At lunch with some Catholic editors, I heard the following comment, “The trouble with Catholics who support cutting government spending is that they don’t seek direction on their knees before God.” I replied, “How do you know that, and how do you know that those who support the status quo are making prayerful decisions?”
The assumption of divine blessing in the present political climate is always awarded to those who favor more government assistance, not those who favor less. The recent bishops’ statements on the Contract with America, welfare reform, and new Catholic Alliance have reinforced this prejudice. It is no surprise that conservative reformers have been made to appear mean and unChristian in their attempts to lessen the debt burden, while preserving Medicare and Social Security, for future generations.
I’d guess most bishops would agree with my editor friend that if conservatives prayed they would hear the voice of God telling them not to abandon the poor by downsizing government. The mainstream media, with its torrent of features about those who would be “hurt” by government cutbacks, obviously agree.
Catholics are rightly proud of their legacy of civic charity—it would be hard to overpraise, if praise were appropriate, the spirit of Catholic service that permeates American institutions. In terms of party loyalty, Catholic voters have traditionally followed suit by supporting the party carrying out the mandates of the New Deal and the Great Society.
In 1994, however, the majority of Catholics voted for conservatives. It wasn’t simply “pocketbook” issues that moved them: it was the issue of American character, of the kind of government that best encourages what this country has always valued—freedom, personal responsibility, and work. Catholics have big hearts, but they can recognize when institutional compassion is no longer effective.
Whether or not Catholics continue to move in a conservative direction remains to be seen. The new Catholic Alliance of the Christian Coalition promises to rally more Catholic voters to its conservative cause. Leaders of the Catholic Alliance must help their members to understand the distinctively Catholic reasons for their political agenda, and not merely disseminate a cosmetic touch up of Coalition positions.
The tradition of Catholic social thought, as Ralph Reed has commented in these pages, promises to add a rich dimension of moral-political reflection to the basic biblical principles already espoused within the Coalition. A truly
Catholic alliance will operate according to its own distinctive reasons for political action. Can the Christian Coalition lacking any Catholic board members run a Catholic Alliance? (Maureen Roselli, Executive Director of the Catholic Alliance, will address these concerns in the March Crisis.)
The bishops are doing all they can to reverse the conservative trend and counteract the influence of the Catholic Alliance, in particular. Undoubtedly it is the bishops role to inform us of Catholic teaching, including social teaching. But beyond stating general principles, say, the principle of subsidiarity, there is no reason, beyond the force of their wisdom and intelligence, that Catholics should heed the bishops’ view of public policy. This distinction is particularly important, given the fact of the bishops’ inability to recognize that welfare is a principal cause of the poverty they despise (see Crisis, March 1994).
Catholic social teaching, as shown by Michael Novak and ratified by Centissimus annus, supports a work-centered approach to addressing poverty and human vulnerability. As Michael Warner shows in his forthcoming book, Changing Witness: Catholic Bishops and Public Policy 1917-1994, the social encyclicals contain aspirations for the human person diminished by the statism of the American bishops. Catholics are called to help provide every person access to the basic goods of life, but constantly depending on the state is a clear violation of subsidiarity and an impediment to the strength of local communities, beginning with the family.
It comes as no surprise that the breakdown of our welfare system comes at the same time our appreciation for the civic benefits of the nuclear family has been renewed. Good parents help their children grow up. Parents who spoil their children may operate on the assumption that self-esteem is integral to living well, but they forget to draw the line and demand responsibility.
One hopes that our bishops in their unwavering allegiance to discredited institutions of care do not lose the opportunity to collaborate with conservatives who prayerfully seek a renewal of national character.