The Church and the End of the Welfare State

The Catholic Difference | Published on July 27, 2012

By George Weigel

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Throughout the post-Vatican II years, the U.S. bishops’ conference has typically defended the welfare state and not infrequently urged its expansion. Everyone familiar with the situation knows that this has had far more to do with the political predilections of certain conference staff members than with the settled judgment of the American episcopate — or with a careful application of the principles of Catholic social doctrine. But things are changing.

A new generation of bishops is not quite as sure as its predecessors that “social justice” always equals “government program.” The rise of aggressive secularism within both state and federal social welfare agencies has also been a sobering experience, as bishops across the country have found that the Church’s success in foster care or work with sex-trafficked women doesn’t count in the eyes of government bureaucrats determined to impose the LGBT and abortion-on-demand agendas with the funding tools at their disposal.

Catholic default positions in favor of shoring up, even expanding, the post-World War II American social welfare state must also be re-examined because of certain undeniable realities. Catholic social doctrine is a tradition of moral realism: it takes facts seriously. And the increasing burden of the evidence is that the social welfare state as we have known it is dying — and in fact deserves to die.

It is dying, in both Europe and the United States, because it is unaffordable. Shaky economic models and a demographic winter throughout the western world have combined to drive the social welfare state as we have known it into a fiscal wall (or over a fiscal cliff; choose your image). As my colleague Yuval Levin has put it, neither Europe or the United States can rationally or responsibly go where the long-term trends suggest we’re heading: “to debts that utterly overwhelm [our] productive capacities, governments that do almost nothing but support the elderly, and economies with no room for dynamism, for growth, or for youth.”

The social welfare state is also dying because it is grossly inefficient. The Progressive movement’s claim that government agencies run by specialists highly-trained in the social sciences could be compassionate, responsive, and efficient has been falsified by reality. Social welfare bureaucracies just don’t work that way. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t good men and women doing noble work in government social welfare agencies; it means that the system itself is incapable of responding to the churnings of our times, the variety of human problems our culture creates, or the moral defects that underlie so many contemporary social pathologies.

And that, from a Catholic social doctrine point of view, is the key to understanding the demise of the post-World War II social welfare state: it’s eroded the moral culture that makes free and responsible citizenship in self-governing democracies possible. Yuval Levin again: “The attempt to rescue the citizen from the burdens of responsibility has undermined the family, self-reliance, and self-government” – and it has done this, not from a lack of compassion or resources, but because the social welfare state by its nature creates dependencies that erode the virtues necessary for genuine human flourishing.

Rather than expending fruitless energies defending the social welfare state as we know it — in the first few months of 2012, the bishops’ conference (as represented by its domestic policy committee) issued letters urging renewed or expanded funding for some twenty federal social welfare programs — the Catholic Church in the United States should be at the forefront of exploring the path beyond the welfare state, stressing the moral and cultural dimensions of that necessary journey.

The Church has no special expertise in the technicalities of public policy; and in any event, the Church ought never have measured “social justice” by budget line-items. What the Church knows is the truth about the human person, and that truth includes the importance of responsibility, honesty, self-reliance, and solidarity. Those just happen to be virtues essential to the free, dynamic, and compassionate societies that moral reason and Catholic social doctrine call us to build in the post-welfare state future.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.