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In December, I wrote a column that appeared in this newspaper in which I indicated the varied problems that arise when religious institutions yield their social mission to the government. My point was to show that religious institutions are both practically and morally superior to politically inspired welfare programs.

They are practically superior because they are more cost effective and get to the heart of the causes of poverty, which are often moral and spiritual. And they are morally superior because in the process of performing their traditional roles such as clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, a transformation takes place both in those to whom help is given and in those offering the help. If the church (understood to include Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other religious groups) surrenders this function to the state, I wrote, it “loses a rich source of its own spiritual nourishment.”

In response to that column, I received a delightful letter and a calligraphied motto from John Altena, the director of the Van Buren County Department of Social Services of the state of Michigan. Despite having written on official stationery with regard to a matter of important public policy, when I indicated to Mr. Altena that I wanted to publish his letter along with my reply, he declined to give his permission.

As an ardent defender of property rights in general, I am respecting Mr. Altena's rights on the text of his letter, even if the nature of state-operated bureaucracies is to disregard the property rights of the rest of us to retain our earnings.

Yet Mr. Altena raises some points worth probing, which I shall outline here. The first is the question of the origin of governmental intervention in social problems, and what prompted that intervention. Second, Mr. Altena quotes my article back to me, with an invitation that I and my fellow clergymen “take back from the state your rightful positions, the primary ministers of the welfare of the poor.” He warns, however, that in his county alone this will entail a heavy burden, for his department “dispenses 55 million dollars a year.”

He also requested a copy of Pope John Paul II's latest social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, which I honored with no charge to his department (owing to my distaste for taking money from the government).

I suspect that when Mr. Altena and other government officials speak of “dispensing” money, what they mean is how much of taxpayers money they spend each year. How delightful it would be to accept Mr. Altena's challenge and sit down with such administrators of the welfare state, along with non-government activists, church groups and other voluntary organizations, to make a list of the real output of the money they spend.

For example, how many meals do their programs actually provide, rather than how much do they spend on food? It would be interesting to see what is really provided - measured by what those in need actually, see - rather than by the total number of dollars last seen by the taxpayer. If our real concern is the needs of the poor, it seems to be more rational to measure what those in need saw coming to them, rather than what taxpayers saw leaving.

Likewise, the origin of government intervention in social welfare is important to understand. It is a topic examined by Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin, in The Tragedy of American Compassion, wherein he demonstrates that a wide ranging private network of effective social service providers has been part of America since the founding. What happened was that Mr. Altena's bureaucratic ancestors adopted the philosophy that his enclosure so aptly expresses, “Living with dignity is a right ...Help is not charity, it's justice,” and co-opted the private service providers.

The error of this philosophy is in the second sentence. Professional civil servants tend to “labor” under the delusion that charity, if it is voluntary, somehow offends human dignity. I believe charity, which can only be voluntary, grounds human dignity and that to collapse charity into justice is to destroy both concepts simultaneously. Charity is the crowning moral virtue, and while other virtues such as faith and hope remain important, as St. Paul said, “the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Corinthians 13)

Who doubts that Mother Teresa could do what Mr. Altena does with one tenth of his budget while seeking only to maximize the effects of the help she offers? And when he understands why all this is the case, he'll understand the problem with the welfare state: It can only measure compassion by dollars spent.