The Pope's Warning on the Welfare State

The Pope's Warning on the Welfare State

When Pope John Paul II met president Clinton a few days ago, the media reports noted their disagreement on abortion - as if this was news. Not all of the disagreements between the pope and the president concern sex, however.

John Paul has spoken out forcefully on economics and public policy, and his views even have bearing on the budget debate in Washington.

Just as the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) spelled out the Roman Catholic Church's position on abortion and artificial birth control, another papal encyclical, Centesimus Annus (1991), clarified the Vatican's views on the economy. In it, the pope leveled poignant criticism at the European-style welfare state, the model Clinton is using for America.

Clinton's new budget contains vast increases in every area of domestic spending, especially those programs purportedly designed to “help” people. But here the warnings of the pope should be heard.

John Paul has written that the welfare state has so many “malfunctions and defects” that it threatens “both economic and civil freedom.” It does so by taking over voluntary social functions that properly belong to private individuals, churches and local communities. He's right: Government welfare tends to crowd out private charity.

The pope also faults the welfare bureaucracy for causing enormous increases in spending. As the American taxpayers well know, the money has to come from somewhere. Every dollar the government spends it takes from the private sector, which the pope believes should be the first resort in solving social ills.

In the economic sphere, John Paul encourages charity, private enterprise and the right of economic Initiative. A federal government that overspends weakens these efforts. The charitable sector in the United States is large, but imagine how much bigger it would be if the government did not take over 40 percent of private production.

John Paul also finds fault with the very nature of bureaucracy. Bloated, impersonal public agencies can humiliate clients or “reduce them to mere objects of assistance.” They also promote dependence and can lead to what the pope calls a “loss of human energies.”

When it comes to the poor and neglected, John Paul is keenly aware that their needs are best met by those closest to them. He encourages private charity that offers - along with material assistance - spiritual comfort and fraternal support.

To ensure this type of care, the pope promotes the “subsidiarity principle” for the protection of the internal life of communities. Its dictum: If individuals, neighborhoods, churches and local communities can do it, the central government should not intervene.

If the pope has been critical of the welfare state, Clinton has his own ideas. Just take a look at his new budget and you can see it is nothing if not a secular encyclical for more taxes, spending and bigger bureaucracy.

Consider one new program the national youth service corps. It fails every guideline the pope lays out for good public policy. It requires a new level of bureaucracy to direct its efforts, and it has the potential of vastly increasing government spending. The program pays a student to work for the government for two years, pays the student again to go to school, and pays the bureaucrats who manage the whole undertaking.

The national youth services program also has the effect of blurring the distinction between earning a wage and performing an act of charity. And it denies participating youth real opportunities to practice virtue by donating their time and energy to private sector charities.

Try telling that to the Washington gang with the overblown sense of what government can achieve. They think if they can just tinker with the system, they'll be able to provide everyone, rich and poor alike, all of the health care, pension plans, family and sick leave, and financial security now available to CEOs.

The European welfare state has reached a financial crisis point by trying to provide these same benefits. As a result, these governments are trying to scale down social assistance.

During John Paul's U.S. visit, the national media seemed only interested in abortion, birth control, et al. Those are important subjects. But just once I'd like to hear evidence of a broader awareness of the pope's intellectual contributions.