Catholic Social Teaching and the Welfare State

It might surprise some to learn that the basic idea behind the “welfare state” did not originate with either Marxist revolutionaries or bleeding-heart liberals, but rather with a head of state usually identified with conservatism: Otto von Bismarck. Faced with a growing threat from the German socialist movement, in the 1880s Bismarck established four programs that were essentially the minimum of the socialist program: health insurance, accident insurance (or workmen’s compensation), disability insurance, and a retirement fund for the elderly. By implementing these programs, the German leader hoped to steal some of the thunder from the socialists and prevent a revolutionary uprising.
In the United States, a similar motivation guided the architects of the New Deal, Social Security, and other programs now grouped under the broad heading “welfare state.” One might never know, based on today’s heated political rhetoric, that the idea behind the welfare state was to prevent, not bring about, socialism. Yet since the 2008 campaign, welfare, along with regulation and redistribution, have become synonymous with “socialism” in America.

Catholics have been as divided over these issues as the nation at large, with nearly everyone interested in the political debate combing the social doctrines of the Church to support one theory at the expense of another. So where precisely does the Church stand on the issue of welfare?
Beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the Church, to use the phrase of Pope John Paul II, declared her “citizenship status” and began to take a more active interest in social and economic questions. While that encyclical was primarily concerned with the socialist revolutionary threat against the right of private property, Leo also had something to say about the role of the state with respect to the poor and laboring masses. He wrote:
[W]hen there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.
This concern for the poor in general and the poor worker in particular has been a consistent theme of Catholic social doctrine since the time of Leo’s writing (1891, not long after the Bismarckian reforms). The Church has recognized a de facto bill of rights for the working class in all countries, rights that are “based on the nature of the human person and on his transcendent dignity.” These rights are drawn from the many social encyclicals that have been written in the last 120 years, and are summarized and listed in paragraph 301 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
They are:
  • The right to a just wage.
  • The right to rest.
  • The right to a working environment and to manufacturing processes that are not harmful to the workers’ physical health or moral integrity.
  • The right that one’s personality in the workplace should be safeguarded without suffering any affront to one’s conscience or personal dignity.
  • The right to appropriate subsidies necessary for the subsistence of unemployed workers and their families.
  • The right to a pension and to insurance for old age, sickness, and in case of work-related accidents.
  • The right to social security connected with maternity.
  • The right to assemble and form associations.
Naturally we’re faced with a problem, which begins with a widely divergent use and meaning of words as they are employed by the Church on the one hand and partisans of secular politics on the other. For instance, it is clear that some of the rights on this list are the responsibility of government on some level, thus perhaps relegating them to the realm of the modern conception of welfare, while others bring with them corresponding duties for those responsible for employing workers, meaning restrictions on the rights of property owners. For some, any attempt to treat these rights as legally binding — that is to say, as actual rights, instead of polite suggestions — would therefore amount to some sort of “socialism.” Those who hold this view tend to argue that either the popes didn’t know what they were talking about when they originally defined and condemned socialism, or that the people associating legitimate policies from a Catholic perspective with “socialism” are the ones without a clue.
Regardless, Catholics have no grounds to categorically reject government involvement in the economy, or the redistribution of wealth. Pope Pius XI, in the social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, makes two points worth remembering:
  1. That given the clear failures of individualism as a philosophy applied dogmatically to economic matters, “it is most necessary that economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle.” This is as true in the wake of our own economic crisis as it was during the Great Depression, when Pius XI originally wrote these words.
  2. This principle does not exclude the action of the state, for “when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods . . . from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction.”
On these two points there is some convergence between the basic idea of the welfare state and Catholic social doctrine; in order to preserve a system of private property and free enterprise, some wealth must be appropriated and some regulations established by a legitimate government in the service of the common good.
The Church has been skeptical of the growth of the welfare state over time. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II criticized the welfare state on the grounds that it usurped what is properly reserved to individuals, families, and local communities. This criticism is often invoked not only as a sort of final word for Catholics on welfare, but also as an endorsement of a laissez-faire approach to social and economic issues.
But John Paul II goes on to make two things quite clear: first, that the modern welfare state that he’s criticizing does not constitute a blanket condemnation of all welfare policies, especially of the sort initially promoted by Bismarck or even the American liberals of the 1930s. Second, in keeping with Pius XI, he argues that individualism is not the antidote to excessive statism but is in fact another force as hostile to the notion of solidarity and charity as the welfare state is to the principle of subsidiarity.
As he writes:
The individual today is often suffocated between two poles represented by the State and the marketplace. At times it seems as though he exists only as a producer and consumer of goods, or as an object of State administration. People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the State as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve.
Given all of this, I sometimes wonder about the blanket conservative rejection of the welfare state. If charity is superior to welfare, why is it not more widely practiced to the point where welfare would be entirely superfluous? Is it because people assume that there is a welfare state to take care of problems they would love to take care of themselves through their own charitable donations, but see no need to? Or is it because the atomization of society through the operations of an amoral marketplace has created a society that, to use John Paul II’s term, has become “personalized”? If charity is not forthcoming from a society of individualistic consumers, how else are the poor and desperate to find the relief they need?
I am not an ardent supporter of the welfare state, insofar as it treads upon those areas of social life that would violate the principle of subsidiary. At the same time, however, there are certain needs and rights that would not be met even in the minimum if all state assistance were to dry up tomorrow. It often appears to those of us who support at least some welfare provisions that those who oppose them in an angry, categorical sense are simply concerned about their own bank accounts, forgetting entirely the Christian teaching (in both Scripture and Tradition) about the nature and purpose of wealth. It was summarized by Pius XI:
[A] person’s superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.
One may legitimately ask whether the government should play any role in seeing that a person uses his extra income as it ought to be used. The idea of “forced charity” is a contradiction in terms. However, how can we ever ensure that charity is actually performed without admonishing the sinner? Far from admonishing, there are many who lavish endless praise on the excessively wealthy and appear more concerned with safeguarding their money than with the condition of the poor or the integrity of society. What the wealthy do with their money is often of far less concern to them than whether or not a poor person harbors an envious thought towards them. These priorities are skewed.
In addressing the problem of persistent poverty, we might take a page from the playbook of Aristotle, the original distributist. In book XI of the Politics he notes that extra state revenues should not simply be given away to the poor, because such a remedy is like “pouring water into a leaky cask”: It does not solve the problem and may end up making it worse. What he does suggest, however, is what distributists suggest today:
[M]easures therefore should be taken which will give [the poor] lasting prosperity; and as this is equally the interest of all classes, the proceeds of the public revenues should be accumulated and distributed among its poor, if possible, in such quantities as may enable them to purchase a little farm, or, at any rate, make a beginning in trade or husbandry.
Sadly, this idea — updated for the realities of the modern economy as we see in encyclicals such as Laborem Exercens — is wholly overlooked in modern political discourse. Distributism in the Aristotelian and Catholic tradition is the answer to the twin evils of consumerist selfishness and isolation, as well as over-dependence on a powerful government. It is the key to regenerating the community and its economy, strengthening the position of the family, creating a local infrastructure to support a Culture of Life, and better managing the wild swings of the global marketplace.
When it leads to dependence, laziness, and the usurpation of the legitimate role of local institutions, welfare is indeed both harmful and sinful. But if through wise policies it can be made to strengthen those institutions and make them more competent in their tasks, then complaints about redistribution of excessive wealth — clearly understood as wealth beyond what one needs to maintain a dignified life — ring hollow. Such policies in truth ask so little and promise so much that it would be irrational not to try them.
In the end there is no difference between the conservative who wants total freedom with respect to wealth and the liberal who wants the same with respect to sexuality. Both argue that society shouldn’t use coercion to ensure a moral result in the area of life where they would like freedom to sin. Both are sure that while God would insist that one be regulated by the secular authorities, the other is left to personal conscience. While abortion is a more grave matter than clinging to personal wealth, the same flawed argument is used to defend it: It’s my body, it’s my wealth, it’s my property. But all things belong to God, be they children or wealth, and are merely entrusted to us to be used for the common good.

Joe Hargrave


Joe Hargrave is an adjunct professor of political science at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona.