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There is no need to rehearse all the religious and moral reasons for assistance to those in need. It is sufficient to say, at least for Christians, that they find themselves ministering to Christ Himself in their ministry to the poor, and that what we do to the least of Christ's brethren, we do unto Christ. But this sensitivity, what some have even called a 'preferential option“ for the poor, does not free us from the need to prudently and wisely consider the most appropriate ways in which this obligation is to be carried out. Especially in this season of generosity, and as we hear the incoming Clinton administration's promise to reform the welfare system as we know it, we do well to reject the confusion that equates a preferential option for the poor with a preferential option for the state.

From the earliest Christian reflection on aid to those in need, this obligation was never presented as an unconditional one. While St. Paul encouraged the early Christian community to be sensitive to the needy in its midst, he also was realistic, indeed prudent enough to warn that “if a man doesn't work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3: 10). Christianity, with all its talk of love as the fundamental virtue, never accepted the notion that it was a moral responsibility to help those who could, but would not, help themselves.

It would appear, moreover, that this is the general attitude of the American public. Polls indicate that there is a preference among Americans for social programs to promote self-sufficiency, not dependency.

Yet, when Michigan Gov. John Engler last year acted to fulfill his campaign promise to reduce the size of movement and proceeded to eliminate 80,000 able-bodied general assistance recipients from the roll, his most vocal critics were welfare advocacy groups headed by prominent mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic religious leaders.

It would be another matter altogether if these governmental transfer payments were actually effective in ameliorating poverty and minimizing crime. Yet, just about everyone, regardless of political stripe, seems to agree there is a crisis in the welfare system and that the massive welfare state doesn't work - just about everyone, that is, except perhaps a few ill-tutored theologians. With all the use of that terribly obscure and unnecessarily narrow phrase “family values” in this past election season, perhaps the real issue we are attempting to get at is functional values or how we go about fostering a society whose members learn how to function well and productively.

There is a growing body of literature indicating that governmental programs, owing to their political nature, instill a sense of dependency in those they are designed to help. They create the very situations they profess to cure. With the failure of socialism in central Europe and the intellectual and moral bankruptcy this represents for Marxism, the current debate shifts to the moral legitimacy and practical effectiveness of the welfare state.

The welfare state fails in its objectives for the same reason that socialism failed in its - a rejection of sound economic thinking.

The key practical problem with the welfare state is the presupposition that it can observe all social problems and needs, and is able to regulate the necessary sectors of society in such a way as to best meet those needs. But no one group of planners, no matter how wise and sensitive to human needs they may be, can see the deepest needs of the human soul, which frequently are at the root of economic problems. Moreover, when central planning boards become active, they interfere with the free market's natural ability to uncover relevant knowledge about local circumstances to meet existing needs. Central planning impedes the market's efficiency and productivity. In other words, the state's pretense to knowledge hinders the necessary order that would emerge naturally, thus preventing the emergence of what would otherwise be more effective and frequently more humane alternatives.

The specific problem this confusion presents to the church is that it disintegrates charity into an entitlement and collapses love into justice. If all relations are based merely on state-enforced justice, what becomes of the virtue of love? Especially when viewed from a religious perspective, the disadvantages of an expansive welfare state are sadly apparent. Promoting the government as the resource of first resort lessens the incentive of people in the pews to become personally involved in needed projects and relegates the church to the role of lobbyist. To the extent that the church functions as a lobbyist, rather than itself clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and performing the other traditional acts of charity, the church loses a rich source of its own spiritual nourishment.

This has, in turn, led to a secularizing of the social assistance systems (schools, hospitals, orphanages, health clinics). This development minimizes the moral influence of religious mediating institutions which are so critical in helping to stabilize troubled families.

Even the pope has expressed deep reservations about the welfare or “social assistance” state. In his latest social encyclical, John Paul II advocated a principle of social organization that seeks to employ the energy and knowledge of those closest to the people in need, and to use this, not the state, as the resource of first resort.

“Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State,” the pope said. “Here again the principle of subsidiary must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities o the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.... (I)t would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closes to them and who act as neighbors to those in need.“

The time has come for religious leaders to abandon their advocacy of more and more government programs, and take back from the state their rightful position as the primary ministers of the welfare of the poor.