Dolan and DiMarzio: Government Must Do More to Help Those in Need

A few days ago, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, along with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn, released a commentary on the Feast of St. Vincent DePaul.  For those who placed Cardinal Dolan in the camp of partisan Republican bishops along with Bishops Robert Morlino, Earl Boyea, Thomas Paprocki, Samuel Aquila, William Lori, and Charles Chaput, the letter is something of a shock.  In fact, Cardinal Dolan seems to be correcting some of these bishops by clearly affirming the essential responsibilities of the government under Catholic social teaching to help those in need.

The post elicited hysterical libertarian rants against socialism, taxation, and the redistribution of wealth.  One commenter made the error of confusing justice, which requires respect for the universal destination of goods and that each person has their fundamental needs met, with charity, a virtue that animates justice but also must go beyond it.  Saint Gregory the Great is quoted in the passage in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church that explains the need to address the social and political dimensions of poverty, saying, “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours.  More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”

This error, mistaking charity for justice, echoes Bishop Chaput’s recent statement that whether or not government has any role in taking care of the poor is a matter of prudential judgment.  The most cursory examination of Catholic social teaching reveals that this is not the case.  For instance, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI highlights the need for “just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics.”  The amount of government action required may be disputed, within certain limits, but the responsibility of government to take care of the poor is simply not subject to debate for those who accept the Catholic understanding of the common good.

What was said that caused such an over-the-top reaction?  Dolan and DiMarzio argue that much more needs to be done to help those in need “and not just by private charity.”  Essentially they are calling on the government to do more to help those in need at the exact moment when right-wing Catholics are mobilizing behind a budget that would shred the social safety net and essentially phase-out discretionary domestic spending, while providing tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.  Dolan and DiMarzio affirm the government’s role in ensuring that people have their most basic needs met and even worry that it lacks the revenue to fulfill its essential duties.  Such words are anathema to those on the right who believe that government is growing to such gargantuan heights that it threatens to swallow whole economic liberty in America.   Instead of distorting subsidiarity and turning prudential reasoning into a free-for-all, Dolan and DiMarzio kept the focus on solidarity, which must necessarily precede its wise implementation.

This commentary should not come as a total surprise.  While Cardinal Dolan has been very generous in assuming that Paul Ryan’s motives have been pure, despite ample evidence to the contrary, and has admitted his personal admiration for him, he did in fact challenge Ryan on his budget in a “heated conversation.”  Dolan affirmed the need to preserve entitlement programs and ensure a “vigorous safety net.”  The stark contrast with Ryan’s budget is obvious to all who understand its content.  Nuns on the Bus have been making these points publicly for months now.

Unlike the Republican-aligned bishops, Dolan has not dissented from the Bishops’ responses to the Ryan budget, which were prepared by Bishops Blaire and Pates, but speak for the Bishops as a whole.  While Dolan’s understanding of prudential reasoning has seemed in the past to stretch far enough to allow what we might call imprudential reasoning, he has not embraced the moral relativism of those who have defended the Ryan budget itself

Prudential reasoning is required on all issues, but not all men and women are prudent and not all ideas are plausible, let alone rooted in reality.  In the past, Dolan often seemed willing to give practicing Catholics the benefit of the doubt.  In this commentary, he seems to be affirming the limits that exist on the legitimate application of Church teaching.  This is particularly important when some Republicans explicitly reject Church teaching by arguing that healthcare is a privilege not a right.  It makes little sense to assume the healthcare proposals they have designed and support are legitimate applications of Church teaching, when they openly reject the underlying teaching found in papal encyclicals and the Catechism.  It makes even less sense when they have absolutely no explicit plan to ensure that people’s basic needs are met.  It is difficult to defend nothingness as an exercise in prudence.   

The commentary noticeably does not attempt to distort subsidiarity to grant legitimacy to free market fundamentalism, a worldview directly rejected in Church teaching, or a John C. Calhoun-like embrace of states’ rights.  Subsidiarity and solidarity are not rival principles.  The principle of subsidiarity is used as a tool to implement and institutionalize the efforts generated by solidarity.  Assistance for those in need should not be inefficient, inadequate, or create more problems than solutions.  Neither the federal government nor the free market nor private charity can ever be the automatic answer unless one is putting ideology above the authentic needs of the people.  In the end, the government, which has the duty to ensure the protection of all human rights including universal access to life’s most basic needs, must look to shape the most effective mixture of direct government action, private charity, and the free market for the sake of the common good.  When these basic needs are not met in a wealthy nation, we cannot blame the amoral market or overburdened private charities, but the government.  Currently, many needs are not being met.  This is an indisputable fact.

Dolan also states, “Too much rhetoric in the country portrays poor people in a very negative way.”  It is difficult to not see this as a response to right-wing attacks on the dignity of the poor.  The rhetoric of makers vs. takers, producers vs. parasites, and the delusion that the poor are a bunch of lazy moochers living off of the heroic, virtuous rich of our nation certainly merits rebuke.  Such language cannot be reconciled with solidarity or truth.

While Democrats and progressives might be inclined to throw this statement in the faces of Republicans and those on the right, they should instead use it to reflect on their own assumptions and tendencies.  Are you personally doing enough to help the poor?  Have we done enough to push Democratic candidates on poverty reduction?  How about on abolishing chronic homelessness?

The Republican Party has shifted dramatically to the right since 2008.  As the Democratic Party has shifted closer to the center in response to the Republican shift, embracing Republican proposals from the 1990s on issues like healthcare and climate change, it remains essential for the bishops to press not just Republicans but also Democrats on behalf of the preferential option for the poor.  For Democrats, there is a great incentive to focus on the middle class.  That is where the votes are.  The Bishops have a responsibility to stand up for the most vulnerable and least powerful.  In acknowledging that “throughout the history of the Church there has always been a preferential option for the poorand through the rest of their commentary, Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio deserve credit for doing just that.