A beneficiary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s homelessness prevention program meets with social worker Irving Rodriguez. Archdiocese of Philadelphia

If federal government social welfare programs were pared down, could family, churches and charities fill the gap? That’s an “unrealistic” expectation, says Mark Gray, a research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. 

Gray told Our Sunday Visitor that it was a “different America” when churches and private charities could meet communities’ social welfare needs, which he argues have grown too complex for purely local solutions. 

“I can’t think of any private charity that could deal with such problems [like widespread unemployment and rising health care costs],” said Gray. 

In a recent post on CARA’s research blog, Nineteen Sixty-four, Gray presented data showing that Catholic parishes would not be able to fill the social welfare gap if the federal government were to stop funding food stamp programs, transitional assistance, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. 

According to Gray’s research, the country’s average Catholic household would have to make a weekly offering of almost $50 — the current weekly average is about $9.57 — for parishes just to pay for barely more than half of the $68.3 billion the federal government spent last year on food stamp benefits. Also worth considering, Gray wrote, is that parishes in different communities have varying levels of resources. Parishes in some poor neighborhood barely have enough money just to cover operating expenses. 

“Catholic institutions have done, are doing, and will continue to do an enormous amount with what they have to combat poverty,” said Gray. “But it is a quaint myth that the churches, or Catholic parishes more specifically, could somehow do all that is needed in 21st century America to provide assistance to the poor and elderly if government programs were significantly cut or disappeared.”

True costs

But Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank, says CARA’s premise is based on a false understanding of the true costs of delivering social services, which he says are inevitably more expensive when they are delivered by government bureaucracies. 

Father Sirico told OSV that the CARA analysis does not take into account the possible contributions of Protestant churches, other religious organizations and private charities in meeting local social needs. He also said the CARA argument shows a redistributionist mindset that believes government should be the primary option for meeting social needs. 

“As I read the CARA article, I realized the thesis of the argument was to attack those of us who argue for subsidiarity, without ever considering that these [government] programs are in the first instance a violation of the principle of subsidiarity,” Father Sirico said. 

“These people are completely innocent of economic understanding.” 

On the local level

The principle of subsidiarity inevitably arises in Catholic circles whenever the question is raised about the most effective manner to meet people’s basic needs during economic hard times. 

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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 co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (No. 1883).  

The Catechism also says that subsidiarity “is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies” (No. 1885). 

Father Sirico said the subsidiarity principle recognizes that local communities can best meet people’s social needs because those communities are close to the problem. 

“By being the provider of first resort, the government impedes the charitable impulses of the people, who assume the government is doing all those things,” said Father Sirico. 

Others, like Jeffrey Mirus, president of Trinity Communications, argue that government programs cause people to undervalue family ties. He said families would be strengthened if they did not reflexively assume the government would take care of them.

Principle of solidarity

But other experts say that the Catholic understanding of subsidiarity does not exclude government from having a role in providing for social services. 

“The principle of subsidiarity always goes together with the principle of solidarity. On both sides of the political divide, people try to break them apart, and yet they go together,” said Kathy Saile, associate director of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference’s Secretariat for Justice, Peace and Human Development

Saile told OSV that it would be inconsistent with Catholic social teaching to demand that government dismantle its infrastructure for filling the social welfare gap. 

“Last year in the federal budget we spent $496 billion on safety-net programs. If you eliminate that, it would mean each church in the country would have to raise $1 million to fill that gap. I don’t know of any pastor that is going to sign off on that kind of capital campaign,” said Saile, who argued that the current system of local charities receiving public funding is a “very good balance” between the roles of government and the church.

“Many Catholic charity agencies partner with local, state and federal government agencies to provide services and they do a good job of doing it because they do so out of a Catholic identity and value system, but also because of the vast resources and infrastructure of the federal government. That’s where the role of the federal government comes in. It can make sure the common good is taken care of. 

“We have to be careful that we are bringing Catholic teaching to our politics and public life, not bringing our politics to Catholic teaching.”

Community, family ties

James C. Capretta, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy,” said the CARA analysis presented a “straw man argument” by assuming that the federal government had to pay for the social safety net or else the churches would have to pay it for themselves. State and local governments, he argued, also have roles to play, not just the federal argument. 

“We need a frank conversation about what levels of government are going to be involved in the social safety net,” Capretta said. 

Over the last 50 to 60 years, Capretta said, there has been a growing expectance that the federal government will provide for social needs. That centralization weakens local communities, especially families, he said.

Working in tandem

Meanwhile, working on the local level, James Amato, deputy secretary for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services, the largest provider of social services in southeastern Pennsylvania, told OSV that his region’s parish network by itself could not pay for residential programs for mentally disabled children or cover the foster care system. Parishes would also struggle with covering expenses for programs such as free breakfasts for low-income students. 

“You see a city like Philadelphia, with 40 percent poverty, and there’s no way parishes could step in and fill those voids,” Amato said. 

“For example, to care for a developmentally-disabled person in a community setting costs $300 to $400 a day. When you think about that, it’s stunning. But to think that it could be taken over by parishes or a private faith-based network, I just don’t see how that could happen. 

“I just think historically that the partnership between government and faith-based service to the poor has been a vital part of who we are as a country, who we are as a Church. When either one of those parties backs off in any way, it has serious ramifications for all those who receive those services.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts