There are swirling and volatile policy debates in Washington these days about the plight of the poor and how to alleviate the problems that poverty creates in our society. The budget battles on Capitol Hill suggest that there are two options for the fiscal and sociological sanity of the nation: either we must balance the budget and damn the poor, or we must mortgage our children’s future and meet the immediate needs of the disadvantaged. How are conscientious, committed Catholics to respond?
Political debate, now more heated and venomous since the executive and legislative branches are occupied by different political parties, does not address some core issues that concern Catholic citizens. Should we care for the poor? Of course. Should we balance the budget? Absolutely. Are the two incompatible? No, and Catholic teaching and the history of Catholicism in this country ought to shed some light on what the solutions to these questions may be. Solutions based on both Christian charity and the dignity of the individual are the proper way for Catholics to respond to these social and policy-oriented challenges.
The abusive and immoral system of welfare built up in this country over the past thirty years is a tragic story to tell. Well-intentioned programs have become so contorted that they perpetuate the very problems they were created to eliminate. Welfare and public assistance programs such as AFDC, food stamps, and public housing were established to create a safety net for the least fortunate. These very institutions are now the shackles that keep families in poverty for generations, while a good portion of the money spent on these programs has been swallowed up by the bureaucratic monstrosities claiming to implement them.
The Republican Congress has done a lot to change this culture and the mentality driving these programs, focusing them more on personal responsibility and less on government dependence. They have been less effective in selling their vision as such. Too often they have been edged out in the moral debate by those who would purport to show compassion and Christian charity by perpetuating the systems in place.
Both sides in this debate must realize that caring for the poor and the disadvantaged is a moral, not a partisan, issue. The enduring moral tension with public-assistance programs stretches between the provision of help to those who need it and the promotion of independence from those very programs providing assistance.
The mentality among too many policymakers on the left is that if a family or individual is lacking sustenance, it is the moral obligation of the government to fill that void, no matter how or at what cost.
The Holy Father’s words on his recent trip to the U.S. suggest a different sort of charity: “The best kind of assistance is that which encourages the needy to become the primary artisans of their own social and cultural development. This approach respects the authentic subjectivity of that people, enabling them to share in that subduing of creation…. It is in this regard that there is a need for innovative strategies and creative approaches to resolving the structural problems of underdevelopment which themselves are often the result of insensitivity and injustice.”
With these words the Holy Father sheds a new light on the arguments coming from both sides of the welfare reform/public assistance debate. He acknowledged the existence of those in true need of charity in our society, which some politicians seem to miss at times. But more strikingly, he made the point that charity is not a handout from the state without a broad and comprehensive strategy for ending the need for assistance. The Holy Father’s words advance compassionate solidarity, not blind handouts.
It is no secret that political debate in America is in need of substantial healing and an infusion of substance. Too often political ambition and partisanship become more important than policymaking and problem solving. Legislative courage coupled with well- reasoned moral direction are a combination that would go a long way toward addressing many of the legislative dilemmas of the day. What we should do about public assistance and welfare issues becomes clearer when we are able to focus on some of our most basic Catholic principles. The Holy Father has made it clearer for us. But are we able to properly and adequately respond? Time, and our own actions, will tell.
Catholics involved in the public square should be poised to act on this and other issues of social justice. Pity and condescension do not promote a culture of human dignity and self-reliance; rather, they pose a moral threat to the individual liberty and self- worth of all those who must rely on similarly motivated programs for extended periods of time. When the Catholic community begins to understand and address a truly charitable means of serving those who are less fortunate, then can we begin to realistically expect those who are currently trapped in poverty to break free from their chains.