Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Principle, Prudence, Poverty

As discussed in my post on abortion, many conservatives blithely dismiss church social teachings that inconveniently contradict the Republican agenda. They will tell you that while abortion is non-negotiable, a Catholic's response to matters of social and economic policy is one of prudential judgment around which honest people can differ. I argued that the time that this was often a convenient smokesceen to justify not only holding one's nose about Republican social and economic policies on the grounds that other issues were more important, but actively supporting them.

Take the simple example of poverty in the United States. Under Clinton, the poverty rate fell from 14.8 percent in 1992 to 11.3 percent in 2000. Under Bush, it bounced up to 12.7 percent again by 2004, increasing every single year. Now, it would be folly to give Clinton full credit for the economic boom (though he deserves a significant amount), and Bush, monumental failures notwithstanding, is not fully to blame for increasing poverty either. Still, there can be little doubt this his policies of tax cuts for the rich combined with cuts at the lower end played a major role.

The church, obviously, pays quite a lot of attention to poverty. From the Catechism: "God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them" (#2443); "Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use" (#2445); "Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church..." (#2448).

How can we live up to these principles? Many, especially in the Christian Democratic tradition in Europe, favored the development of welfare states, which reduced the degree of poverty and inequality in society. But others have argued that an excessive welfare state leads to perverse incentives, culminating in high unemployment and a culture of dependency. Both positions are valid to hold in the Catholic tradition. What is not acceptable is simply to ignore the issue. So if one holds the second position, then one needs to propose solutions that would break the cycle of dependence, such as in-work benefits (such as an expansion of the earned income child credit), subsidized childcare, educational reform etc. I don't see many Republicans favoring these policies, or even having this debate. They will certainly talk loudly about the failures of the welfare state, but will not propose any viable solutions. Well, they might talk about the need for private charity to step up, and they might even quote some church teachings on subsidiarity. Fine, but this in no way the state a free pass to enact anti-poor policies. Oh yes, they might talk about how Republican policies actually help the poor. The problem with this is that the statistics speak for themselves. At the end of the day, "prudential judgment" entails fumbling with facts and experience, not embracing an ideology.

1 comment:

John Lowell said...


The length to which some will go to identify the faith with the current Republican political reality truly nauseates. Whether its Deal Hudson giving Karl Rove access to his rolladecks or Bishop Chaput abusing his office during the last election by peddling a highly selective, Bush flavored version of the Church's teaching on a Catholic's civic responsibilities, the possibility of these excrescences transmogrifying into a latter-day Reich's Church already has been realized. One merely need read the open endorsement of Republican senatorial candidates at the American Papist or the unabased warmongering of neo-con shill, Chris Blosser, at Against The Grain to get an initial impression. Some of these sites raise money though web advertising, and are actually registered as tax-exempt entities!
In my opinion, they represent one of the greatest dangers to the faith extant.

And you're right, MM, the abuse of the concept, "prudential judgement", is egregious is such quarters. Two Popes dismiss the war in Iraq as unjust and immediately attempts are made to rob the dismissals of their obvious moral weight by trivializing them in this way. We're told that they are merely "prudential judgements" and the impression is left that they carry no more moral weight than your opinion or mine. These are, of course, symptoms of an "orthodoxy" most uncomfortable with itself and now whistling past the graveyard. Truth be know, it has marginalized itself and will increasingly be seen as irrelevant.

John Lowell