(by Jason Adkins)
December 21, 2011
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is marking this January as “poverty awareness month.” It is re-launching its Poverty USA campaign to chronicle the stories of those living in poverty, as well as identify innovative solutions and ideas communities can use to help their neighbors in need.
The campaign could not be timelier.
One in six Americans is currently living in poverty, and one in five children. That is more than 46 million people. Living in poverty means the household income for a family of four is less than $22,314.
Those astounding poverty figures do not include the many working families struggling to make ends meet with stagnant wages and rising costs for food, fuel, health care and housing.
The causes of poverty are complex and are rooted in both individual sin and injustices perpetrated by the “structures of sin”: unemployment, lack of access to education or job training, disability, health problems, insufficient wages, lack of affordable housing, precarious lifestyles, substance abuse and family breakdown. The list goes on.
Oftentimes, some of these problems in a person’s or family’s life are multiplied and deepened by other problems, resulting in a cycle of poverty that is often difficult to break.
Instrument of justice
So how should Catholics respond in the public arena to growing poverty?
Some argue that it is not the government’s job to take care of the poor. Rather, it is the responsibility of churches and charities. And besides, they claim, government assistance is not in the Constitution.
Such an argument, however, fundamentally misconstrues the role of politics and government.
The state’s role is not to show the magnanimity of charity, which is beyond its competence (it can’t love people). The state is, however, an instrument of justice, and the aim of politics is the just ordering of society.
When there is injustice, especially in the economic realm, the state has a responsibility to prudently step in and correct it to the extent that it is competent to do so.
Pope Benedict’s words in the encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” provide an important clarification about the responsibilities and limitations of the state in alleviating poverty, especially in a time like now when there is increasing pressure in some circles to completely privatize assistance to those in need.
According to Pope Benedict, “There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable.”
The Holy Father continues: “The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person — every person — needs: namely, loving personal concern.
“We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need” (28b).
Not all poverty is the result of injustice, and so there are limits to what the state can do. A government crusade to “eradicate poverty” might create the inhuman state Pope Benedict warns us about.
Fortunately, the state of Minnesota recognizes that charitable organizations such as Catholic Charities can often do a better job delivering certain human services and combating poverty than a comparable state entity could, and thus subsidizes Catholic Charities’ efforts.
This type of collaboration is an excellent embodiment of the principle of subsidiarity that Pope Benedict XVI outlined in “Deus Caritas Est.”
To the extent that anti-poverty programs — whether provided directly by the state or through some contractor like Catholic Charities — secure basic needs, create a safety net, break the cycle of poverty or provide a ladder out of it, they should continue to receive adequate funding and even increases as needs arise.
These public efforts will go a long way toward alleviating material poverty and building a more just society.
Working for justice, however, is only part of the equation.
It is up to all of us to manifest true charity — perform the works of mercy; give generously and directly assist those in need; cooperate with the church’s charitable endeavors — and fill the world with the love and concern that cures the spiritual poverty present in so many hearts.