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Welfare Gone Awry

In the movie “Schindler’s List”, Oskar Schindler, a Catholic, quotes an expression his father had often used; and I could imagine my own father saying something rather similar. He would say: “There are really only three people in life that you need depend on: a good doctor, a forgiving priest and a clever accountant.”

The posters advertising “Schindler’s List” have a simple design: they show the hand of one person in that of another; they clearly intend to portray this as the helping hand of Oskar Schindler leading potential victims away from sure death. As such, Schindler’s hand is at odds with the fist of the supporters of totalitarian states who would raise their right hand in the Nazi salute. At the time that Oskar Schindler extended his hand to assure life for his workers, others took in hand those victims who were to be handed over to the ovens of their death. How did Schindler manage to provide true welfare for these people? Very simply, he was able to do this because he was a shrewd and accomplished businessman, a capitalist who used his capital to develop a thriving business that provided not only a workplace but a refuge, a sanctuary, where people could not only realize their livelihood, but also keep their lives. One does not often speak of capitalism and welfare in the same breath, much less to speak of both in a positive way, but that man was able to make of an ordinary business venture an extraordinary opportunity of providing for the welfare of his workers and of preserving their lives.

The etymology of the word welfare is quite revealing: it means to do good for someone. In a similar way, a successful businessman is said to do well for himself. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus engages in wordplay with the title of his book, Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (1992). The challenge here is for the capitalist to do well in business without neglecting the welfare of others, primarily his own workers.

Fr. Neuhaus is primarily concerned with an analysis of the 1991 encyclical of Pope John Paul II. Centesimus Annus analyzes the moral and social issues of economics, providing a synthesis of the Church’s social teaching of the past hundred years. For the first time, formal and explicit papal affirmation was given to capitalism, while being quite specific as to what is meant by capitalism. For example, the secular press has made much of a 1993 papal interview where John Paul was decidedly critical of capitalism, but of only one kind of capitalism; he used the term five times, but always qualified his remarks with either “savage capitalism” or “abusive capitalism”. This is not to be confused with the form of capitalism commended by the pope only two years earlier where, as Fr. Neuhaus observes, the pope in fact affirms that particular kind of capitalism which is “the most expedient manner of exercising the divine mandate of stewardship with an equal balance of justice and compassion”. If the movie had been released at the time, or if he had read Keneally’s book, John Paul II could well have given Oscar Schindler as the model capitalist.

Although much attention is given to the papal approval, we cannot ignore John Paul’s concern that there be a preferential option for the poor, that rare common ground that he shares with the so- called liberation theologians. However, he argues strongly against the notion that this preferential option be the object of legislation, for to be an option it must be freely chosen, nor should it be made so difficult by state interference or regulation that an individual employer be unable to exercise this option.

To exercise “the divine mandate of stewardship”, the worker (as in the poster for “Schindler’s List”) puts his hand in that of the Creator to cooperate in the work of creation; herein man finds his nobility, in his work, as he seeks to develop and nurture that which God has created and has handed over to man’s dominion. To be denied work or to be deluded into thinking that work does not matter (“You would do better to live off welfare.”), the ruse of the welfare state, is to deny man his very nobility. If there is abusive capitalism, then very clearly here is an instance of “abusive welfare”. In fact, in an address to workers on 19 March 1994, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, John Paul II stated: “through work man gives himself to others and to society as a whole. Thus he establishes his own humanity through work, and becomes in a certain sense a gift for others, totally fulfilling himself.”

Speaking ten days later, on 28 March 1994, to executives and employees of Procter and Gamble, John Paul continued along these same lines: “The Lord has blessed man’s work, assigning him as its fruit not only the toil and sweat of his face but also happiness and the enjoyment of every kind of good. Man’s work is therefore a gift for which he should be grateful to God.” It is also the result of the efforts of man who, with his enterprise and insight, manages to create work opportunities for his peers. This implies managerial ability and calculated business risks with constant respect for the demands of justice. The State will not fail to support managerial commitment to encouraging production through the appropriate structures. However, if on the one hand, the private and the public businessman must be able to create new markets and new jobs, on the other, the worker cannot fail to feel co-responsible for the firm’s good progress, adopting an attitude of loyal collaboration towards it. It is most significant in this address that the pope echoes not only the thought but the language of Michael Novak, who demonstrates the impact of capitalism in the three distinct yet interrelated spheres of the political, the economic and the moral-cultural: “Solidarity is a basic dimension of humanizing work, for it consciously seeks possible remedies when the capacity to build and act encounters precarious situations or even emergencies. Solidarity ‘helps us to see the other’— whether a person, people or nation—not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our ‘neighbor’, a ‘helper’, to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God. On this foundation it will be possible to progress towards building a civilization where man may become the way for any political, cultural or economic activity. Precisely for this reason, the Church continues to defend man, strengthening his value in the light of Christ, who fully reveals his identity and his destiny.”

Pope John Paul II further clarifies the relationship of labor to capital, again in a way that affirms democratic capitalism over savage capitalism in an address given on the centenary of the founding of the Bank of Italy ( 9 February 1994): “A well-ordered economy is essential and this is precisely why it is vital for the economy to be attentive to the dictates of ethics and the requirements of solidarity; an economy sensitive to the intrinsic priority of labor over capital and the sacrosanct nature of “the right to work” for all human beings. An economy should be developed in response to the growing ‘globalization’ of financial dynamics, never forgetting the rights of the most deprived and still less trampling them, in the name of market laws.” He also offers here a criticism of socialist economy and a defense of free enterprise: “. . . economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical or political vacuum. On the contrary it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principal task of the state is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labors and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly.”

The major criticism of the welfare state, in the words of Pope John Paul II, stems from the diminished value of work, which thereby denies the very nobility and identity of the human person. Rooted in our human vocation and identity is the ennobling vocation to work with God in creation; as co-workers with Him, we not merely enjoy creation, but we do something with it. Literally, farmers “work” the earth, but all workers bring to bear some creative activity as we perform our work; thus, the nobility of work and the debasing nature of welfare, where the absence of work denies man’s rightful nobility.

The notion of culture itself is rooted etymologically in work. “Culture” comes from a Latin verb which evolved in meaning from “to till the soil”, then “to dwell”, and finally “to worship”, so we have such different concepts as “agriculture”, “cultivation”, “culture”, and “cult” all derived from the same Latin root . I should like to suggest that this linguistic evolution is in no way a mere coincidence; rather, it reflects the actual historical circumstances: where people planted seeds from which they could derive nourishment and a livelihood, there they would be safe to settle and establish a permanent dwelling; with work and home provided for, then they could allow themselves the “luxury” of religion. Culture, then, embraces where you live, your work ethic, your religion and religious values. The welfare state, it strikes me, lacks much of what constitutes genuine culture; that is tragic for it denies the members of the welfare state a participation in an ennobling culture. They are truly victims of what is ironically called “welfare”.

My basic critique of the welfare state is that it has ceased to do what “welfare” should do, namely to “do well” by the citizenry, to provide for their good. Of itself, welfare is a good thing. As Pope John Paul II makes the distinction between democratic and savage capitalism, perhaps we, too, should distinguish democratic welfare from savage welfare.

The welfare system of today which is not ennobling of humanity is most assuredly not “democratic”; it is an aggressor upon our society and it is a “savage” welfare. This form of “savage” welfare has no regard for the tradition of our Protestant work ethic. It is precisely this “savage welfare” that can find no place in a moral society, a society that finds and defines its moral life in terms of Judeo-Christian values. By “savage” welfare, I mean those programs, initiatives and policies enacted all in the name of “welfare” which deny the nobility of work, which savage life within the womb, and assault even the very lives themselves of those for whom this “welfare” is said to be intended. Our current system, wherein welfare is presumed as an entitlement, not only tolerates but rewards unemployment.

Such is the state of our welfare system today as I see it. I am not a medical doctor, nor am I a clever accountant, but I am a priest. Precisely because I am a priest I feel compelled to join my voice with that of Pope John Paul II in promoting life not death and in stating the dignity of work as ennobling of humanity. I hope that “people of business” can make some change for the better, perhaps only in the individual place of work, perhaps in a very quiet way, with no fanfare, in ways known only to them and God. Oskar Schindler did.