A Theology of Big Government?

Introducing Cardinal Timothy Dolan at the GOP convention yesterday, Speaker John Boehner said, “He’s a man who knows that the preferential option for the poor doesn’t translate into a preferential option for big government.”  Well, not always.*  For what’s it’s worth, Catholicism, the faith to which both Dolan and Boehner belong, does in fact have a practical theology of government, outlined in the encyclical Pacem in Terris, among other places.  According to this authoritative document, “the whole reason for the existence of civil authorities is the realization of the common good.”  It reads, in part:

In addition, heads of States must make a positive contribution to the creation of an overall climate in which the individual can both safeguard his own rights and fulfill his duties, and can do so readily. For if there is one thing we have learned in the school of experience, it is surely this: that, in the modern world especially, political, economic and cultural inequities among citizens become more and more widespread when public authorities fail to take appropriate action in these spheres. And the consequence is that human rights and duties are thus rendered totally ineffective.

The public administration must therefore give considerable care and thought to the question of social as well as economic progress, and to the development of essential services in keeping with the expansion of the productive system. Such services include road-building, transportation, communications, drinking-water, housing, medical care, ample facilities for the practice of religion, and aids to recreation. The government must also see to the provision of insurance facilities, to obviate any likelihood of a citizen’s being unable to maintain a decent standard of living in the event of some misfortune, or greatly in creased family responsibilities.

The government is also required to show no less energy and efficiency in the matter of providing opportunities for suitable employment, graded to the capacity of the workers. It must make sure that working men are paid a just and equitable wage, and are allowed a sense of responsibility in the industrial concerns for which they work. It must facilitate the formation of intermediate groups, so that the social life of the people may become more fruitful and less constrained. And finally, it must ensure that everyone has the means and opportunity of sharing as far as possible in cultural benefits.

Sounds like a theology of big government to me.


*An earlier version of this post was based somewhat on a report that Speaker Boehner had qualified his statement with the phrase “doesn’t always.”

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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19 Responses

  1. chris16 says:

    Cardinal Dolan has recently made comments that he is good friends with Catholic Paul Ryan. I hope that the Cardinal saw the headlines that were on most newspapers and they were in agreement that Ryan’s speech was one lie after another. Did the Cardinal have time to hear Ryan’s confession? How about a penance that lying to steal an election and using his Catholic faith as a prop and vote getter is sinful and he needs to correct his false/lies statements.

  2. Rodak says:

    Sounds like (Protestant) Denmark!

  3. Tom Van Dyke says:

    Big government is antithetical to subsidiarity. Big government can force bishops to hand out condoms.


    The Church is still working out the kinks on this one.


    The Church’s concern for the poor does not imply a “preferential option” for Big Government. The social doctrine teaches that the problem of poverty is best addressed by empowerment: enabling poor people to enter the circle of productivity and exchange in society. The responsibility for that empowerment falls on everyone: individuals, through charitable giving and service work; voluntary organizations, including the Church; businesses and trade unions. Government at all levels can play a role in this process of empowerment, but it is a serious distortion of the social doctrine to suggest that government has exclusive responsibility here. On the contrary: In the 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus, Blessed John Paul II condemned the “Social Assistance State” because it saps welfare recipients of their dignity and their creativity while making them wards of the government.

    (2) Fiscal prudence is a matter of justice extended toward future generations, and is therefore an inter-generational moral imperative (as is provision for the retired elderly). To leave mountains of unserviceable debt to future generations is shameful. The reactionary defense of governmental pension and social welfare programs with no evident concern for their fiscal implications violates the moral structure of Catholic social doctrine: the portside analogue to a cool indifference toward the fate of the poor.

    • Liberty60 says:

      When handing out condoms is a greater evil than people dying, the Church has betrayed its own magesterium.

      Where comes this assumption that social welfare spending increases debt, while military spending does not? Or that social welfare spending increases debt, as opposed to massive tax cuts? Couldn’t it be argued that massive tax cuts added to a massive warfare state is the moral culprit, instead of pensions for the elderly?

      Catholics (like most denominations) volunteer about 2% of their income to the collection plate. They also (like most denominations) eagerly consume and avail themselves of the benefits provided by Big Government.

      The Catholic Church (like most denominations) faces a crisis of its own regarding the care and treatment of its elderly clergy; If it were left up to the voluntary contributions of the laity, half of retired priests and nuns would starve to death. The Church covers most of this cost via its historical investments and annuities.

      Unlike say, the Amish or Mormons, Catholics (and most denominations) have voted with their pocketbooks, stating clearly that they do not intend to provide for the sick, the poor, and the elderly by means of voluntary donations.

      Government may not be the exclusive vehicle to handle these things, but it is the one Catholic laity have indicated they prefer.

      • Tom Van Dyke says:

        “When handing out condoms is a greater evil than people dying…”

        Too twisted a construction, man.

        “Unlike say, the Amish or Mormons, Catholics (and most denominations) have voted with their pocketbooks, stating clearly that they do not intend to provide for the sick, the poor, and the elderly by means of voluntary donations.”

        You have zero basis in fact and truth. I wouldn’t even know where to start with such slander. Peace, out.

        • Liberty60 says:

          Collection plate donations are a matter of record, in the 2% range.

          There are many Mormons who actually tithe a full 10%; the Amish asked for, and got, the right to opt out of Social Security; they do actually provide for their elderly entirely through their own system of donations.

          I would put the question to any of the commenters here:
          Can you concieve of the Catholic Church (or any other denomination) doing that?
          How many Catholic laity would opt out, and place their fate entirely in the hands of voluntary donations of their fellow parishioners?

          Or do you think it is more likely that the Catholic laity prefers the system we have now, of a mix of government and private safety net?

          • Jaybird says:

            It’s a little more modern today, when it comes to church giving. It’s possible to set up an automatic (weekly/biweekly/monthly) donation from your bank account to the church that can be timed according to a day of the week to a day of the month depending on when you get paid.

            The collection plate now exists as communication (throw in a one or a five) rather than as how churches get their operating funds in a post-internet society.

  4. GordonHide says:

    Could someone make it clear exactly what delineates big government from small government in a discussion like this?

    • BlaiseP says:

      Depends on whether you’re a Conservative or a Liberal. If it’s a huge military and a police state, that’s not big government to a Conservative. It is to a Liberal.

      If it’s infrastructure and programs to benefit ordinary people, that is big government to a Conservative. But not to a Liberal.

      • GordonHide says:

        Well, thanks for that. I’ll throw in a couple of other possibilities and hopefully you’ll give me your reaction.

        One might say government has gotten too big once it spends more than a certain percentage of GDP. For instance, if your government spends more than half of GDP in peacetime in pursuit of what it sees as its responsibilities do you still live in a free country? Is this a definition of big government?

        One might say that any government that uses the law to enforce moral rules which, if broken, have no effect on fellow citizens or even, perhaps, moral rules which have a bad effect on society in general. Is this not an example of government being too big by operating to reduce personal freedom unnecessarily?

  5. GordonHide says:

    I have to say that if the above is an accurate representation of how the Catholic Church sees the duties of society towards its citizens then it is supporting policies which will lead to its own demise.

    Whether a reliable social safety net is provided by “big government” or through some other means the result will be a considerable reduction in anxiety about the future for the poor. If you refer to the work of Phil Zuckerman and Gregory Paul this is exactly what leads to the demise of religion.

  6. Lisa says:

    can’t agree with this writer, he left out the duty of the citizen, if following the ten commandments and the golden rule, the citizen does not behave in a selfish, careless manner to then become a burden to others, and then burdening the government.

    • Liberty60 says:

      Interesting perspective that doesn’t get discussed enough.

      If we say that we belong to the group, we gain both responsibility and benefit.
      There is a moral obligation to provide for the good of the group, both by donating our riches, and our work.

      So malingering or being lazy is as morally objectionable as refusing to contribute.

      • Jaybird says:

        So malingering or being lazy is as morally objectionable as refusing to contribute.

        The more that “we” provide, the more that “we” can expect to see this attitude take hold.

        • Liberty60 says:

          Hasn’t this attitude always been so?
          Has there ever been a time when there wasn’t a duty to work, and a duty to contribute?

          • Jaybird says:

            The story of the Little Red Hen went through a period there where there were arguments explaining how the story was immoral, if not sociopathic.

            If we want to institute an official policy of malingering/laziness of being morally objectionable again, I guarandamntee you that the moral objections will go in places where you didn’t intend them to go and the gaze of society will fall on people that will have you saying “wait, I didn’t mean *THEM*.”

          • Liberty60 says:

            We ALREADY live in a time when malingering is , if not morally objectionable, actually outlawed; witness the massive devotion of manpower and resources dedicated to rooting out malingering disability claimants, insurance claimants, unemployment benefits, and so on.

            I agree with you that the gaze goes in places no one intended; how many Tea Partiers think of themselves as one of the 300 million teatsuckers scorned by Dick Armey?

          • Jaybird says:

            It’s not that difficult to be part of the, what was it? Part of the 53%?

            A little over half the country pull it off.