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Faith, Hope, and .  .  .

The hand of God in the social safety net.

May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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The Catholic Church has long been concerned about government interference in church governance and teaching. Some popes saw the growth of the welfare state in the 19th century as a threat to the services the church has historically provided in aiding the poor and educating the young. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical that elaborated on the idea of “subsidiarity”— that there were limits to state power and that decisions about individuals should be delegated to the lowest level possible.

As government power expanded in the 20th century, the church continued to insist on a boundary between church and state. Faced with the totalitarian views of Benito Mussolini (who famously argued, “all within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”), Pope Pius XI responded with his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which reiterated and refined Pope Leo XIII’s concerns. But under the doctrine of subsidiarity, the protections that families and churches had against the state are not rights, but privileges the state could take away if commands were disobeyed. As the German solidarist Johannes Messner explained, the doctrine of subsidiarity teaches that the state could control families and churches whenever it desired, as long as such control was limited to “providing help for the individuals and the lesser communities so that they are enabled to fulfill their essential tasks in life in self-responsibility and self-determination.” 

In the Netherlands, the Calvinist politician Abraham Kuyper came up with similar arguments as a result of a 50-year battle to determine whether Dutch education should be secular or religious. Kuyper created the Anti-Revolutionary party, and served as Holland’s prime minister from 1901 to ’05, on a platform of “sphere sovereignty”—namely that state, family, and churches were “spheres” with independent powers the state had to respect.  Kuyper’s efforts ensured that Dutch schools are state-run, but with Catholics and Protestants running schools with some independence over religious teaching. 

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of subsidiarity is that a secular version is part of European Union law, thanks to Christian Democrats who dominated European politics in the late 1940s. Those Christian Democrats, particularly in West Germany and Holland, created a system whereby welfare is largely administered by nominally independent, nominally religious, state-funded, quasi-governmental organizations. Daly wishes that Christian Democracy could be implemented in the United States. He applauds the Germans for creating a welfare state with “a centralized, consultative apparatus for policy development, bearing little resemblance to Washington’s fragmented policy environment.”

If the Democrats want government to do more to help struggling communities, there is no better strategy to build support for such aid than enlisting smaller faith-based providers in the delivery of social services, because this will create a new class of stakeholders in the welfare state and a new source of legitimacy for social spending.

But won’t government control follow government dollars? Evangelicals who are rightly concerned about this issue (particularly Marvin Olasky) say that a better way to help the poor would be to expand charitable tax deductions than increase government subsidies to faith-based groups. Daly doesn’t really address this question because he is far more interested in political philosophy than public policy. God’s Economy has a great deal on the ideas of the 19th-century legal reformer Otto von Gierke and nothing on how poverty-fighting groups might deal with the federal government in the 21st century. For example, he says nothing about how such quasi-governmental nonprofits as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services dealt with the Bush administration, even though these organizations most closely resemble the German and Dutch groups he admires.

What would welfare under European-style subsidiarity rules be like? The Economist provided one clue in a recent article describing the experiences of the Romeike family in Germany, who were fined 12,000 euros and allowed to emigrate to America because they wanted to teach their children at home. The Germans banned homeschooling as a result of a 2006 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that declared, under the doctrine of subsidiarity, that “schools represented society .  .  . and it was in the children’s interest to become part of that society. The parents’ right to raise their offspring did not go so far as to deprive their children of the social experience of school.”

Would Americans want to live in a country where subsidiarity was the law? Should successful poverty-fighting groups trade their freedom for a steady flow of federal grants and contracts?

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