In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II condemns any welfare agenda that would “remove permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs…” He also warns against “enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom.” John Paul II might have been writing to the officials and Catholic social workers of St. Johnsbury when he stated that 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.” While the people of Depot Square are certainly fed and housed, not to mention given medical treatment for which they will never be able to pay, John Paul II would remind us 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.”
Pope Benedict XVI points to this deep human need in Caritas in Veritatae – the need for each person to be recognized as “a subject who is always capable of giving something to others,” and not as a mere receptacle of material goods. While some Catholics believe the State is doing its Christian duty to the people of Depot Square by giving them all they need to subsist and asking for nothing in return, Benedict XVI insists that recognizing “reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being … is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state.” The neglect of this principle “gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.”
Despite these teachings, Catholics have largely failed to treat the poor in accordance with their dignity. In the tumultuous decades that followed Vatican II, there has been much division among Catholics. Catholic factions run the gamut from radical traditionalists who defend the Inquisition to radical progressive Catholics who are practically indistinguishable from their secular activist counterparts. Faced with sharp divisions among their flocks, Catholic leaders often fall silent on the Catholic teachings that would stir up any further contention. Cardinal Dolan remembers the beginning of his own failure to preach solid morality in “the mid- and late ‘60s,” when “Catholics in general got the impression that what the Second Vatican Council taught, first and foremost, is that we should be chums with the world, and that the best thing the Church can do is become more and more like everybody else.” When Rome restated the Catholic position on sexuality and reproduction in Humanæ Vitæ, says Dolan, it “brought such a tsunami of dissent, departure, disapproval of the Church, that I think most of us … kind of subconsciously said, ‘Whoa. We’d better never talk about that, because it’s just too hot to handle.’” And Cardinal Dolan was certainly correct when he recently stated that Catholic Bishops have been in support of a government takeover of healthcare since the Progressive Era of the 1920s.
So Catholic bishops have been far from standing in the way of Statist agendas among the laity. A growing faction of Marxist-influenced Catholics has long promulgated a conception of social justice that flies in the face of Catholic teachings on subsidiarity and human dignity. These Catholics have for the most part blended into the left, receiving little recognition as qua Catholic since they have nothing unique to add to the secular welfare agenda. Nevertheless, they have continually made themselves quiet and dutiful servants of the welfare state.
One prominent Catholic lobbyist whom I met at a state capital described himself to me as “an arm of the bishopric.” He gave flamboyant lip-service to the Church’s position on traditional marriage and abortion, but he also prided himself on being more open-minded than other religious lobbyists when it comes to Labor Unions and State human service providers – with whom he makes backroom deals that close down the diocese’s private parochial schools and quash private religious charities to make more room for anti-family public education and pro-abortion “women’s health” clinics.
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