Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Government and Charity: Just Say No?

Mirror of Justice reader Michael S. Oswald agrees that government funding threatens to compromise religion's mission in society. (See Government Aid and Religion's Mediating Function, below) He goes a step further, though, and urges us to "get the government out of the charity business." In Michael's view, "if the government isn't funneling money from taxpayers to persons in need, it will have no standing to dictate how the providers of charity go about their missions. The church needs to be free from the threat of government interference." Michael explains that his views have been shaped by Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion, which demonstrates "that government's usurpation of the traditionally private institution of charity has been a dismal failure because it turned charity into an entitlement," and because "private organizations, using voluntary contributions of time and money, were and are the only ones that can deal with the spiritual dimension of poverty."

I can't comment fully on these points because I haven't read Olasky's book. I confess, though, that I've always been skeptical of this line of argument. If Catholic social thought were simply a deontologically driven blueprint for society, there might be some merit to the notion that human needs should be met strictly in the sphere of the voluntary. But there is a substantial instrumentalist core to Catholic social thought: we care not just how needs are met, but that the needs are met. Would I prefer that individuals who cannot help themselves are cared for by neighbors who choose to care for them, rather than through a faceless government agency? Of course. Do I think that volunteers could adequately fill the void left in 21st century America were the (admittedly imperfect) welfare state to abdicate its role in the charity business? No.

Michael's comments, though, have convinced me that I need to read Olasky's book, and I will endeavor to maintain an open mind if someone wants to show me how I've underestimated the "armies of compassion."



Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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