Does Catholic Social Teaching suggest that Government has a role to play in taking care of the poor? Yes!

Paul Ryan’s economic policies have become a hotly contested moral debate with Catholics who are wondering if these policies ought to concern the Catholic voting community with regards to paying attention to our moral obligation to serve the poor. On the one hand you have Bishops like the ones that sit on the Committee for Domestic Justice and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) who believes that the Ryan budget proposal to cut programs and services that benefit the poor fails the “basic moral test” of Catholic social teaching. Then you have other Bishops who defend the Ryan budget from this accusation suggesting that the Catholic moral obligation to help the poor does not specifically grant this role to the Government and so the moral consideration for Ryan’s budget is left up to “prudential judgments” of how we want to address our moral obligation to the poor.

No one is arguing that the Church has a moral obligation to the poor. Recently, in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Archbishop Charles Chaput defended this point most vigorously within the same interview where he shares his opinion about the Ryan Budget: “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period.” But then he goes on to say that “Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them.” This is the point I wish to explore with this post as I respectfully disagree with Archbishop Chaput. Clearly Jesus did not specifically state government‘s role with this moral obligation, but then again Jesus never made a specific reference to the sin of abortion. Yet we firmly believe that his teaching on the sacred dignity of life and his healing ministry informs us on our stance with regards to the current issue of abortion. Similarly Jesus clearly teaches us about our moral obligation to the poor. Our Catholic social teaching tells us pretty clearly that this teaching leads us to recognize a moral obligation that government has with respect to the poor. In Scriptures we never see the early Christian community becoming responsible for the reins of government, but we certainly get a glimpse of them as they develop into a local community and developing a social system for addressing the poor and vulnerable members of their community (Acts 2:44-46). Jesus’ moral concern for the poor was clearly seen as a personal and social obligation. If this nation continues to claim that it is based on Christian principles, then it must responsibly recognize this social obligation.

In this moral debate we need to highlight the moral concern regarding the global economy that was made by Pope Benedict XVI with his most recent encyclical “Charity in Truth.”  When the Pope promulgated this teaching in 2009 he was very much concerned with the state of the global economy. His specific concern was not that the economy was over regulated, quite the opposite. The Pope was very much concerned at the unregulated state of the economy and brought attention to this by expressing how “one of the greatest risks for business is that they are almost exclusively answerable to their investors, thereby limiting their social value.” This lack of social responsibility and regulation would “weaken the company’s sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders – namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumer, the natural environment and broader society…”[1]

So, does government have a role to play in regulating the economy and serving the common good? Pope Benedict XVI would seem to suggest yes. “[Economic life] needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics.”[2] Furthermore, the Pope suggests a greater role for the State especially within this global economy.

The integrated economy of the present day does not make the role of States redundant, but rather it commits governments to greater collaboration with one another. Both wisdom and prudence suggest not being too precipitous in declaring the demise of the State. In terms of the resolution of the current crisis, the State’s role seems destined to grow, as it regains many of its competences… The articulation of political authority at the local, national and international levels is one of the best ways of giving direction to the process of economic globalization. It is also the way to ensure that it does not actually undermine the foundations of democracy.[3]

Here the Pope contributes his “prudential judgment” in discerning the role of government in addressing the economic issues that we face domestically and internationally. His teaching seems to suggest that we need to promote more not less government regulation to the economic system in order to ensure “forms of redistribution” that would serve the common good.


About jdgonzo73

I am a Catholic lay minister in the field of Christian ethics, Latino theology and Paulacrucian spirituality. I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Fordham, an ad-junct professor at Molloy College and St. John's University and the Project Coordinator with the Catholic Roundtable.
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