The Catholic Thing
A Rerum Novarum for Our Time Print E-mail
By Patrick Fagan   
Thursday, 24 February 2011

When welfare programs were initiated a long time ago most were prepared to help the poor young woman caught in single motherhood by youthful indiscretion, or the starving young man who could not find work. Redistribution was quite defensible as a charitable and a just use of surplus wealth. With almost every basic institution now caught up in the corrupted change in matters sexual, however, the justice of this formula of redistribution needs to be revisited.  

Now 41 percent of our children are born out of wedlock and other children, born to married parents, are later affected by divorce so that by age 17 only 45 percent of our children still lived with their parents in an intact family in 2008. The parents of the other 55 percent have rejected each other and split. 

With this fracturing comes a large increase in demand for welfare, basic and mental health care, child care, and other services – and massive increases in the costs of education as well as crime control. These growing costs are being disproportionately borne by the always-intact family. By their very intactness, they earn more, save more, and pay more taxes. Parents who reject each other essentially (if unknowingly) say: “The rest of society can pick up the increased tab for me and my children.” 

I say it is time to revisit this issue, not yet politically, but from the standpoint of the Church’s social doctrine, so that the nation can be guided by sound social principles. Whether addressed or not, this issue and myriad related family-structure/public-purse issues will raise tensions as we move from our present 55 percent married couple breakdown to probably 70 percent in the year 2025 – only fourteen years away. We need clear principles to guide future efforts. 

 The traditional, intact family is definitely best.

The answers to the following questions (and many others) need to be informed by good guiding principles: 

  • Is it just that there be a massive transfer of payments from a minority of intact families to a majority of broken families?
  • When many millions of single unmarried people in the United States decide to engage in sexual relations (a “right” affirmed by the Supreme Court in Eisenstadt v Baird in 1972) they make a choice. Is it just to ask them to bear the full cost of their choices? 
  • When divorcing parents split why not have the initiator – or both, if it is a joint decision – bear the cost? 
  • Would it be just for states to modify their tax laws so that they significantly favor the always-intact married families (and thus boost their revenue base and decrease their social welfare and education and crime costs)? By the way, the step family (remarried family) adds significantly to costs and cannot logically be put in the same cost category, nor in the same incentive structure, as the always-intact family.
  • Would it be just for local municipalities to similarly adjust their taxes for the same reasons?
  • Should state and local governments try to entice the more productive family into their geographic boundaries, much as they now entice new businesses with tax breaks?
  • Or should we be looking for different forms of redistribution that lessen the injustice on the intact family? 
  • Should we give vouchers, not to the needy, but to the taxpayer for him to decide whom to help and how to help them as he in turn passes on his voucher to the appropriate charity for those needy persons he designates?
  • Is it justifiable to demand adherence by the needy to just norms in order for them to avail of such redistribution?
  • Would we be justified in settings up different revenue pools that are fed by and drawn down by those who make up the pool – much as insurance companies do: different pools for different family structures? Does the ensuing inequality of resources amount to an injustice against those with less?
  • At what point do those who deliberately choose unwisely in matters sexual cease to be objects of pity and welfare and instead should be asked to bear their own costs or be asked to throw themselves on private charity or the taxpayer voucher described above – a local, discriminating, and subsidiary form of charity. 
  • Given that government has ceased to protect marriage from harm (its most fundamental task), how can families set about rectifying this failure and injustice on the part of government? When law is unjust on such a basic issue, what allegiance is appropriate to the government involved?
  • What sort of rights-of-association and bargaining does the intact family have in this chaotic post-modern system?
  • Is there an equivalent to the “just strike” for the family? What conditions must be present for it to be just?

When Leo XIII began the tradition of the great social encyclicals, the injustice to workers and its consequent impact on families and society were the driving stimulus to the development of this whole vein of doctrinal exploration and articulation of principles.

One hundred twenty years, later the social-political scene has changed and, mainly through the radical individualism of the needy themselves in matters sexual, new economic injustices have become systemic. 

What principles should inform Catholics and others of good will? What principles should not be violated as they craft pathways towards a new order. What is worthy and what is unworthy of Catholic animus? When does redistributive justice become a furthering of injustice? (I think that line has been crossed.) 

Without creative alternatives we will be able to do neither just redistribution nor charity nor stop shoring up an increasingly unjust social order. It is time to seek guidance similar to what Pope Leo provided in a time of real injustices. Maybe in our future there is something analogous to a Rerum Horrendarum or more optimistically, an Iter Serrenum.

Patrick Fagan is director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) at Family Research Council whose project, Mapping America, charts these outcomes regularly.

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Comments (20)Add Comment
written by Catholic Tide, February 24, 2011
I think that some of the changes you suggest regarding the withdrawal of government support to broken families may be coming but I don't think that morality will be the driving force. I think that this house of cards that we call our economy will collapse and many of the counter-productive social programs will be cut for lack of funds. This will drive needy people into the arms of faith-based organizations which will be able to offer them riches beyond the monetary handout they had been getting from the government. I see Catholic charities as the great missionary force of the 21st century. God works in mysterious ways!
written by Just a mom, February 24, 2011
Your new Rerum Novarum could use a little more charity!
written by Michael PS, February 24, 2011
Will the force of law, backed by bayonets, be enough to keep the underclass in check? If we want to curtail welfare spending, are we ready for a repetition of les journées de juin 1848, following the closure of les Ateliers Nationaux? [the National Workshops] Then, the Liberals secured a victory over the Radical Republicans, but at the cost of 1,500 dead in the streets and thousands of summary executions of prisoners. The Assembly, one recalls, welcomed the surrender of the last barricade with cries of “Long Live the Republic!” What they got, inevitably, was Napoleon III; as Marx observed of this, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Nowadays, when governments depend for their legitimacy on media coverage and the cult of personality, it is pretty generally recognised that welfare cheques, drug-dealing and cheap alcohol are indispensible guarantees of social order.
written by Achilles, February 24, 2011
Excellent! Radical individualism, narcissism.
The only real surprise with Obama's stance on marriage was his earlier pretense that he would have defended it.
written by Jacob, February 24, 2011
Catholics need to consciously organize in America into polities where they are the majority and no longer have to listen to heathen secularists tell them how it's ok to live their lives.

Listening to those people tell us how to live our lives has lead society to the brink of the void...perhaps it's counter intuitive for a Christian, but as weak as we are in this country (and as overrun with "Christian" traitors) we need places like Ave Maria Florida where Catholics dominate everything and aren't allowing themselves to be talked into just going to church while the "professionals" run the government.

It reminds me of 18th century Italy the way we have all these corrupt police officers, judges, firemen, all public employees and they don't even have to pretend to make a logical defense of why they get paid so much money to do so many things that literally help us in no way at all or even hurt us. In many cases we pay a hundred grand or more a year to undereducated people to help push us over the edge of the cliff. (Cops and judges--who earn more than ever--are more corrupt, uneducated and incompetent than they've been since the frontier days.)
written by Patrick, February 24, 2011
I agree with Michael that we have created a dependency that will take a while to wean people off of without major unrest. However, we can stop some of the perverse incentives, such as rewarding having additional children out of wedlock when already on welfare. Perhaps the existing cases could be grandfathered in to minimize withdrawal symptoms.
written by debby, February 24, 2011
the Notable today is superb!
i hope everyone reads it.
i esp love the last line.
St. Damien answers the cry within our hearts-
Pray for us! As this post aptly attests to, leprosy pales in comparison to our current societal state.
written by Alan, February 24, 2011
As the head of a broken family - broken by my spouse, through infidelity and desertion, without warning and (probably) beyond recall (as long as she continues to live adulterously with her boyfriend) - I do not understand why you would choose to further penalize me?
As for your proposal to have the initiator bear the increased costs - she, for instance, is now a kept woman and has no income to speak of. Where would you seek redress then?
As "Just a Mom" said above, your proposal is greatly lacking in charity.
written by rick, February 24, 2011
there are a couple of points than need to be added.

First, if you take $20000 in taxes from me and do something good with it, it does me no moral good; in fact it has no moral good associated with it. On the other hand if I see a need and give that cause $20000 it could be considered giving alms, a moral good.

Second point. Taking something of mine by force and giving it to someone else is neither love nor justice. Government can not love, only people can. Governments are here to provide justice and security under the rule of law. Christians on the other hand can and must love and with that help for the neighbor in need.
written by Seanachie, February 24, 2011
Well done, Patrick...thought provoking article. I would rephrase your first question to, "Is it just that there be a massive transfer of payments from a minority of intact majority families to a majority of broken minority families"? For example, over 70% of U.S. black children are currently born to unwed mothers. Do well-intentioned, but never the less, misguided social welfare programs and charity enable, in fact, encourage bastardy? Is aiding and abetting generational pernicious dependency a desirable societal outcome for family, state, and/or Church? At what point do govermental social welfare programs and private charity become sinful?
written by Lee Gilbert, February 24, 2011
In response to those who want Patrick Fagan to be more charitable, all his "uncharitable" proposals are *questions.* You think it is more charitable to keep doing what we're doing without asking any questions? How charitable is that? If we don't get this situation under control, we are going to be Haiti a few generations down the line. How charitable would that be exactly? No, this isn't about you, it's about putting ourselves on a more sustainable footing.

There is no way we can do that without at least appearing to lack compassion. In fact, as I recall there is a book that describes how we got ourselves into this mess. It's called "The Tragedy of American Compassion" by Marvin Olasky. It's available on Amazon.
written by Martial Artist, February 24, 2011
Mr. Fagan, I have a problem with the very first assertion in your article, namely, that [emphasis added] "Redistribution was quite defensible as a charitable and a just use of surplus wealth."

Redistribution is not in accord with Christ's admonition that we feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, and care for the orphan and widow. Redistribution (the use of which term is generally taken to mean "redistribution by the state") delegates to the state the responsibilities that Christ laid directly upon us, if we are to be his disciples.

Rather, I would humbly suggest that when God has given us resources with which to meet those needs of our fellows, we have two potentially appropriate options to live out his commissions to us. First, we can meet those needs directly. This can sometimes be difficult to do if we are not either retired or independently wealthy and not employed. Alternatively, or as a supplement to that first option, we may make gifts of our time and talents to voluntary organizations (i.e., charities) which we have examined and vetted which can use our material resources to help meet the needs of our fellow human beings.

To delegate that responsibility to the state violates subsidiarity, denies the dignity of our fellow citizens by implicitly expressing the opinion that they must be coerced into doing what is "right" as we define it, thereby also elevating our own judgment above those same fellow citizens, and, to make the point even more dramatically, has consistently failed fully to provide that which is most needed by those in physical need, in part by reducing them to "clients" rather than individual persons with souls, which I would hazard is a denial of justice to them as well.

I will have to read farther to see if your ideas get any better than is suggested by the quoted asssertion.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
written by Paul, February 24, 2011
This is an excellent, thought-provoking article. It is charitable as well. If the suggested reforms are made, countless millions in the future will lead better, fuller lives in the company of those they were meant to love - their families.
written by familycapproabortion, February 25, 2011
"41 percent of our children are born out of wedlock." It would be a much greater evil if any of them were aborted. Preventing abortion must have first priority here.

"When many millions of single unmarried people in the United States decide to engage in sexual relations…they make a choice. Is it just to ask them to bear the full cost of their choices?" "However, we can stop some of the perverse incentives, such as rewarding having additional children out of wedlock when already on welfare."

These policies are clearly pro-abortion. They will probably cause abortions that would not otherwise occur, and abortion is a much greater evil. Working families have dependency exemptions and child tax credits to help with child raising.

More generally, any penalties whatsoever for pregnancy, childbirth, or single motherhood are pro-abortion. In other words, any restigmatizing of out-of-wedlock pregnancies is pro-abortion. Again, abortion is a much greater evil. Why can't we just use abstinence education to deal with the problems above? What is wrong with abstinence education?
written by Michael PS, February 26, 2011
To suggest, as Familycapproabortion does, that “any penalties whatsoever for pregnancy, childbirth, or single motherhood are pro-abortion,” is of a piece with the argument (which I have also seen advanced) that severe penalties for robbery or housebreaking are pro-murder, by giving the criminal an incentive to eliminate witnesses or forcibly resist arrest.

It amounts to blackmailing the legislator and the public to tolerate fornication for fear of increasing the number of abortions. This overlooks the obvious fact that a child has to be conceived, in order for it to be aborted and, if the deterrent effect reduces the number of pregnancies, the abortion rate, too, will fall.
written by Patrick Fagan, February 26, 2011
Because all of the critiques above have very good points within them, I wish I were Solomon and could give great answers. I am not, and cannot. Hence the main point of the article is an appeal for guidance.

Those critiques that deal with the issue of charity towards the poor– of good will in heart, intention, and action --- are definitely the most telling. For there is no doubt Our Lord will inquire of us all, one-on-one, how we have treated them, and our entry into heaven is linked to our answer.

The article raised issues of justice / injustice. Many respondents rightly raise issues of charity and prudence (including the abortion concern) in how we respond to the injustices, visited -- not so much by the poor as by the structures the welfare state imposes on its citizens in its failing responses to the poor. Many of these have now become structures of sin.

These are vexing and disturbing issues and we need guidance on how to act as society changes, how we can be leaders in building a different, more just social order. While charity is the crowning jewel, the pearl of great price, the evidence of Christ within, the dilemma is that it is not the principle on which good government and peaceful society is built, unless one holds that the first order of charity is justice. Justice is the foundational virtue of good government, not “charity” in the welfare-giving sense.

I was serious in asking for a guiding encyclical for those who want to rebuild a better society. While bearing in mind that Christ did not come to create His kingdom on earth I suspect He does not expect us to stand by while “Rome” collapses. In a way I may be asking for a revisiting and updating of St Augustine’s City of God for Christians of the West in the twenty-first century.

One thing is for certain: Those, like myself, who work in the public discourse and in government need such guidance, as I am sure my critics will agree.
written by Thomist, February 27, 2011
The Popes have moved from the re-distributist theory to acknowledging that all need to understand how to produce wealth through free enterprise as the West had learned. As Fr James A Schall explains: “This success was not primarily an exploitation or an injustice. It consisted in learning new ways of production and distribution that depended on intelligence, enterprise, and work, methods that did not in principle take away anything from anyone. These new methods proceeded from what exists, through the most basic of human resources, human knowledge and skill, to fashion new wealth. This approach was the real key to helping the poor, a key that often seemed to be understood everywhere better than in the Church.” (Does Catholicism Still Exist?, Alba House, 1994, p 177).

In Catholic Social Teaching the primary role of government is to support families in solidarity, and the role of the Church in subsidiarity
From Centesimus Annus, 48, John Paul II, 1991:
“Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State [Welfare State] are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity 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 of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

That is why bonuses or allowances for children born into a family and offered by the State continue to be, and now more so than ever due to the birth dearth, a real need for the welfare of a nation. How few governments or even Catholics understand this.
written by Donna Bethell, February 28, 2011
Patrick, your questions are excellent and the comments illustrate some of the complex considerations required in seeking answers. As for an encyclical, I would welcome something less than fully-developed answers. I think it would be extremely useful to have an encyclical do what you have done: acknowledge the situation, radically different from anything we have experienced before, and ask how charity and justice can be served by both the state and private groups and individuals. Some basic principles could be stated, then let the debate begin.
written by Patrick Fagan, February 28, 2011
I agree with Donna Bethel completely and I suspect the Pope would too were he ever to undertake writing such an encyclical: Guiding principles but not developed answers. Underneath Donna’s suggestion is a developed principle from Vatican II: the role of shaping of the world according to the principles of Christ, though that is the work of the Church it is not the work of the clergy --- but the laity. Armed with clear understanding and a good heart we lay people will, no doubt, debate and contest the different solutions put forward by each other and thereafter will have to do all the tough work of politics to change these developed ideas into law. This latter is definitely is the work of the laity and not the work of the clergy. “Developed answers” would get the Pope too close to the latter, and be a big mistake. The one realm of exception is when the moral law is violated. Condemnation of such is a developed answer but very much the work of the clergy and the Pope --- defending God’s law.
written by CarlTX, March 09, 2011
Question: Where in the Bible does Jesus say the poor were pretty and convenient?
Question: How did it happen that I live in a country which 1. engages in war crimes that cause needless suffering and deaths of millions and costs US taxpayers trillions of dollars;
2. destroys its own economy by corporate/Wall Street welfare;
3. has a political system corrupted by those same corporate/Wall Street beneficiaries;

and I read that we are in trouble because of the
inefficient and immoral handling of the poor and that US families are oppressed by the poor. Isn't it time for a new

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