Private Charity Versus Government Welfare

Less than three years has passed since the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, Charity in Truth. As some readers may remember, the encyclical caused quite a stir both in secular and religious circles — as have many of the past papal encyclicals dealing with economic questions, going back to Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking 1891 exposition of social justice, Rerum Novarum.

It appears that the redaction and publication of the current encyclical was speeded up to address the ongoing global economic crisis — and that it does. This article, however, will instead take a brief look at the proper roles of private charity and government welfare in pursuing the integral development of persons, families, and countries.

Encyclicals are magisterial. That is, they are meant to be studied, prayed over, and applied to the subject at hand. However, in questions of social justice, while the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him may teach with authority, ultimately it is the laity’s role to apply the teaching to the concrete circumstances of particular countries, economies, and societies. It is at this level that there can be legitimate and perhaps diverging opinions on the ways to apply the teachings in particular cases. Rarely will there be any perfect solution.

In Charity in Truth, Pope Benedict cites Pope Paul VI, who

had an articulated vision of development. He understood the term to indicate the goal of rescuing peoples, first and foremost, from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases, and illiteracy. It meant their evolution into educated societies marked by solidarity; from a political point of view, it meant the consolidation of democratic regimes capable of ensuring freedom and peace.

However, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict both emphasize the principle of solidarity, which can be defined as “a sense of or responsibility on the part of every one with regard to everyone.” Benedict is clear that this cannot be delegated to the state alone. It seems, given his insistence on the virtue of caritas — love — that one cannot see the State as the principal caretaker of welfare or so-called “social justice.” Benedict insists again and again on what he terms “gratuitousness,” which is a reference to the long-time heart of Joseph Ratzinger’s theology: the emphasis on the sincere gift of self. We could also translate this as the “self-gift,” and find in this formulation a second meaning, since through it a person finds his true self in charity. Private charity is preferable because it is a means of growing in grace for the donor. Clearly this cannot be the case of the Leviathan government, which has no moral subject.

Pope Benedict maintains that Market plus State is simply not enough; such a reduction of social relationships is corrosive of society. We must remember that both John Paul and Benedict lived under totalitarian states that persecuted religion and were responsible for tens of millions of deaths and many martyrs. They knew that perhaps the most important factor in the slow but sure growth of early Christianity was the self-gift of early Christians and their families to those around them, which contrasted so strongly with the brutality and coarseness of the gradually decaying Roman State. Speaking of the early Church, Pope Benedict says in his first encyclical, God is Love, that,

As the years went by, and the Church spread further afield, the exercise of charity became established as one of her essential activities: love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.

Today, the Church continues to be the world’s largest private agency of charity to the indigent, as it has been through the centuries, spearheaded by figures as well known as St. Vincent de Paul, Frederic Ozanam, and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.


Along with solidarity, Benedictand indeed all of his predecessors who taught on human development and the justice of economic systems — insists on the principle of subsidiarity. He writes:

A particular manifestation of charity and a guiding criterion for fraternal cooperation between believers and non-believers is undoubtedly the principle of subsidiarity, an expression of inalienable human freedom. Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility.

The beauty of this principle is that it provides for charity only as needed while encouraging self-reliance as possible. Whether this assistance comes from the government at the local or federal level, from private charities, from the Church, or simply from relatives, it should normally be limited to getting people or families back on their feet, rather than fostering prolonged dependency — the compelling counterexample being the tens of millions of Americans on food stamps.

Benedict notes: “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism while the latter without the former gives way to paternalistic social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.”

The pope then applies these principles to foreign aid. “Such aid, whatever the donors’ intentions, can sometimes lock people into a state of dependence and even foster situations of localized oppression and exploitation in the receiving country.” He goes on to stipulate that “Economic aid, in order to be true to its purpose, must not support secondary objectives.”

It is clear from Benedict’s tour de force survey of the current state of human development that private charity is preferable to public welfare, in that it satisfies the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, and gratuitousness, or self-giving, which ennoble those who provide it and enable those who receive it as needed.

On the other hand, government assistance generally should serve as temporary help when private charity is not available or effective — the proverbial safety net — but not as a form of bribery for political purposes or as a means of gaining power over people, as if oppressive taxation and inflationary monetary policy were not means enough. After all, as the saying goes, what the government can do for you, it can also do to you.

I will let Pope Benedict have the last word:

The greatest service to development, then, is a Christian humanism that enkindles charity and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God. Openness to God makes us open towards our brothers and sisters and towards an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a Spirit of Solidarity.


Rev. C. J. McCloskey III


Fr. C. J. McCloskey III is a Church Historian and a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. After and while earning a degree in economics from Columbia University, he worked for two major firms on Wall Street. Visit his website at

  • GW


    I’d like to see you write another post, Fr. McCloskey. How about one on the relative morality of the $600 billion that the US spends on Defense every year vs. outlays for entitlement programs, especially education. Or a post about the morality of maintaining 11 carrier battle groups, while no other nation has more than one, vs the decrepit state of our schools?

    With all due respect, I view your article as providing intellectual cover for people who think that our economic woes are attributable to solely to spending on the poor, elderly, and on schoolteachers.

  • Carl

    GW page 97

    22% Military Spending
    70% Entitlements and other Social Spending

    The industrial Revolution was fueled by log cabin schools and self-taught entrepreneurs—how did we ever manage that?

    Protection is the number one job of government. A guaranteed living with all expenses paid is not mathematically possible.

  • Kathryn

    It is my understanding that much of defense spending goes to pay for the paltry salaries (often paltry) and benefits (GI Bill, pensions, etc) and VA system of current and retired military members. That said, I don’t think we can economically afford to be wasting $1 million dollar bombs in Lybia or elsewhere. Time to bring the troops home.

    I have no problem with cutting (real cuts…not so called cuts to merely reduce the planned increase, which is still an increase) education.

    Way too much bureaucracy, way too much money to spend on this and that bit of education minutia that eats into the time needed on proper penmanship, reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. AND a number of parents do NOT care about their kids education. Or else feel powerless to do anything. I hear and see so many struggles with the system of IEPs and suspected LDs, and parents who allow truancy. Why are my taxes going to pay for this?

  • Bob

    GW misses the essence of the article. As Christians, there’s a giving and receiving of grace when we personally assist the poor either by our self giving or through the Church. It is done with Christian love. There is also an affect of gratitude and grace on those receiving it. Having the federal or state government take our money and give free food, housing, education healthcare to someone who is fully caple of working for themselves robs that person of their self-worth and diginity as a human being. Is there a role for the government to provide for the marginalized, sick and truly downtrodden poor of our society? YES. But when I hear that fully 17% of our society receves some type of public handout, do we trully think that we are empowering their self-worth and personal responsibility? There are now third generations of families that are on welfare……are we really helping these people in a Christian way? Or is there a secondary political agenda to “opiate” the masses to keep certain politicians in office by making a large percentage of the population so dependent on suckling on the government teet that they will vote to keep them in office for want of free money?

    And time toend the entitlement of the public school system. Pouring more and more money in to it is a big holewith extremely poor results. One of the local public school district’s high schools spends $17,000 per student per year and only graduates 27% of its students. Keep the money in our pockets to establish our own schools, whether religious or charter, It will empower parents to have greater responsibility and involvement with their children’s education and better results.

    There is a need for the government to fill in the gaps of helping the truly needy and poor, but not to the extent we see today. One cannot help but take note of when you see over the last 40 years Asian immigrants come to our shores without barely a nickle in their pocket and work 6 days a week to better themselves and their children now populate the classrooms of IVY league schools.

    What happened in this country to personal responsibility, and “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me” attitude?

  • Michael PS

    If expenditure on defence is legitimate, then, surely, expenditure to keep public order is similarly justified.

    If we want to curtail welfare spending, are we ready for a repetition of the June Days of 1848, following the closure of National Workshops? Then, the Liberals secured a victory over the Radical Republicans, but at the cost of 1,500 dead in combat and thousands of summary executions of prisoners. The Assembly, one recalls, welcomed the surrender of the last barricade with cries of “Long Live the Republic!” What they got, inevitably, was Napoleon III; as Marx observed, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

    Nowadays, when governments depend for their legitimacy on media coverage and the cult of personality, it is pretty generally recognised that welfare cheques, drug-dealing and cheap alcohol are indispensible guarantees of the political order.

  • Brian English

    “Nowadays, when governments depend for their legitimacy on media coverage and the cult of personality, it is pretty generally recognised that welfare cheques, drug-dealing and cheap alcohol are indispensible guarantees of the political order.”

    So your advice is to let things stay that way?

    And the country managed to exist for almost 200 years without welfare checks and drug dealing (the cheap alcohol is a different issue), so I doubt the validity of your recipe for government success.

  • Michael PS

    Well, as Talleyrand said “governing has never been anything other than postponing, by a thousand subterfuges, the moment when the mob will lynch you, and every act of government is nothing but a way of not losing control of the people.”

    • Brian English

      As Christians, I think we should aspire to more than Talleyrand’s cynicism.

      • Michael PS

        Well, Talleyrand was Bishop of Autun


  • We have 11 carrier groups, precisely because our allies don’t, and someone had to protect the supply lines between the U.S. and Europe during the Cold War when Russia had submarines everywhere. We are basically the standing Army and Navy of the European Union, and have been so since World War II. The fact that we have more carrier groups than any other nation is because we have taken on more responsibility than any other nation.

  • Tony Esolen

    I believe that the Department of Education should be phased out of existence. Word is that they’re gearing up for a national curriculum, to be spread not by voters’ decisions but by the threat that federal funds would be withheld from districts that don’t comply. Totalitarianism.

    If we had intact families in our cities, we could improve education quite a lot, and at no expense. Indeed, children from intact families are actually much easier to teach — cheaper to teach — than otherwise. But no one wants to talk about the symbiosis between Leviathan and the broken family. I’d recommend Bryce Christensen’s book, Utopia Against the Family.

  • Tom

    Fr, Catholic charity care for children is nearly non-existent, so are pediatric catholic hospitals and clinics. Subsidiary defines what works. For children medical care, its called Medicaid, and those that participate in that program. Even the mostly Republican Governors Association stated in 2005 “Medicaid is Efficient Compared to Private Health Coverage”.

    Without Medicaid, child mortality would be significantly higher. I guess the Holy Spirit must be working with those that help within the Medicaid system, even if it is, gasp, from the “government”.

    • Brian English

      “Fr, Catholic charity care for children is nearly non-existent, so are pediatric catholic hospitals and clinics. ”

      I wonder what happened to all of them?

      “Without Medicaid, child mortality would be significantly higher. I guess the Holy Spirit must be working with those that help within the Medicaid system, even if it is, gasp, from the “government”.”

      If you look at child mortality rates, they had been declining dramatically long before Medicaid was instituted in 1965.

      • Tom

        Mortality rates have been coming down in general for over a century, with better sanitation and nutrition alone. But in 2008, more than 36 million children in the United States received health care coverage through Medicaid or CHIP. So that means that children get, if need be, intensive neonatal care, chemotherapy if they have cancer, heart surgery if they have congenital heart defects etc… So it does save a lot of lives. The Catholic church or any other Church are in no way able to take this on, it a simple fact. That is what subsidiarity means, in practice.This does not mean that the system can not be improved further, be made more efficient, maximize dollars spent, while giving the best possible care.

        • Brian English

          And I am not saying the children should not be receiving this care. My problem is with the Church abdicating its responsibilities in this area.

          The disappearance of the network of Catholic Hospitals that used to exist is not a good thing, and I take no solace in the fact that the government has stepped into the breach.

  • One thing I see lacking in this discussion is the role of government: to work for the common good and support justice. There is also a limited understanding of charity; as Pope Benedict has pointed out, even in a perfectly just society, charity would continue: It is because charity leads to transcendence, above “original justice,” while government’s role is to promote such justice.

    I’ve written something on this today:

  • Brian English

    “Well, Talleyrand was Bishop of Autun”

    Talleyrand was a lot of things.

  • Jon Merrill

    Many on-target remarks in the article, I think, and very nice formulations: I particularly liked this one:

    “It is clear from Benedict’s tour de force survey of the current state of human development that private charity is preferable to public welfare, in that it satisfies the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, and gratuitousness, or self-giving, WHICH ENOBLE THOSE WHO PROVIDE IT AND ENABLE THOSE WHO RECEIVE IT as needed.”

    I wonder if it is really still accurate to claim, as Fr. McCloskey does in the article that:

    “Today, the Church continues to be the world’s largest private agency of charity to the indigent…”

    As the Church has now found it acceptable to adopt the mechanism of having its large “charities” sustained largely through PUBLIC funding, can today’s Church honestly claim to be a “private” agency of charity? Fr. McCloskey’s citation, at the end of that same sentence, of Catholic luminaries – “St. Vincent de Paul, Frederic Ozanam, and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta” – who would presumably illustrate the continuity of the Church’s dedication to voluntary, non-governmental (i.e., “private”) organized charity…in fact embarrassingly highlights a portentous and, I think, tragic dis-continuity, viz., the Church’s large-scale abandonment of true, freewill charity – the type that “ennobles those who provide it” – in favor of becoming a “pass-through” agency for the very type of public, government-welfare “assistance” cautioned against by Fr. McCloskey and recent popes. Certainly, within the Church, there is still considerable voluntary charitable giving to authentically private – and authentically Catholic! – “agencies” such as the ones founded by Frederic Ozanam and Mother Teresa, but if the “institutional Church,” however well-intentioned, has now chosen government funding as its default method of large-scale (faux)-charitable support (e.g., Caritas Internationalis), it has forfeited the right to call itself a PRIVATE agency of charity. St. Vincent de Paul would have known the difference, and recognized the subterfuge.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Alas, there is an awful lot of verbiage on the subject of charity. What is the meaning of such words as “subsidiarity” and the like? Our Lord emphasized repeatedly that charity is a personal effort. And must be done in His name.

    We have a fine example in the Protestant churches. When a disaster strikes, the Protestant congregations [note the origin of the word in “greges” [sheep]] react almost automatically to help their neighbors. That is charity. And it is a fine example for us all.

  • Brian English

    ” but if the “institutional Church,” however well-intentioned, has now chosen government funding as its default method of large-scale (faux)-charitable support (e.g., Caritas Internationalis), it has forfeited the right to call itself a PRIVATE agency of charity. St. Vincent de Paul would have known the difference, and recognized the subterfuge.”

    It amazes me that the Church hierarchy, for the most part, fails to recognize what a disastrous development this has been. Why would the Church put itself in a position where it is so reliant on various governments that are, at best, passively hostile to the Church?

  • Esteban

    Government taxation/spending crowds out private charity.

    Government meddling in education, health care, labor, business has made us dumber, unhealthier, and poorer.

  • Father McCloskey’s closely-reasoned report is a veiled condemnation of Western foreign aid.

    Money is given to poor nations under onerous conditions — that the money be spent buying goods from the donor nation, that the poor nation’s economic policies are in accord with those of the donor nation, that the poor nation’s social policies (e.g. abortion) are the same as that of the donor nation, etc.

    As for corporations being asked to increase their social commitments, the law requires they maximize returns to shareholders, regardless of societal consequences.

    One of our great Canadian banks paid billions to relieve itself of its involvement with Enron. Its share price declined. The bank then fired thousands of middle-managers. Shareholders cheered as their stock value went up. There was no concern for their own neighbours whose loss of employment rendered them unable to meet next month’s mortgage payment. The present structure of the stock market promotes civil discord, if not class warfare.

    After the filthy rich have amassed their fortunes, they make great public display of creating foundations, and donating a small part of their wealth to worth causes. For this, they expect the public (whom they initially exploited to make that money) to be grateful.

    And never forget, who was first in line when the U.S, Government bailed out huge corporations with the taxes of ordinary citizens.

  • Kathryn

    I offer the following article for consideration.

    Public Money for Private Charity:

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  • Peter TW

    I think the relationship between food stamps and race is stronger than the relationship between charity and dependency.
    That then refers the principle of self gift and or mutual freedom to private business and the state.
    Poverty is a consequence of a system in place, and reality in some places have qualified doctors driving taxis as some simply couldn’t pass the employers discretion.
    But given relatively fair chances to opportunities irrespective of difference can surely enable person to help themselves.

  • Kathy

    We have to get the Church back into the driver’s seat of feeding the poor and taking care of the sick, etc.
    We can hardly evangelize the poor if we’re leaving it to the government. Government money means government control, and government control means no faith.

    • Brian English

      Exactly. The government can’t transform lives.

  • Mike

    It is always frustrating to read commentary on the “Social Gospel” because it often seems to confuse people. Fr. McCloskey makes the excellent point that the morally binding aspects are really at the level of general principles ( ie subsidiarity etc..) In terms of specific policy proposals, ( Like what the top marginal tax rate should be) Obviously the Church has no competency to address, beyond the admonition that policy makers should do their best to serve the common good, and be especially mindful of the effects of a policy on the most vulnerable. Whether taxes should be raised on lowered is really a question that needs to be addressed based on an assessment of the objective data, and what the likely or actually observed effect of a given policy is. I would argue that the policies most helpful to the poor are those favored by political conservatives, since they favor economic growth, job creation, and opportunity. In general the policies favored by liberals tend to crush the poor, and is what I would do if I hated them. This is not based on my reading of any particular Church teaching. It is based on the observed effect of policies favored by liberal democrats who have been in power in most American Cities for the last 50 years. IS there any such city that is not a wreck?

  • Wilbur M Bolton

    Government programs are in the main operated for the benefit of the govt employees who work in the bureaucracies that run the programs. Other things equal, the smaller a government unit that runs a program, the easier it is to repair flaws that can only be found after the program goes into operation.
    The net effect of the “War on Poverty” installed during the Johnson administration in the 1960s (which has a ban on providing aid to a family unit in which there is an employable adult male) has been a major increase in the number of women and children in the USA living in poverty as single parent families.
    It is far more effective to help people directly, or through private agencies, than to pay the same funds in taxes to a govt unit that purports to address the same problem. Many people in the Third World live in poverty because their govts siphon off most of the foreign aid funds given to them in bribes or otherwise.
    One would think that members of the USCCB would realize this.

  • Brian English

    “One would think that members of the USCCB would realize this.”

    One would think, but one would be disappointed.

  • Cecilia Frantz

    I grow weary with people in ignorance of our laws. Education is reserved to the States by the Constitution. The State’s Governor is responsible for the schools and curriculum in the state.
    Lyndon Johnson introduce his War on Poverty, a colosal failure and waste of vast monies, and offered help to the states. The operative word is help. The Federal government cannot dictate curriculum, firing, hiring, or even additional teachers. It can only supplement. It may not supplant. Since then, the myth has grown that the Feds run our schools. They would like to.

    GW mentioned the state of our education. Well GW contact your Governor.

  • Tim

    Sadly we have lost our way. We seem to have come to care more for the body than the soul. What do we gain if we feed the body of people but do not help themgain salvation through Jesus. Did Jesus bribe the people with “Social Justice” ? Did he use his awsome power to create democracy? He could have done these things and more but rather he called us to come to the Father through him.

  • Terrye Newkirk

    Magnificent article, Father. It should be required reading for all Catholics of the political left AND right.

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