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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 [1] 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 [2], 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: 

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