A Rerum Novarum for Our Time

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, Ph.D.

Patrick Fagan, Ph.D. is a Washington policy analyst and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Social Services Policy at the Department of Health and Human Services.