Can a Catholic be a Collectivist?

Should Catholics today work, as a matter of conscience, toward ever broader bureaucratic responsibility for human well-being in general?

That result seems to follow from current ways of thinking. “Love thy neighbor” implies an ethic of mutual assistance. The democratic view that we act through government, together with the industrial approach to getting things done reliably, which is now thought simply rational, seem to imply the social services state as a necessary consequence.

The point is confirmed by the language of rights that the Church has now adopted: everyone has a right to food, shelter, medical care, employment, and many other things. “Rights” normally mean enforceable individual entitlements. If other institutions don’t deliver, government should step in and make sure what’s needed gets done; otherwise, it’ll be denying basic human rights. So welfare rights recognized by the Church seem to obligate government to guarantee everyone a materially decent standard of living regardless of circumstances.

And then there is the notion of solidarity, which makes everyone our neighbor, and seems to call for an arrangement through which each looks after all. It is also confirmed by considerations of justice and mercy. Some people have practical problems, with no one to help them, through no fault of their own. Others are at fault, but the consequences seem disproportionate, especially when compared with other people who do worse without similar problems. And even when the faults seem great, who knows what really happened or what we would have done in their place?

Above all, Christ emphasized forgiveness and mercy, and tells us not to judge. So it seems the social order should be set up to minimize the results of bad luck and even bad conduct in all cases. Given current ways of thinking and doing things, that means that an ever more comprehensive and global welfare state is part of any minimally adequate response to human misfortune and failure.

Nor should Christians be content with the minimum. Love and mercy know no limits. So in the name of ever greater solidarity, it seems that government should work to overcome every human distinction people may feel as a disadvantage. To avoid invidious distinctions between welfare dependency and self-support, for example, it seems that government should, as a matter of equal citizenship, provide as many basic goods and services as possible gratis to all.

On such a view the Christian social ideal turns out to be a sort of politically correct egalitarian collectivism, a society in which everyone equally supports everyone and no invidious distinctions are permissible or even possible.

Nonetheless, such a result radically opposes the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity. As the Catechism says:

The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities.… The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism.… (par. 1884)

Such pronouncements never have much effect. The problem is that any non-centralized system will always have some cases that don’t get covered, certainly not immediately and reliably, and doing something effective about those cases seems morally necessary. They are instances of marginalization, so it seems we ought to put them at the center of attention. And given current assumptions about agency and rational action, that means moving toward universal direct government responsibility for everything.

Rejecting that result means rejecting the democratic logic that government acts are our acts, and the technocratic logic that factory-style organization is the way to make sure things happen reliably. That seems possible as a rational matter. A society as big and complex as the United States can’t possibly be run democratically in any sense strong enough to justify identifying acts of the government with acts of the people. And even if it could, the acts wouldn’t be acts of anyone in particular, so they wouldn’t discharge the obligation of Catholics to act justly and charitably.

Beyond that, moralism with regard to government is a tricky business. On the whole, laws and legal structures are a matter of general policy, to be judged by their overall prudence and long-term effect. Since bureaucratic ineptitude is a byword, it’s absurd to mistake setting up a bureaucracy for dealing with a problem. Men are not raw materials or manufactured products, so entirely different methods and assumptions are needed. The failure of socialism, and the apparent effect of social programs on small-scale social functioning, as reflected in statistics on crime, birth rate, and family life, suggest that it’s destructive to give government general responsibility for individual outcomes.

These may be good arguments, but most people aren’t really convinced. Current assumptions have saturated our outlook on the world too deeply. In a technocratic society it’s not clear what would replace bureaucratic social supports if they were yanked—communal and family ties can’t be relied on, and private charity seems a drop in the bucket—and the democratic faith survives all debunking because without it we seem to become social atoms. As a result, accepting such views can seem like evading obligations with arguments we don’t accept elsewhere. That is why temporary disillusion leading to privatization or welfare reform soon gives way to renewed faith in Hope and Change. This time, people believe, investments in human services will bring about a fundamental transformation that does away with poverty, inequality, exclusion, and what not else. For many, the alternative to that belief is to live without hope.

To change social ideals and find different sources of hope we need to live and understand the world differently. There are of course Catholic reasons to move toward understandings and ways of life radically different from those common around us. Doing so would make the relation among the state, non-state initiatives, and individual well-being, along with everything else, look very different. Before that happens, though, there are still reasons for Catholics to pause before they put whatever political influence they have behind the social services state.

The most important reason has to do with the ultimate goal of such a state, which is not simply a matter of feeding the hungry and healing the sick. The social services state, oriented toward the current understanding of social justice, accepts comprehensive responsibility for human well-being. For that reason, it has to have a comprehensive understanding of the human good. But what is that understanding?

In the nature of things it can know very little about human acts, virtues, and relationships in individual cases. So if it is to be responsible for well-being it can’t allow its version of it to have much to do with those things.

In addition, the system it establishes must work in a clear and predictable way to realize its goals. For the sake of its ability to determine results in individual cases, it must deprive independent institutions like Church and family of authority and responsibility and reduce them to private diversions or consumption choices. And it’s intended as the standard way to deal with serious human problems, so its own stability and effectiveness become the highest standards of all.

These necessities exclude freedom and agency for anyone but the state itself. The Choice it exalts as a supreme goal can’t relate to morally serious matters. It can only relate to aspects of private life with no serious effect on other individuals: career, private diversions, consumption choices, and the like. In order to maximize control, the social justice/social services state must minimize man.

Such predictions may sound theoretical and unconnected to the concerns and intentions of those involved, but basic principles have a logic of their own. We see around us the results of the current understanding of justice and the human good. Even if the understanding isn’t put wholly into practice its presence as an authoritative ideal powerfully affects social life.

We live under a regime whose highest authorities reject natural law and the basis of social order in the natural family as constitutionally abhorrent, and that persecutes those who do not go along. The Catechism (par. 1901) tells us that “regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good.” It follows that attempts to achieve Catholic ends politically are now quite unlikely to be successful. Obamacare provides a recent example. For that reason, it seems that what the Church should do politically is defend its right to be what it is and its members’ right to live as Catholics, and otherwise to concentrate on proclaiming and acting directly on its principles, rather than muting them for the sake of trying to advance some of their implications through structures that reject them categorically.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared July 7, 2015 at Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).