Was Cardinal Nichols right to speak out on welfare? (Part 2)
Philip Booth raises the question of a Catholic reflection on the role of the state, and whether the Cardinal’s comments place him in a position of personal opinion against a careful reading of the tradition. Over the last century Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has taken a nuanced position on the development of welfare states. The social encyclicals praise and encourage further the provision of basic social security by the state for those who cannot sell their labour in the market place, for those who fall victim to labour market fluctuations, and those who take on other forms of caring work. But it is true that CST also criticises the idea that all welfare can be delivered by the state, and the tendency of some forms of state welfare to foster harmful dependency.
So we might say that the Catholic emphasis falls on the duty of the state to be ambitious in offering creative ways to provide both direct social assistance, but equally ambitious in ensuring that welfare is seen as rooted in a four-way stakeholder partnership between persons, faith and voluntary groups, employers and the state. This is not a static partnership: its terms and its focus will need to be improvised on anew in each generation. Nor does the Church imagine that this partnership will be easy: it may be one in which conflicts and tensions need to be negotiated. Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium has given us resources for this.
However, CST doesn’t just emphasise a partnership between state and non-state groups. Since 1891 the leitmotif of the encyclicals has been to promote an integrated set of public policies, in which ‘welfare’ means not just social security delivered well, but a wider economic vision rooted in living wages, effective worker representation in governance of business and public services to stabilise employment, and conditions that help animate a plural ‘civil’ economy that is able to value a variety of models of enterprise. Pope Benedict delivered a startling theological vision for that task in Caritas in Veritate.
From a Catholic perspective, a ‘true’ welfare state therefore, pays attention to the relationship between housing, healthcare, education, business, immigration and social security policy. And it does so guided by the understanding that the interconnected notions of charity (caritas) and justice apply to the role of political leaders and the state, and to the human person. The kind of ‘charity’ or ‘gift’ represented by politics concerns the formation of judgements with regards resource allocation, the limits of markets and the distribution of goods. It also concerns an ability to animate our common duties to each other, as well as safeguard our basic rights.
I think the Cardinal’s emphasis on the important role of the state in welfare is one rooted deeply in the positive but limited role of the state outlined in CST. Elsewhere he has praised the work of Catholic charitable organisations, and ecumenically run food banks. He makes visible the particular concern that CST has with the character (rather than just the functioning) of the state administration of welfare. CST has been clear in teaching that the manner in which public services engage with those they serve should be such that it promotes social wellbeing through its conduct. This is precisely the opposite of the ‘welfare’ experience reported by many, and rightly part of the Cardinal’s concern.
In this light, I want to suggest that the question is perhaps not so much whether the Cardinal should have spoken out on welfare, but whether he has yet said enough? There is a wider vision here for the Cardinal to engage with and bring into British public debate. There is also an active lay Catholic debate on the details of welfare policy: do we need more mutual forms of welfare and a return to greater contributory emphases for social security? Can social innovation provide a greater basis for combatting poverty?
In truth, the Cardinal needs to both delve deeply, and also be willing to renew our social tradition. The more general ‘truths’ of CST must be brought into detailed engagement with the key issues facing both users of welfare services, policy makers faced with the challenge of generating ambitious new ideas for more reciprocal forms of welfare, and a new generation of social entrepreneurs and activists who wish to create new institutions where old ones have failed. We need a quality of public conversation and faith-based action that matches the gravity of the issues at stake, and the Church needs to find a new way to act as a leading voice – both beacon on a hill and leaven in the mass – in that conversation.
When it comes to the question of the relationship between justice, charity and welfare we should be careful before intertwining the concepts too readily. It is true that sacrificing one’s life to the promotion of the common good and justice in the political arena is an act of charity. However, there is an intrinsic difference – certainly understood by Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI – between giving voluntarily out of the fullness of love to those in need and the use of the state to take what one family has legitimately earned to give to another family. This may be necessary to ensure justice, but it is not the same as charity.
Furthermore, if the state is to be just, it must ensure that all can live in dignity. However, ensuring that all can live in dignity is not the same as the state actually making provision for those in need itself.
In view of this, perhaps Vincent Nichols should reverse his telescope. We have always had people slipping through the welfare net, even if the size of the problem fluctuates. But, if the state is spending half of national income, the vast majority on direct welfare and education, and we still have the problems about which he is concerned, maybe we have the wrong model. The state spending 50 per cent of families’ incomes and charitable giving being, perhaps, 0.75 per cent, whilst commercial and mutual institutions of welfare are nearly extinct is not the settlement to which we should aspire. And, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in Deus caritas est, bureaucratic agencies are not the best way to meet people’s real needs – they need love, understanding and genuine concern.
Indeed, in many senses, the welfare state is radically individualistic. The state hopes that individuals will be financially self-sufficient; if they are not, it will give people money to be financially self-sufficient. This encourages our low level of family formation and helps explain the fact that households with nobody in work have more children, on average, than households with a working adult.
Institutions of welfare should start from the family and move on to the extended family, the community, commercial and mutual institutions, unions, the Church, and so on. The state should not be a monopoly provider. But neither should the state be the partner, planner or designer of other welfare institutions in society – it is too powerful for that role. The state is there to support the family and other institutions, including with the right fiscal and legal environment. Anna Rowlands and I both support what we would call a ‘welfare society’, whilst perhaps having different conceptions of the role of the state within it.
So we need much more than charity – we need strong families and independent welfare institutions. These have been crowded out by the welfare state.
As Anna Rowlands has said eloquently, this debate can be widened further. Clergy should be careful before proposing legislated solutions where matters of subjective prudential judgement are involved. For example, I am not a fan of wage control – tacit or otherwise – as it can shut the most vulnerable people out of the labour market, but others can legitimately hold different views. An especially important issue at the current time, I believe, is our land-use-planning system which makes housing perhaps 70 per cent more expensive than it needs to be. Wages are inadequate largely because housing is so expensive; the poor often cannot afford food because their rents are so high; and taxes are high partly to pay high levels of housing benefits caused by high rents. It is certainly true that a wide variety of complex issues are very much inter-linked.
This debate was originally published by the Catholic Herald. Read Part 1 here.