbury, the blighted town where I grew up: “A couple of months back, I sat in the café in St. Johnsbury, and overheard a state official and a Chamber of Commerce official discuss enthusiastically how the town could access some federal funds to convert an abandoned building into welfare housing.” As much as Steyn’s state officials and my Catholic social workers would like to think they’re doing the poor a favor, they’ve really let them down.
Make no mistake: the welfare agenda is not a tool for Catholic Social Justice. In its very philosophical underpinnings, the welfare state is an anti-Christian institution. The agenda that relieves people of their freedoms and responsibilities also removes from them their dignity as moral agents. It should come as no surprise that when we got universalized state healthcare, we also got a universalized state conscience. Under the welfare state, individuals – and even voluntary associations like the Catholic Church – cannot make independent choices in providing for their own. In a progressive state like Vermont, the same statist ideology that now brings us the HHS mandate has been at work for decades. But even before the mandate came along, the highest abortion rates in the country were found in the progressive, big-government States of the Northeast, especially among the poor dependent class. Abortion is the much uglier but certainly blood-related sister of the Welfare State.
The demoralizing effect of state dependance is unmistakable in a place like Depot Square, St. Johnsbury, where a high percentage of the girls reach obesity by the age of twelve, and many of the boys land in juvenile detention before they land their first job. “Self-reliance – ‘work’ – is intimately connected to human dignity,” writes Steyn. He stands against the bureaucrats who assume that the Depot Square tenant is “a feeble child … The elites think a smart society will be wealthy enough to relieve the masses from the need to work.” But the people of St. Johnsbury show the reality of such a society, which is really nothing other than “neo-feudal, but with fatter, sicker peasants.” Steyn hits the nail on the head when he points out that when we try to impose social justice by growing the welfare state, we cause not only an “‘economic inequality,’ but a far more profound kind, and seething with resentments.”
Mark Steyn gets it. Along with many others on the American political right, he understands that the Welfare State represents an immoral violation of human dignity. And as a Catholic, I must agree with him. And I’m not alone.
John Courtney Murray, the father of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, warned against an ideology that conceives of the State as an ever-growing provider for the ever-evolving “wants” of society. In this setting, “socially desirable objectives” are no longer “received” from society itself … rather, they are conceived in committee and imposed on society.” Thus the State “tends to lose its character of servant, and assume that of master.”
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