Can a Catholic be a Collectivist?
by James Kalb
Should Catholics today work, as a matter of conscience, toward ever broader bureaucratic responsibility for human well-being in general?
That result seems to follow from current ways of thinking. “Love thy neighbor” implies an ethic of mutual assistance. The democratic view that we act through government, together with the industrial approach to getting things done reliably, which is now thought simply rational, seem to imply the social services state as a necessary consequence.
The point is confirmed by the language of rights that the Church has now adopted: everyone has a right to food, shelter, medical care, employment, and many other things. “Rights” normally mean enforceable individual entitlements. If other institutions don’t deliver, government should step in and make sure what’s needed gets done; otherwise, it’ll be denying basic human rights. So welfare rights recognized by the Church seem to obligate government to guarantee everyone a materially decent standard of living regardless of circumstances.
And then there is the notion of solidarity, which makes everyone our neighbor, and seems to call for an arrangement through which each looks after all. It is also confirmed by considerations of justice and mercy. Some people have practical problems, with no one to help them, through no fault of their own. Others are at fault, but the consequences seem disproportionate, especially when compared with other people who do worse without similar problems. And even when the faults seem great, who knows what really happened or what we would have done in their place?
Above all, Christ emphasized forgiveness and mercy, and tells us not to judge. So it seems the social order should be set up to minimize the results of bad luck and even bad conduct in all cases. Given current ways of thinking and doing things, that means that an ever more comprehensive and global welfare state is part of any minimally adequate response to human misfortune and failure.
Nor should Christians be content with the minimum. Love and mercy know no limits. So in the name of ever greater solidarity, it seems that government should work to overcome every human distinction people may feel as a disadvantage. To avoid invidious distinctions between welfare dependency and self-support, for example, it seems that government should, as a matter of equal citizenship, provide as many basic goods and services as possible gratis to all.
On such a view the Christian social ideal turns out to be a sort of politically correct egalitarian collectivism, a society in which everyone equally supports everyone and no invidious distinctions are permissible or even possible.
Nonetheless, such a result radically opposes the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity. As the Catechism says:
The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities.… The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism.… (par. 1884)
Such pronouncements never have much effect. The problem is that any non-centralized system will always have some cases that don’t get covered, certainly not immediately and reliably, and doing something effective about those cases seems morally necessary. They are instances of marginalization, so it seems we ought to put them at the center of attention. And given current assumptions about agency and rational action, that means moving toward universal direct government responsibility for everything.
Rejecting that result means rejecting the democratic logic that government acts are our acts, and the technocratic logic that factory-style organization is the way to make sure things happen reliably. That seems possible as a rational matter. A society as big and complex as the United States can’t possibly be run democratically in any sense strong enough to justify identifying acts of the government with acts of the people. And even if it could, the acts wouldn’t be acts of anyone in particular, so they wouldn’t discharge the obligation of Catholics to act justly and charitably.
Beyond that, moralism with regard to government is a tricky business. On the whole, laws and legal structures are a matter of general policy, to be judged by their overall prudence and long-term effect. Since bureaucratic ineptitude is a byword, it’s absurd to mistake setting up a bureaucracy for dealing with a problem. Men are not raw materials or manufactured products, so entirely different methods and assumptions are needed. The failure of socialism, and the apparent effect of social programs on small-scale social functioning, as reflected in statistics on crime, birth rate, and family life, suggest that it’s destructive to give government general responsibility for individual outcomes.
These may be good arguments, but most people aren’t really convinced. Current assumptions have saturated our outlook on the world too deeply. In a technocratic society it’s not clear what would replace bureaucratic social supports if they were yanked—communal and family ties can’t be relied on, and private charity seems a drop in the bucket—and the democratic faith survives all debunking because without it we seem to become social atoms. As a result, accepting such views can seem like evading obligations with arguments we don’t accept elsewhere. That is why temporary disillusion leading to privatization or welfare reform soon gives way to renewed faith in Hope and Change. This time, people believe, investments in human services will bring about a fundamental transformation that does away with poverty, inequality, exclusion, and what not else. For many, the alternative to that belief is to live without hope.
To change social ideals and find different sources of hope we need to live and understand the world differently. There are of course Catholic reasons to move toward understandings and ways of life radically different from those common around us. Doing so would make the relation among the state, non-state initiatives, and individual well-being, along with everything else, look very different. Before that happens, though, there are still reasons for Catholics to pause before they put whatever political influence they have behind the social services state.
The most important reason has to do with the ultimate goal of such a state, which is not simply a matter of feeding the hungry and healing the sick. The social services state, oriented toward the current understanding of social justice, accepts comprehensive responsibility for human well-being. For that reason, it has to have a comprehensive understanding of the human good. But what is that understanding?
In the nature of things it can know very little about human acts, virtues, and relationships in individual cases. So if it is to be responsible for well-being it can’t allow its version of it to have much to do with those things.
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