Welfare is a divisive issue in America, widely identified with the liberal left. Catholics, many of whom identify as conservative, are opposed to over-generous welfare compensation. There is a widespread belief that welfare is a bad thing, that it is a gateway to socialism, laziness and a host of other social ills. But is this true? What does the Church teach?
Welfare is widely seen as a liberal issue, but it was first proposed by a conservative. The ultra-conservative German strongman, Otto von Bismarck, proposed welfare benefits for the German people as a defense against socialism.
By adopting a few socialist programs, Bismarck reasoned he could stave off a full-blown socialist takeover. The strategy worked and the German people began enjoying health insurance, disability insurance and social security for the elderly before the turn of the twentieth century.
The Catholic Church does not endorse any particular political or economic philosophy. It has at times condemned the natural excesses of communism, socialism and capitalism alike.
The Church’s primary interest is people and their well-being. People who are suffering, starving, unemployed or otherwise destitute naturally have a hard time growing in their faith. They become preoccupied with survival and less concerned with God. To keep people in this state is a sin. It divides people from God. God has asked us to care for the poor, the sick, the refugee and those in need.
To facilitate this goal, God has also provided wealth. Abundant harvests, natural resources and more have all been given as gifts from God. However, these are not intended for the benefit of a lucky or industrious few, but rather for the benefit of all humanity.
The Bible repeatedly warns that our wealth should be used to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, and to cure the sick. And we must not give of this wealth grudgingly, but with a cheerful heart.
Wealth, like children, belongs to God. We cannot on the one hand say our children belong to God so we may not abort them, but on the other, our wealth belongs to ourselves. This is a form of hypocrisy recognized by the Church.
Just as Satan says to the new mother she may abort her child at whim, so too does Satan whisper that we may spend our wealth on our own whims alone.
The Church recognizes that the state has a duty to collect and redistribute wealth to the poor as a check against greed and individualism.
It is here that some Christians argue that Paul once wrote: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” This is a common retort by Christian conservatives whose aim is to prevent the loss of their wealth. Yet the common understanding of the passage is out of context. In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (See: 2 Thess 3:10), he was attempting to combat a heresy (See: 2 Thess 2:2-12).
Specifically, some people in that early Christian community believed the return of Christ was imminent, and as a result they saw no need for further labor. Paul sought to break this heresy and warned against it, adding that people who cling to it should not be fed -as a means of forcing them to acknowledge the ridiculousness of their belief. There is no reason the words should be applied in the present day. Indeed, a reliance on this scripture while ignoring so many others would be a deliberate ignorance.
Beginning in 1891, the Church began to speak in favor of programs that benefit the poor. Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, or The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor. The encyclical was intented to combat the rising threat of socialism, but it also stated the wealthy have an obligation to care for the poor, and that it is the government that should lead this effort. The government has a right to tax and to administer the revenue for the benefit of the poor.
Since then, the Church has issued a list of basic rights for the worker. Those rights include just wages, rest and leisure, and many other basic benefits. Included are rights to assistance during unemployment, a pension for old age, and provision for illness and injury. Even family leave and the right to form an association are included.
Has the Church gone full socialist?
No. The Church recognizes the importance of private property. However, it is the responsibility of the individual to consider the common good when making decisions. And it is also the right and duty of government to administer the needs of the poor by collecting a fair and reasonable tax from those of better means.
The Church recognizes that too much private ownership can be a bad thing too. There needs to be a balance, enforced by a just government.
So shall the wealth of those who work be appropriated to feed the laziness of others with the blessing of the Church?
There will always be those who take and contribute nothing despite their ability to do better. However, these people are more rare than commonly believed. And they should not be used as an excuse, which isa disingenuous attempt to divert attention away from the obvious greed of the taxpayer. Far more good people are aided by welfare benefits, and this ought to be enough justification. How a person spends their benefits is an individual matter between them and God.
However, the Church does not agree to the free flow of money without restriction either. Instead, the Church advocates the money be used to give the poor with the means to lift themselves out of danger.
In other words, the money should be spent on programs such as education and infrastructure that intend the elimination of poverty. The causes of poverty must be targeted, not merely the symptoms.
The American taxpayer has plenty to complain about. It is already offensive they must pay taxes to finance abortion, wars, and the greed of a few oligarchs. Indeed, this is where the vast majority of their taxes go. But American taxpayers often have a habit of cursing the welfare recipient and not the warmonger or crooked politico. Their anger is badly misplaced.
There needs to be a reversal. When the money Americans spend on defense is spent instead on infrastructure and the elimination of poverty can America consider itself victorious. Indeed, poverty is far more a killer and a driver of suffering than even a limited, yet expensive armed conflict.
The Church has made this clear. The state has an obligation to collect taxes from the taxpayer and to wisely redistribute those funds to alleviate poverty. The Christian has a duty to pay those taxes and to support such a program.
The programs should not be self-serving and they should be effective. They should have the aim of destroying poverty, not perpetuating it. But even here the taxpayer has a responsibility to contribute and to demand better as they go. At no time and for no reason should the hungry go without food or the homeless without shelter.
Remember, it is more important to be Catholic than wealthy.