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What Uncle Sam could learn from the Catholic Church
We absolutely ought to have a safety net for the very needy — but it won't come cheap
Edward Morrissey
Edward Morrissey
O

ver the past few days, we have seen a number of conversations arise over the relevance of Catholicism in America, thanks to the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. More than 57 million Catholic adults lived in the U.S. in 2008, according to census figures, far and away the largest religious affiliation, with Baptists second at 36 million. Catholics accounted for almost a third of all self-identifying Christian adults, a group that comprises 76 percent of the total adult population; Catholics alone are 25 percent of the adult population.

With those numbers in mind, it might have surprised some to see The New York Times' Ross Douthat proclaim an end to "the Catholic moment" in his Sunday column. Douthat argued that the Catholic influence has waned due to scandals, and that overall, Christian thought on what makes a properly ordered society has been largely abandoned by both parties. Eight years ago, at the last papal transition, "a Catholic view of economics and culture represented a center that both parties hoped to claim," Douthat wrote. "Today's Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party."

My friend and The Week colleague Matt Lewis largely agrees, but not about the cause. The culture war is now over, Matt says, and conservatives, along with the Catholic Church, have lost it as the politics of the U.S. grew much more secular. "Is it any surprise that conservatism itself would eventually evolve to mirror a society that is rapidly becoming more secular and less traditional?" Matt asks. Put together with the psychological impact of the 9/11 attack, the Great Recession, and the government economic interventions that followed, it's small wonder that a more secular conservatism and liberalism emerged. According to Matt, the rise of the Tea Party has defined conservatism even further toward the "Randian ethos" of objectivism, Ayn Rand's atheist philosophy that represents the radical opposition to both Barack Obama's call for "collective action" and George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."

Secular or not, and regardless of the reason, Douthat is correct in pointing out the issue. He diagnoses the real problem incorrectly, though. The problem isn't the leadership of the Catholic Church or the loss of influence — it's the leadership of the United States, and more broadly the West, and the loss of integrity. The real issue isn't Rand vs. Aquinas, but Diogenes and his search for honesty in public discourse.

Interestingly, I had a conversation less than two weeks ago with a fellow Catholic about the Rand/Aquinas conflict. The topic of my conservatism arose, and he asked me almost immediately whether I believed in the Randian philosophy, and whether people have a responsibility to the poor. In fact, I am no Randian; I believe that Jesus left pretty clear instructions on his followers' responsibility to care for the poor. I also believe that societies need to structure themselves to provide the proverbial "safety net" for those truly in need, if for no other reason than self-insurance. Any society with a large class of exploited poor will have no end of social difficulties and instability, the costs of which in a properly ordered system would far exceed the assistance extended. In Aquinas' terms, these would represent the structures necessary for a just society.

Society does not necessarily mean government, although it doesn't exclude it either. It certainly didn't mean "government" in Aquinas' time. The Christian church pioneered hospitals, outreach to the poor, and education for the masses long before governments decided to enter into those industries, even after they became industries. Ironically, these days government has mostly gotten in the way of Catholic attempts to provide a just society through individual and group action, by threatening their existence with mandates that force the Church and its organizations to choose between faithful adherence to their doctrine and outreach to the poor and homeless. 

However, a couple of key elements are also necessary in this paradigm: Responsibility and sustainability. The problem facing the American welfare system and the European nanny states is that they are designed with neither in mind. Their fiscal structure pays more in benefits than it receives, a very basic form of irresponsibility and unsustainability. That forces these systems to borrow massively against future production, which in essence means that these social systems pay benefits with someone else's money — the children or grandchildren to come. One could consider that theft, or at the least taxation without representation.

It's not difficult to argue that neither of the two philosophers would endorse such a system. After all, even St. Thomas Aquinas did math.

Anyone with a calculator can figure this out; it doesn't take philosophers to tell us that we can't borrow money forever without risking collapse. Yet we hear nearly nothing from the political class about the true costs of these programs, or the responsibility for the bills to be paid properly when incurred. 

One rare voice did arise on this point over the weekend in Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and ex-chair of the Democratic National Committee. In an interview with pollster Scott Rasmussen, Dean explained that the middle class would have to choose whether to keep the systems as they are and start paying a lot more to maintain them, or demand reform that would include lower benefits. "This is the fundamental problem in American politics," Dean said. "Somebody has to tell the middle class that either your taxes are going up or your programs are going to get cut, or else we're going to go into financial oblivion."

So who in today's political class wants to tell the middle class this very obvious truth? "No one," Dean replies, and he's right. This takes the reform argument entirely out of the equation, which brings us back to Douthat and Lewis on the "Catholic center" and just society. We have no voices in the current political arena, Catholic or otherwise, explaining that we can have programs that take care of the truly needy, which would require many more to sacrifice a little more — either in eschewing ever-expanding benefits, or in taxes — while ensuring sustainability and stability without taking money from our grandchildren to pay for our policies. 

When George Bush proposed some modest reforms of Social Security, including the gradual transformation of the program from a defined-benefit program to a defined-contribution program, he got ridiculed out of the effort — and the reformers have been on the run ever since. With reform off the table, so too is the Catholic center of sustainable and responsible safety net programs, and the only other options are either government confiscation or every man for himself. And as long as no one will be honest with the public about the consequences of today's irresponsible and unsustainable systems, those will continue to be the only two political options.

This isn't a secular vs. religious conflict. It's an honesty issue. In the current political climate, Diogenes would be swinging that lamp a very, very long time.

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