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.