Society December 19, 2013

Poor Catholic "Trash"

The alliance of political and religious forces pushing back against the welfare state is overdue, and the challenge is enormous. It has also created a new and terrible temptation for the Church.

Stephen Herreid
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Stephen Herreid
December 19, 2013
Bernard Gagnon
Earlier this month, Mark Steyn wrote an article at NRO in which he painted a very accurate picture of my hometown. St. Johnsbury is nestled in the hills of Northern Vermont, surrounded by what used to be dairy farmland. A visitor might travel there expecting to find an old-timey safe-haven of family friendly French-Canadian Catholic neighborhoods. Imagine entering this little hamlet through a tunnel-gate of pines and maples on an old dirt road, passing the silos and cornfields of Passumpsic on the way to the Congregational Church. There you'll meet some of the folks who keep the town’s community together (whether it wants to be or not). If you leave the church and hang a right down Eastern Avenue, you’ll come to Depot Square, where very few of the folks from any local churches can be found – except a Catholic social worker or two. In the dead waters of Depot Square, there’s no one left who does the work that first built and kept St. Johnsbury alive. Many tenants of this government-subsidized section of housing are second- and third-generation dependents who’ve never had a full-time job in their life.

“Their grandparents got up at four in the morning to work the farm,” writes Steyn, “and their great-great-great-whatever-parents slogged up the Connecticut River, cleared the land, and built homes and towns and a civilization in the wilderness.” But those days are tragically over. He goes on to describe the new St. Johnsbury, the blighted town where I grew up: “A couple of months back, I sat in the café in St. Johnsbury, and overheard a state official and a Chamber of Commerce official discuss enthusiastically how the town could access some federal funds to convert an abandoned building into welfare housing.” As much as Steyn’s state officials and my Catholic social workers would like to think they’re doing the poor a favor, they’ve really let them down.

Make no mistake: the welfare agenda is not a tool for Catholic Social Justice. In its very philosophical underpinnings, the welfare state is an anti-Christian institution. The agenda that relieves people of their freedoms and responsibilities also removes from them their dignity as moral agents. It should come as no surprise that when we got universalized state healthcare, we also got a universalized state conscience. Under the welfare state, individuals – and even voluntary associations like the Catholic Church – cannot make independent choices in providing for their own. In a progressive state like Vermont, the same statist ideology that now brings us the HHS mandate has been at work for decades. But even before the mandate came along, the highest abortion rates in the country were found in the progressive, big-government States of the Northeast, especially among the poor dependent class. Abortion is the much uglier but certainly blood-related sister of the Welfare State.

The demoralizing effect of state dependance is unmistakable in a place like Depot Square, St. Johnsbury, where a high percentage of the girls reach obesity by the age of twelve, and many of the boys land in juvenile detention before they land their first job. “Self-reliance – ‘work’ – is intimately connected to human dignity,” writes Steyn. He stands against the bureaucrats who assume that the Depot Square tenant is “a feeble child … The elites think a smart society will be wealthy enough to relieve the masses from the need to work.” But the people of St. Johnsbury show the reality of such a society, which is really nothing other than “neo-feudal, but with fatter, sicker peasants.” Steyn hits the nail on the head when he points out that when we try to impose social justice by growing the welfare state, we cause not only an “‘economic inequality,’ but a far more profound kind, and seething with resentments.”
       
Mark Steyn gets it. Along with many others on the American political right, he understands that the Welfare State represents an immoral violation of human dignity. And as a Catholic, I must agree with him. And I’m not alone.

John Courtney Murray, the father of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, warned against an ideology that conceives of the State as an ever-growing provider for the ever-evolving “wants” of society. In this setting, “socially desirable objectives” are no longer “received” from society itself ... rather, they are conceived in committee and imposed on society.” Thus the State “tends to lose its character of servant, and assume that of master.”

Keep reading on the next page

Earlier this month, Mark Steyn wrote an article at NRO in which he painted a very accurate picture of my hometown. St. Johnsbury is nestled in the hills of Northern Vermont, surrounded by what used to be dairy farmland. A visitor might travel there expecting to find an old-timey safe-haven of family friendly French-Canadian Catholic neighborhoods. Imagine entering this little hamlet through a tunnel-gate of pines and maples on an old dirt road, passing the silos and cornfields of Passumpsic on the way to the Congregational Church. There you'll meet some of the folks who keep the town’s community together (whether it wants to be or not). If you leave the church and hang a right down Eastern Avenue, you’ll come to Depot Square, where very few of the folks from any local churches can be found – except a Catholic social worker or two. In the dead waters of Depot Square, there’s no one left who does the work that first built and kept St. Johnsbury alive. Many tenants of this government-subsidized section of housing are second- and third-generation dependents who’ve never had a full-time job in their life.

“Their grandparents got up at four in the morning to work the farm,” writes Steyn, “and their great-great-great-whatever-parents slogged up the Connecticut River, cleared the land, and built homes and towns and a civilization in the wilderness.” But those days are tragically over. He goes on to describe the new St. Johnsbury, the blighted town where I grew up: “A couple of months back, I sat in the café in St. Johnsbury, and overheard a state official and a Chamber of Commerce official discuss enthusiastically how the town could access some federal funds to convert an abandoned building into welfare housing.” As much as Steyn’s state officials and my Catholic social workers would like to think they’re doing the poor a favor, they’ve really let them down.

Make no mistake: the welfare agenda is not a tool for Catholic Social Justice. In its very philosophical underpinnings, the welfare state is an anti-Christian institution. The agenda that relieves people of their freedoms and responsibilities also removes from them their dignity as moral agents. It should come as no surprise that when we got universalized state healthcare, we also got a universalized state conscience. Under the welfare state, individuals – and even voluntary associations like the Catholic Church – cannot make independent choices in providing for their own. In a progressive state like Vermont, the same statist ideology that now brings us the HHS mandate has been at work for decades. But even before the mandate came along, the highest abortion rates in the country were found in the progressive, big-government States of the Northeast, especially among the poor dependent class. Abortion is the much uglier but certainly blood-related sister of the Welfare State.

The demoralizing effect of state dependance is unmistakable in a place like Depot Square, St. Johnsbury, where a high percentage of the girls reach obesity by the age of twelve, and many of the boys land in juvenile detention before they land their first job. “Self-reliance – ‘work’ – is intimately connected to human dignity,” writes Steyn. He stands against the bureaucrats who assume that the Depot Square tenant is “a feeble child … The elites think a smart society will be wealthy enough to relieve the masses from the need to work.” But the people of St. Johnsbury show the reality of such a society, which is really nothing other than “neo-feudal, but with fatter, sicker peasants.” Steyn hits the nail on the head when he points out that when we try to impose social justice by growing the welfare state, we cause not only an “‘economic inequality,’ but a far more profound kind, and seething with resentments.”
       
Mark Steyn gets it. Along with many others on the American political right, he understands that the Welfare State represents an immoral violation of human dignity. And as a Catholic, I must agree with him. And I’m not alone.

John Courtney Murray, the father of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, warned against an ideology that conceives of the State as an ever-growing provider for the ever-evolving “wants” of society. In this setting, “socially desirable objectives” are no longer “received” from society itself ... rather, they are conceived in committee and imposed on society.” Thus the State “tends to lose its character of servant, and assume that of master.”

Keep reading on the next page



In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II condemns any welfare agenda that would “remove permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs...” He also warns against “enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom.” John Paul II might have been writing to the officials and Catholic social workers of St. Johnsbury when he stated that by “intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies.” While the people of Depot Square are certainly fed and housed, not to mention given medical treatment for which they will never be able to pay, John Paul II would remind us that “certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need.”

Pope Benedict XVI points to this deep human need in Caritas in Veritatae – the need for each person to be recognized as “a subject who is always capable of giving something to others,” and not as a mere receptacle of material goods. While some Catholics believe the State is doing its Christian duty to the people of Depot Square by giving them all they need to subsist and asking for nothing in return, Benedict XVI insists that recognizing “reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being ... is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state.” The neglect of this principle “gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.”

Despite these teachings, Catholics have largely failed to treat the poor in accordance with their dignity. In the tumultuous decades that followed Vatican II, there has been much division among Catholics. Catholic factions run the gamut from radical traditionalists who defend the Inquisition to radical progressive Catholics who are practically indistinguishable from their secular activist counterparts. Faced with sharp divisions among their flocks, Catholic leaders often fall silent on the Catholic teachings that would stir up any further contention. Cardinal Dolan remembers the beginning of his own failure to preach solid morality in “the mid- and late ‘60s,” when “Catholics in general got the impression that what the Second Vatican Council taught, first and foremost, is that we should be chums with the world, and that the best thing the Church can do is become more and more like everybody else.” When Rome restated the Catholic position on sexuality and reproduction in Humanæ Vitæ, says Dolan, it “brought such a tsunami of dissent, departure, disapproval of the Church, that I think most of us … kind of subconsciously said, ‘Whoa. We’d better never talk about that, because it’s just too hot to handle.’” And Cardinal Dolan was certainly correct when he recently stated that Catholic Bishops have been in support of a government takeover of healthcare since the Progressive Era of the 1920s.

So Catholic bishops have been far from standing in the way of Statist agendas among the laity. A growing faction of Marxist-influenced Catholics has long promulgated a conception of social justice that flies in the face of Catholic teachings on subsidiarity and human dignity. These Catholics have for the most part blended into the left, receiving little recognition as qua Catholic since they have nothing unique to add to the secular welfare agenda. Nevertheless, they have continually made themselves quiet and dutiful servants of the welfare state.

One prominent Catholic lobbyist whom I met at a state capital described himself to me as “an arm of the bishopric.” He gave flamboyant lip-service to the Church’s position on traditional marriage and abortion, but he also prided himself on being more open-minded than other religious lobbyists when it comes to Labor Unions and State human service providers – with whom he makes backroom deals that close down the diocese’s private parochial schools and quash private religious charities to make more room for anti-family public education and pro-abortion “women’s health” clinics.

Keep reading on the next page



I know a “Catholic charity” (it collects its revenue at Masses) that does little more than refer poor folks who ask for aid to local state welfare offices. And while state aid may be friendly to our stomachs, it is not always friendly to our souls. A Catholic family recently told me of a time when they were directed to sign up for a seemingly innocent welfare program. In exchange for food, their children were subjected to a degrading examination to determine whether they were sexually active and, more explicitly, whether they had been engaged in any violent sexual activity. During this examination, the father of the family was made to leave the room. Even in a sleepy New England town like St. Johnsbury, there is no mistaking the systemic philosophy of entitlement-dependence that pervades the welfare system. Along with food, shelter, and medical treatment, welfare officers are also eager to connect the poor with “counselors” and “women’s health” professionals who preach an ideology of promiscuity and a dependence on the State, which is always ready to help them abort the consequences of their actions.

Just at the moment when the Church begins to undergo a full-on persecution under an overgrown State, an unprecedented number of Catholics have united in a rallying cry for more power to be put in the hands of that State. This Catholic brand of Statism is thrust into the public square in the name of the poor. But the poor have for some time been undergoing a process of moral reeducation in the welfare state. They have been catechized by an enemy church that reduces their consciences into selfish subservience from birth. In Depot Square, St. Johnsbury, tenants are encouraged by low-level bureaucrats (some of whom are Catholic) to vote in the interests of big government. Meanwhile, public discourse worldwide is dominated by an ideology that is characterized by ruthlessly anti-life statism and a hatred of Christianity. Since the Catholic Church is all but defeated in this regard, I’m not surprised that Judas has arrived on the scene, and that some are making the damnable decision to cooperate with the all-but-triumphant State rather than stand up for the dignity of the poor.

During the government shutdown last October, there was an outcry from some Catholic quarters. It was not the battle-cry of a unified Church, joining in the charge against the oppressive Affordable Care Act. Rather, it was the whine of the dependent and their disingenuous advocates. They weren’t outraged by a law that permanently criminalizes the Catholic conscience in this country; their complaint was that those who were attempting to thwart the HHS mandate might cut off the flow of material goods to the dependent class. At that moment, these Catholics revealed themselves as having more in common with the secular than the Catholic world. Quite simply, this is how people are corrupted.

Only recently, with the coming of the statist crown jewel of Obamacare and the HHS Mandate, have Catholic institutions become major players in the fight to maintain our liberties as outlined in Catholic Social Teaching. Faced with the manifestly anti-Christian and tyrannical nature of the Affordable Care Act, the Catholic bishops have begun to take a stand, joining forces with the many long-suffering American conservatives who have extended a helping hand to a Church suffering under a persecution that it largely brought on itself. During the dark time since the HHS mandate, the Catholic Church’s alliance with the American right has given us some hope of retaining the liberty to practice our faith in the future. The Christian conscience now has representation on the national stage and in the Nation’s Capital, with Catholic bishops speaking out and their cause being taken up by hundreds of conservatives, from Congressmen to lobbyists to popular voices like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Steyn. The alliance of political and religious forces pushing back against the welfare state is overdue, and the challenge is enormous. It has also created a new and terrible temptation for the Church. Though for many years big-government Catholics have gained little traction among the orthodox laity and little attention from the secular left, they may now have something to offer to the State that they never could have offered before: the surrender and collaboration of a defeated Church.
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